Widening political divide in the US over Netanyahu

Democrats are on the defensive after Trump branded them as being not only “anti-Israel” but “anti-Jewish.”
Sunday 24/03/2019
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem, March 21. (AP)
Full alignment. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem, March 21. (AP)

There was a time when the Democrats were considered the pro-Israel party and Republicans were indifferent or even opposed to the concept of the Jewish state.

In 1948, US President Harry Truman, a Democrat, recognised Israel immediately after its independence was declared against the strong advice of career officials and the so-called establishment, which included prominent Republicans.

Under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, Israel was seen at times as more of a liability to US interests in the Middle East, with Arab officials telling US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles they viewed Israel as more of a threat than the Soviet Union.

Over time, a bipartisan consensus grew in the United States that viewed Israel as not only a political ally but an asset to US national security interests in the Middle East. There was little criticism of Israel in the US Congress and, especially after the Camp David Accords of 1978, Israel became the recipient of large US aid packages.

Uncritical support for Israel began to change in the past few decades, however, especially among Democrats who saw the Palestinians as having legitimate grievances. Democrats still supported Israel and aid to it but began to question Israel’s settlement policies and its periodic crackdowns on the Palestinians.

Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had very troubled relations with Binyamin Netanyahu when he was Israel’s prime minister while they were in — the former for Netanyahu’s policies of dragging his feet on implementing the Oslo Accords; the latter for Netanyahu’s settlement construction in the West Bank and unwillingness to support a territorial compromise.

Relations between Obama and Netanyahu deteriorated over the Iran nuclear deal. At the invitation of the then-Republican-led US House of Representatives, Netanyahu addressed Congress in March 2015, sharply criticising the pending nuclear deal. Many congressional Democrats declined to attend the speech and Obama refused to meet with Netanyahu during that visit.

By the time of the Trump presidency, American political views towards Netanyahu became even more polarised. Trump’s persistent bashing of the Iran nuclear deal and his close embrace of Israel, particularly of the Netanyahu government, won him overwhelming support from evangelical Christians, who take an uncritical stand in support of Israel, as well as right-wing elements of the American Jewish community, particularly those who support the settlements.

Trump’s position on the issue also endeared him to most Republicans in Congress, who have similar positions in support of Netanyahu.

This love-fest between Trump — along with other Republicans — and Netanyahu has continued. Netanyahu has lavished praise on Trump for pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and for recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US Embassy to that city. With Israeli elections scheduled for April 9, Netanyahu has put up billboards showing Trump and him smiling together.

Trump has gone even further in support for Netanyahu. On March 21, he changed 52 years of US policy by declaring that the Golan Heights were permanently under Israeli “sovereignty.” Under previous US administrations, the Heights were depicted as “Israeli-occupied.” Trump’s announcement was certainly a boost to Netanyahu’s campaign because the Israeli leader has vowed to never give up this land.

Democrats are largely staying quiet regarding Israel despite their hope that a more moderate Israeli leader will emerge from the April 9 elections. As the Washington Post reported: “Many Democrats have struggled to reconcile their frustration with the conservative government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, one closely allied with Trump and the Republicans,” with their own “support for the Jewish homeland.”

Democrats are on the defensive after Trump branded them as being not only “anti-Israel” but “anti-Jewish.” While this is an absurd charge — 75% of American Jews voted Democrat in the 2018 elections — Democrats are reeling from the controversy over freshman US Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, for remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic.

Trump and the Republicans are hyping up the episode and the fact that the Democrats, in response to the more progressive wing of their party, changed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism to one condemning all forms of bigotry. Republicans charged that the broadened resolution is indicative of the feebleness of the Democrats to condemn anti-Semitism outright.

Once this controversy dissipates, however, it is possible that the Democrats will find a formula that can shield them from such charges and cater to their political base, which wants the United States to pursue a more even-handed policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a progressive and the only presidential contender of Jewish background, who may have struck the right note for Democrats going forward. He stated recently that anti-Semitism must be “vigorously opposed” but we should not equate it “with legitimate criticism of the right-wing Netanyahu government… We must develop an even-handed Middle East policy which brings Israelis and Palestinians together for a lasting peace.”