By Arab News
By Kerry Boyd Anderson*
For decades, the Israeli government has worked hard in Washington to ensure good relations with both Democrats and Republicans in order to ensure bipartisan support. For many years, this was a successful strategy. Both parties offered unwavering support to Israel.
In recent years, that level of unconditional support for Israel has been eroding within the Democratic Party. Polling has found that Democratic voters today sympathize almost equally with Israel and the Palestinians. Democratic sympathy for Palestinians has risen significantly in just the past 10 years. The number of Democrats in Congress who are willing to publicly criticize Israel has increased. Democratic voters and some policymakers have not become anti-Israel; rather, they have become more open to hearing Palestinian viewpoints.
Multiple factors have contributed to changing views among Democrats. In the past, a relatively small number of US media outlets served as gatekeepers to information, excluding or actively undermining Palestinian and Arab voices. The boom in online media broke traditional media outlets’ hold on the narrative, as newer media outlets and social media offered space for Palestinians’ stories. Smartphones and social media have made it easier for Palestinians to share videos of their experiences directly with the world.
At the same time, Israeli politics shifted further to the right of the political spectrum, raising questions among some Democrats about whether Israeli leaders share their values. Furthermore, the growing influence of progressives in the Democratic Party and other factors have increased Democrats’ focus on social justice and racial equity. When this lens is applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is difficult for Democrats to argue that Israel is blameless in its treatment of Palestinians.
The shift to the right in Israeli politics has also led to a growing alignment between the Israeli government and the Republican Party. For example, Republican leaders in Congress invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress in 2015. Democrats perceived the invitation and Netanyahu’s subsequent speech against a nuclear deal with Iran as an intentional insult to President Barack Obama. Then Donald Trump pursued extremely pro-Israel policies. Meanwhile, Republican voters have become even more supportive of Israel. In the polarized political environment of the US, Israel’s embrace of Republicans has complicated relations with Democrats.
The Biden administration and many centrist foreign policy professionals continue to hold onto the idea of a two-state solution as the only way forward for Israelis and Palestinians, but it is increasingly clear that the Israeli leadership is not interested. It has become more difficult for Americans to place all the blame for the failure of a two-state solution on Palestinians. Additionally, the 2021 Gaza war highlighted Israel’s disproportionate use of force, and the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last year did not help Israel’s reputation.
So far, Democrats’ growing willingness to question Israel has led to little substantive policy change, but the makeup of the new Israeli government will place further stress on relations. The new government is widely seen as the most far-right and ultranationalist in Israel’s history. The government has stated its intention to prioritize settlement expansion and annex the West Bank; its leaders are clear that they do not view Palestinians as deserving basic rights. The government has already taken steps to withhold more Palestinian tax revenues. Under the new coalition, a Jewish settler, Bezalel Smotrich, will be in charge of much of life in the West Bank.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the Jewish Power party, is now national security minister and in charge of the police, with expanded powers. Ben-Gvir was previously convicted for supporting a terrorist organization and is known for incitement against Arabs, including praising Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians at prayer in 1994. He has also made threatening comments against liberal Israelis.
Furthermore, some of the coalition’s leading members want to change Israel’s Law of Return so that it would automatically grant citizenship only to people viewed as Jews under Orthodox religious interpretations. A core tenet of American Jews’ traditional support for Israel is the belief that Israel provides a haven for all Jews. As many American Jews do not meet Orthodox standards, the idea of limiting Israeli citizenship in such a way would be a major blow to the American Jewish community’s relationship with Israel.
None of these issues is likely to damage Israel’s relationship with Republicans, who are far less concerned about social justice or Palestinian rights. The Israeli government’s claims to the West Bank align with the views of evangelical Christians, who are a key part of the Republican base. With Republicans leading the House of Representatives, Democrats who might want to reduce US aid to Israel or apply new conditions will struggle to do so.
The White House issued a statement in which Biden referred to Netanyahu as “my friend for decades,” but also said that the US would “oppose policies that endanger” the viability of a two-state solution or “contradict our mutual interests and values.” Biden has repeatedly stated his strong support for Israel, but the bipartisan consensus that has formed a strong foundation for US-Israel relations is cracking. The foundation has been sagging under the trends of the last 10-20 years. A new Israeli coalition committed to annexing the West Bank, with leaders who unabashedly express anti-Arab views and tolerate or even incite violence, will add significant pressure to a fracturing relationship.
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica.