Pelosi can talk all the trash she wants at the AIPAC conference. The fact is that her party is divided on this issue. Maybe not divided long-term. Maybe the tension will ease if and when Netanyahu is replaced by a more centrist PM and/or Trump is replaced by a Democrat. But for now, the idea that Democrats are unified in their support for the Jewish state or whatever nonsense talking point she and Hoyer are pushing is transparently false.
Weren’t Democrats always that way? you ask. No! As recently as two years ago, notes Aaron Blake, Dems split 42/23 on this question in favor of Israel. Six years before that they stood at 36/21. If the downturn is a reaction to Netanyahu, it’s strange that that reaction didn’t materialize until year 10 of his premiership.
Another noteworthy result: While lopsided shares of Republicans and independents say that U.S. support for Israel is either about right or not strong enough, Democrats are almost evenly split between those options and believing that the U.S. is too supportive.
Two years ago, on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, just 20 percent of Democrats thought the U.S. was too supportive of Israel versus a combined 72 percent who thought current levels of support were about right or not enough. Today they’re at 38/41. Something has changed.
What is it?
There are two obvious possibilities, not mutually exclusive. One is that partisanship has infected this issue just as it’s infected every other. Democrats are less sympathetic to Israel because they hate Trump and are letting their contempt for him alter their view of the Jewish state. Trump hasn’t done anything dramatic to affect the balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians but he’s made some bold symbolic gestures of support towards the former, ordering that the U.S. embassy be moved to Jerusalem and just a few days ago recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Democrats might be looking at that, reasoning that “the friend of my enemy is my enemy,” and deciding that Israel should bear some of the brunt of their anti-Trumpism.
If you doubt that partisanship matters here, note that two years ago 63 percent of Republicans said that the U.S. isn’t supportive enough of Israel. Two years later, with Trump having succeeded Obama in office, 67 percent of Republicans now say U.S. support of Israel is “about right.” Some of that is a reaction to the embassy and Golan Heights — and some of it is certainly approval of Trump’s decision to exit the Iran nuclear deal — but I think in the main it’s a reflection of Republicans trusting Trump more on all matters. Saying current support is “about right” is really a vote of confidence in Trump. By the same logic, Dems’ dwindling sympathies for Israel might be a vote of no confidence in him.
In fact, Yair Rosenberg makes a fair point about why Democratic views of Netanyahu really might have changed in year 10. What if they hate Trump so much that Bibi’s very chummy relationship with him has belatedly soured them on Netanyahu and, by extension, Israel?
It's almost like Democrats were totally fine with Israel (contrary to certain GOP narratives) until Netanyahu obsequiously tied himself to Trump and praised him at every possible opportunity. The very predictable consequences of embracing partisan Democrats' most hated person.
— Yair Rosenberg (@Yair_Rosenberg) March 26, 2019
Interesting, but I’m not sure how to square that with strong-ish Democratic support for Israel prior to 2017 despite the often hostile relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. If Bibi’s warm embrace of a president whom Dems hate is enough to sour them on Israel, why didn’t his cold shoulder towards a president whom they love do the same?
The other possibility is that Democrats really have changed their views towards Israel on the merits as anti-Israel voices have grown in prominence. Every piece written about the Green New Deal lately includes some reference to the “Overton window,” the set of views that’s considered “mainstream” and acceptable to hold in American politics. Congress isn’t going to pass the GND but the fact that so much time has been spent lately chattering about climate change might have moved the Overton window towards more moderate measures to fight global warming. A carbon tax might be more politically viable today as a “half-measure” than it was a few months ago thanks to the GND.
The same principle might apply on Israel. For many years Democratic leaders were basically uniform in their support for Israel. Now here comes Ilhan Omar warning about AIPAC’s financial power over Congress and Rashida Tlaib advocating for the BDS movement. Some Democratic voters may be getting a perspective from lefties like them that they haven’t often encountered before and it’s affecting their views. And other Democratic voters might have been ambivalent towards Israel before but held back on expressing opposition because of how strongly the party leadership supported the Jewish state. Now that there are people in Congress speaking out against Israel, the “permission structure” might be in place for rank-and-file Dems to speak out too.
It may even be that some Dems used to fear they’d be accused of anti-semitism for criticizing Israeli policies. Now that we know that outright accusations of dual loyalty are no bar to being a progressive in good standing, they’re free to let the contempt flow.
One point to bear in mind, though: Other polls have showed leftist sympathies for Israel collapsing even before Trump took office and Omar and her left-wing allies were elected to Congress. This Pew survey from May 2016 found more sympathy for the Palestinians among self-described “liberal Democrats” than for Israel (40/33). The rise of Trump and the progressive super-friends may simply have accelerated a trend that already existed. Whatever’s happening, it’s bad news.