U.S. President Donald Trump (L) puts a hand on the back of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), March 25th, 2019.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Democratic presidential candidates and key members of Congress have become openly critical of Israel in recent weeks, set off to some extent by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s preelection vow to annex parts of the West Bank.
“This provocation is harmful to Israeli, Palestinian and American interests,” Pete Buttigieg, one of the candidates running for the nomination, said. While he said he supports Israel, that does not mean agreeing with Netanyahu’s politics. “This calls for a president willing to counsel our ally against abandoning a two-state solution,” the South Bend, Indiana, mayor said.
US Sen. Bernie Sanders has been increasingly critical of Israel since he ran for president in 2016. He has also been linked closely with harsh critics of Israel. He helped name Cornel West and Keith Ellison to the Democratic platform committee that year. More recently, he claimed that Netanyahu was “extreme right-wing” and said that “I believe that we, in fact, need a two-state solution to the Middle East ongoing crisis, and that the United States needs to have an even-handed policy.”
Beto O’Rourke is also harshly critical of the prime minister, calling him racist. He tempered that with support of the overall relationship. “The US-Israel relationship is one of the most important relationships we have on the planet; and that relationship, if successful, must transcend partisanship in the United States.”
The criticism of Netanyahu is unprecedented among Democratic candidates critiquing a foreign leader. Few other leaders in the world receive as much attention and constant critique as Israel’s. Among allies, it is unique. US candidates, for instance, do not critique the president of Turkey in such a way, despite Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s inflammatory rhetoric.
The issues facing Israel are deeper than some criticism of Netanyahu. Within the Democratic Party, a Gallup poll in March showed a 6% drop in support for Israel. A 2018 poll found that only 49% of Democrats sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians. Among younger Democrats and the progressive members of Congress who inspire them, the situation is even worse. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has accused her colleagues of having “allegiance to a foreign country,” which, along with other comments seen as vaguely antisemitic, riled many in February and March.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also recently called to rethink US financial support for Israel. “I think these are part of conversations we are having in our caucus, but I think what we are really seeing is an ascent of authoritarianism across the world. I think that Netanyahu is a Trump-like figure.”
She has also said Israel has a right to exist, but this comment could be seen in light of wondering why any member of Congress would ever doubt the right of a foreign country and US ally to “exist.” After all, none of them regularly comment on whether the UK or Greece has a “right to exist.” Only Israel.
These more critical views of Israel, and particularly of Netanyahu, have been boosted by groups like J Street that are critical of Israel’s policies and its alliance with the Trump administration. For instance, they have opposed the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem and its recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
The Trump factor has accelerated deteriorating support for Israel on the Left in the US. This is because Israel has now become a kind of symbol of Trump’s foreign policy. Trump heralds his achievements as tied to support for Israel and regularly brags about them. As a result, Americans who revile Trump tend to be more critical of Israel because they connect the two issues. They argue that a coalition of pro-Israel voices, including Evangelicals and right-wing Jewish Americans, are tied to Trump’s support for Israel.
The consequences of this could be devastating in the long-term. Politics in the US tend to swing like a pendulum, and while it is very possible Trump will win another term, he will eventually be replaced.
Netanyahu, who will likely form the next government, needs to make outreach to progressive communities one of the top priorities of his new cabinet. For Israel, bipartisan support in the US needs to remain a key objective.
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