The political split over Israel

The debate reveals something about America itself with bipartisan consensus having eroded considerably.

James Zogby. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
James Zogby. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser and Asaf Romirowsky

With the 2020 presidential elections in high gear, and following normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, a deeper look at the platforms of both parties is required. It is clear that American Jews and Israelis are called upon to exhibit “moral fiber” by using their very Jewish identity as a vehicle to question Israel and its legitimacy. More perverse are the uses of Jewishness to passionately make pleas for the Palestinian cause and the assertion that Jewishness is somehow based on pro-Palestinian beliefs as a “progressive” value. For American Jews on the far-left, as for Arab Palestinians, the events of 1948 are the evergreen ancestral sin.

Consequently, the bipartisan consensus on Israel has eroded considerably.

True, we have heard articulate strong support for Israel’s security; even the liberals within the Democratic Party stood up to the progressives and managed to squash some of the harsh language against Israel. The new normalized relations with the UAE—in lieu of applying sovereignty over parts of Judea and Samaria, and the Jordan Valley—is a game-changer for Israeli-Arab relations. So while Israel failed to get the Trump administration’s support for sovereignty, establishing normal relations with the UAE and other pragmatic Arab states is something the Democrats cannot avoid, which irks them given the results it produces in terms of larger regional stability, proving that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not drive Middle East diplomacy.

While it is also true that the Trump plan adheres to the main principle upon which Democrats base their own policy on (the “two-state solution”), there are considerable gaps between the practicalities of this principle between the two parties and the understandings of Israel’s security requirements. There are also concerns regarding Iran (including the 2015 Iran nuclear deal) and the conflict between the pragmatists, who are supported by the Republicans, and the sophisticated radicals (Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood), who are supported by parts of the Democratic Party. These disagreements represent deep ideological different worldviews.

If elected, the Biden administration will likely try to resurface the two most litigious issues seen during the Obama years in its relations with Israel—namely, centering the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the so-called “occupation” and reviving the nuclear deal, both of which stand in stark contrast to regional reality. The ultimate question is to what extent does the normalization with the UAE highlight the gap, and is it enough to deter pursuing these policies given their pervasiveness on North American college campuses and in left-wing American circles.

A motto to consider is long live the status quo—both in terms of the language of the platforms and the accompanying policies.

Of course, Palestinian activists continue to express their displeasure with the language regarding Israel in the plank of the 2020 Democratic National Committee platform, which could be seen during a webinar hosted by the Arab American Institute (AAI). In his remarks, James Zogby, AAI’s president, did underscore that this year’s process was more welcoming to the Palestinian narrative and their supporters than in prior election cycles, but still expressed frustration that the 2020 platform did not reference the so-called “occupation,” condemning the settlement enterprise or advocating for conditioning U.S. aid to Israel.

Zogby argued that the leaders of the party caved to pressure from the pro-Israel community for political reasons. “It’s not about policy, ever. It’s really about politics. And it’s sort of a power pull. It’s a question of who can make who jump through hoops. … We were always on the downside of that debate. In this case, they did it again; they wouldn’t let those words in the platform just to show who’s boss.”

To his credit, Zogby has always been on message pontificating on Jordanian TV back in 1990, how a powerful Arab lobby could conquer the campuses and media by allying the Palestinians with the American left—1960s’ radicals who are now tenured professors, African-American student groups, and, above all, Jewish progressives. Clearly, he and colleagues in the American progressive left have followed their playbook to a tee.

It’s no surprise that many of these groups have been attracted to the BDS movement, which did get an encouraging boost in the verbiage used, saying that the party opposes “any effort to unfairly single out and delegitimize Israel, including at the United Nations or through the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, while protecting the constitutional right of our citizens to free speech.” Zogby saw the second article as essentially annulling the previous anti-BDS language as a rejection of the state-level anti-BDS legislation that has been supported and adopted by more than 30 states.

The Trump presidency has brought clarity on many domestic and foreign-policy issues. Yet the knee-jerk automated Democratic reaction to the president, which includes anything he says or does, must be opposed in hysterical terms. Some of the reactions represent a real bursting forth of tensions that have lingered for decades. And opposition to Israel is one of them.

The Democratic generation gap is palpable; old-timers like Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and until late, Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.)are genuinely pro-Israel, while the young guard—exemplified by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)—is not. Indeed, they may exemplify the new Democratic Party more than anything, where far-left identity politics meets demographic shifts, Socialist economics and an obsessive hatred of Israel. Tlaib and Omar also espouse a conspiratorial mindset and a willingness to consort with Islamists who support Hamas and Hezbollah.

But the debate over Israel also reveals something about America itself. The very fact there is a debate—with progressive Democrats at the firing line and older Democrats perplexing what hit them, and the Republicans competing to see who can defend Israel more with laws opposing BDS and endorsing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights—all reflect the significant place that Israel has in American political and cultural life. Not only oversized, but emblematic, not the result of ‘Jewish power,’ or the ‘third rail of American politics,’ but something genuinely rooted in the American experience.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser led the Research and Assessment Division of Israeli Military Intelligence. He is currently a senior project director at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Asaf Romirowsky is executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), a senior non-resident fellow at the BESA Center and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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