Israel’s problem with Democratic Party
FOR decades, American support for Israel has been strong — and bipartisan. Both Democratic and Republican voters typically see the Jewish state as a “friend,” rank the country favourably compared with others, and tend to support Israel over the Palestinians. Leaders of both parties regularly vow to maintain the United States-Israel alliance and to keep Israel’s security a priority. But many in Israel worry that this might be changing. And what worries them most is the Democratic Party.
The change in tone and policy toward Israel began with President Obama’s decision early on to move away from a 16-year tradition of unwavering support of Israel, and continued with his rocky relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Bernie Sanders’s campaign seems to prove that Mr. Obama’s treatment of Israel might be a trend, not an aberration. Mr. Sanders’s young, liberal supporters say they sympathize relatively more with Palestinians and less with Israel than older, more moderate Democrats do.
Mr. Sanders’s explicit views are not the problem. He has said that he is “100 percent pro-Israel in the sense of Israel’s right to exist.” He has also said he wants peace and security for Israel. Like most Americans, he believes in a two-state solution. Like most Israelis, he opposes permanent Israeli control over Palestinians in the West Bank. The good news for Israel is that Bernie Sanders won’t be the Democratic presidential nominee. And Hillary Clinton’s tone toward Israel is much less troubling. Mrs. Clinton promises that the Democratic platform will reflect the “longstanding strong support for Israel,” and polls find that her supporters are more sympathetic to the country.
But the bad news for Israel is that Mrs. Clinton alone cannot resist what seems to be a steady drift in her party. The more Democratic voters identify as liberal — and the more liberal they are — the less they support Israel. Political reality will ultimately catch up with Mrs. Clinton and other moderate Democrats. In Congress, a sidling away from Israel among Democrats may already be underway. Once, Democratic legislators had to worry about appearing unsupportive of Israel; today some of them — especially those who need to be re-elected by liberal voters — seem to have the opposite concern: They do not want to be seen as too supportive.
Some high-ranking Israeli politicians tell me that they believe changes in Israel’s policy could quickly end Americans’ growing discontent with their country. Improved relations with the American Democrats, the anti-Netanyahu figures say, is one of the many rewards Israel will receive when it comes to its senses. For this to happen, they say, the government must demonstrate that it supports a two-state solution. But that is not an easy move for the current hardline governing coalition. It would not make much sense to most Israelis to elect their leaders based on the preferences of American Democrats. And Israel’s military cannot change its tactics to conform to the desires of Democratic voters, either. Similarly, it would not make sense for the Israeli government to surrender on diplomatic issues just to appease Democratic bleeding hearts.
Or would it? Israel receives more American foreign aid than any other country, collaborates with Washington on security and intelligence matters and receives American diplomatic support at the United Nations and elsewhere. Because of this, Israel relies on support from both American political parties. And that comes with a price tag. The trick for Israel is to keep the price as low as possible while retaining its status as the United States’ “special friend.” Israel tries to do this whether a Republican like George W. Bush is in power, or (sometimes less successfully) when a Democrat like Barack Obama is in power.
For relations between Israel and the Democrats to remain strong, one of two things needs to happen: Either Democrats’ attitudes and Israel’s policies must converge, or Democrats must become convinced that weakening support for Israel will come with a political price. Mr. Netanyahu and Mrs. Clinton will have to find out which it is to be, or else the drift will continue. The writer is political editor at The Jewish Journal, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute.