Except in times of war or national emergency, foreign policy doesn’t usually get much attention during the State of the Union address and President Donald Trump’s first attempt at the ritual was no exception to that rule. He spent little time discussing his “America First” strategy that was a central part of his election campaign. But in a speech that concentrated on what he considered to be his successes, he managed to find time to mention one decision that was widely applauded in Israel but not elsewhere: his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Though every president since Richard Nixon—with the sole exception of Barack Obama—had at one time or another pledged to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump was the first to keep that promise when he recognized Israel’s rights to its capital. So it was only natural that his mention of the move would be considered an applause line in the speech.
But while the Republicans rose to applaud Trump’s kept promise, with few exceptions, Democrats stayed in their seats, as they did throughout the proceedings.
Was this proof that Israel has become yet one more issue on which Republicans and Democrats disagree?
It’s possible to make the case that the symbolism of the Democrats sitting on their hands when Trump mentioned Jerusalem means the notion of a bipartisan consensus on Israel is dead.
A recent Pew survey showed that the gap in enthusiasm for Israel between the parties is growing. While, as I wrote last week, overall support for Israel remains as great as ever, backing for the Jewish state from Democrats is declining.
Though the trend in which the GOP has become the bulwark of support for Zionism has been in place for decades, there’s little doubt that the Obama presidency made it clear that Israel was an issue that divided Democrats. When Trump’s predecessor made support for the nuclear deal with Iran—an accord opposed by Israel as well as the U.S. pro-Israel community—into a partisan litmus test, few Democrats failed to take sides with Obama. Nor was there much criticism from the president’s party for the Obama administration’s policy of creating more “daylight” between the two allies.
Now that Trump is in the White House, the same partisan impulse is also working to separate Democrats from Israel.
Since Democrats don’t merely oppose Trump but seek to actively “resist” his presidency on every possible issue, it is hardly surprising that his Jerusalem stand didn’t attract much support from them.
Even pro-Israel Democrats who had themselves voted for resolutions endorsing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy treated Trump’s decision the way they do everything else he does. They denounced it as an ill-advised and impulsive measure that would be an obstacle to peace and maybe even blow up the Middle East.
As it turns out, expectations that the Arab street would treat Trump’s decision the way they did the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed were incorrect. Even Palestinian protests were limited and much of the Arab world largely ignored the issue other than pro forma statements of opposition. America’s Sunni Arab allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia made it clear to the Palestinians that Trump had still left the door open for a two-state solution and even a re-partition of Jerusalem, and that they were on their own if they continued to reject peace efforts.
Yet that is exactly what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas did on Jan. 14 when he declared his opposition to further peace talks in a lengthy anti-Semitic rant that gave the lie to any previous statements indicating a desire for peace. Though Abbas’s speech got little attention in the U.S. media, after that, it’s difficult for even the most virulent of Trump’s critics to pretend that he is the obstacle to Middle East peace.
Nor can liberals claim that opposition to the recognition of Jerusalem merely puts them on the same page as opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Backing for Trump on this point was a consensus issue in Israel for every party with the exception of the very far left and the anti-Zionist Arab factions. With both Labor and the centrist Yesh Atid backing the president’s gesture, it’s hard for Democrats to say they’re simply being liberal Zionists by refusing to acknowledge that Trump did the right thing on Jerusalem.
In that context, it ought to be possible for Democrats to cheer a move that they would have supported had it come from a president from their own party. But in the bifurcated America of 2018, there is no such thing as a bipartisan issue anymore. Though Trump’s relentless trolling of his opponents on Twitter has exacerbated this trend, Democratic opposition to the president is so deep and bitter that they feel that endorsing anything he does legitimizes his presidency. Since their base is hoping a Democratic win in the November midterms will lead to impeachment, Jerusalem is just one more issue on which they will never give Trump credit, even if many of them don’t disagree with him.
There are reasons why Democrats are drifting away from Israel that have nothing to do with Trump. But the more their leaders send signals that treat pro-Israel gestures as being unacceptable if they mean applauding Trump, the worse it will get.
It was a disconcerting sight when Democrats all sat while Republicans stood to applaud the mention of Jerusalem as well as Trump’s vow to cut off aid to those—like the Palestinians—who oppose U.S. policy. But friends of Israel shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from it. So long as Trump is president, their opposition to his reversal of Obama’s daylight policy is rooted in partisanship and not necessarily animus toward Israel. It will be up to Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer—who was one of the few who did stand for Jerusalem—to help their party separate its emotions about Trump from Israel. But so long as Trump is sticking close to Israel, this won’t be the last time that Democrats send the country a message that this is not an issue on which they are prepared to set aside partisan feuds.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.