The Democratic Party's future on Israel and Palestine
As the United States prepares for the 2022 midterm elections, the Democratic Party is faced with increasing challenges related to one of the most enduring US foreign policy issues in the Middle East.
In late September, strains between the White House and the Israeli government were reportedly growing over Israel’s security escalation in the occupied West Bank, along with signals that the Israeli leadership had approved additional settlement construction.
The US-led peace process between Israelis and Palestinians remains indefinitely moribund, so how will the Democrats adjust to the evolving political landscape at home and abroad regarding this divisive issue?
A new American political landscape
At home, the future of the Democratic Party and its relations with Israel is entering into a prolonged period of uncertainty. The mood within the party has dramatically changed over the last few years and was especially notable during the May 2021 Israeli war on Gaza.
Writing months after the May 2021 conflict, Robert Wexler, a former Democratic member of Congress, noted in The New York Times that “a small group of progressive Democrats have now forced a simmering debate within the party, and in their constituency, to the surface”.
"We have seen certain Democrats take positions against Israel that were difficult to imagine US lawmakers taking not too long ago. There has certainly been a change in discourse"
The BBC reported on the shifting feeling within the party and quoted John Zogby, a political opinion pollster, who described it as “tectonic”.
Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf States Analytics, told The New Arab, “We have seen certain Democrats take positions against Israel that were difficult to imagine US lawmakers taking not too long ago. There has certainly been a change in discourse”.
FiveThirtyEight reported that, since 2001, the number of Americans who sympathised more with Palestinians had increased to 26 percent from 16 percent. For Democrats, the number has risen from 18 percent to 38 percent.
But even among progressive Democrats, there are divisions on the positions that the Democrats should stake out regarding the party’s approach to Israel.
For instance, US House Representative Rashida Tlaib has argued that, “…among progressives, it’s become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values, yet back Israel’s apartheid government, and we will continue to push back and not accept that you are progressive except for Palestine”.
However, Senator Bernie Sanders, who remains highly influential among the party’s progressive wing, maintains a balance of supporting Palestinian rights and being pro-Israel.
Gallup noted in March this year that 55 percent of Americans favour Israel. However, these sentiments still have some limitations. According to research conducted in May 2022 by the Brookings Institution, the general American public was opposed to state legislatures that sought to implement laws criminalising boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) efforts against Israel.
Assessing the strength of the party's centre
“The Democratic Party is a party that is riven with at least three different factions," Aaron David Miller, a Senior Fellow of the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The New Arab.
"There are progressives that perhaps constitute a third of Democrats in the House, and they’re in turn divided in terms of those who are prepared to not only speak out against Israeli occupation practices but really want the United States to take action. To constrain and restrain Israel’s government when it comes to settlement activity or its relationship with the Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and to some extent, Gaza,” he said.
“Another faction with the progressive elements is prepared to criticise but draw the line at imposing sanctions,” he added.
“The bulk of the party, I call the traditionalists, are strong supporters of the state of Israel. Increasingly over the years, even the strongest supporters, people like [Senator] Chuck Schumer for example, are prepared to be more critical on certain issues, but draw the line on actually using American military assistance, the US-Israeli relationship, the UN, as a way to get the Israelis to improve their relationship with the Palestinians or impose a settlement freeze.”
However, the Democratic leadership will remain cautious about changing course on the issue. During the 2020 campaign, the Democratic Party adopted a platform that supporters of Palestine said fell short of taking a harder approach to Israel.
“The establishment wing of the Democratic Party remains very pro-Israel, underscored by the ways in which the Biden Administration has dealt with Israel and the issue of Palestine,” Cafiero said.
“Essentially, mainstream Democrats assess that the risks of challenging Israel in any way or challenging the fundamental nature of the US-Israel relationship are simply too high to conclude that it is worth taking such risks.”
"The establishment wing of the Democratic Party remains very pro-Israel, underscored by the ways in which the Biden Administration has dealt with Israel and the issue of Palestine"
Following the 11 May killing of Palestinian-American Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli security forces, 24 Democrats in the Senate urged President Joe Biden to push for “an independent, thorough, and transparent investigation” into her death.
“The potential for Democrats to pay a big price in being more in favour of Palestinian rights and proposing changes in US foreign policy to protect Palestinian rights are very high. It has been very clear throughout Biden’s presidency that the White House simply does not want to shift course,” Cafiero explained.
Israel politically transformed
Political life in Israel has steadily shifted to the right over the last decade. The Israeli left has nearly evaporated amid these deep changes within Israeli society.
The political scene is now dominated by a constellation of right-wing and centrist parties. Today, there is little difference in policies towards Palestinians among Israel’s political leaders, whether Benjamin Netanyahu, Yair Lapid, or Benny Gantz.
Due to the nature of Israeli politics becoming right-wing, a gap has been widening between left-leaning Democrats in the US who view hard-right Israeli governments with loathing.
“Support of Israel, while still strong, is clearly changing. The notion that there is a confluence between the United States and Israel is under great stress,” Miller explained.
“In large part because you have a series of very conservative Israeli governments, in particular the decade that Benjamin Netanyahu was the prime minister, which stressed the relationship.”
He added, “When you put Trump and Netanyahu together and you stress it even more, it became a highly partisan issue. There was a time when bipartisanship on many things in American politics and foreign policy was taken for granted. Not anymore.”
From 2017 to 2021, the Trump administration forged a strong partnership with then-Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, who by extension became a nemesis of the American left. Trump’s move to shift the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the Abraham Accords galvanised progressives against the Trump administration and rekindled and strengthened sympathy for the plight of Palestinians.
But observers of the current Democrat administration note there has been little change. “When Biden visited Israel shortly before his presidential trip to Jeddah, it was very clear that this administration is, for the most part, continuing the policy of the Trump Administration towards Israel, at least when it comes to the questions pertaining to the Palestinians,” Cafiero said.
Change through defeat?
If the Republicans take back power in the 2022 midterms and in the 2024 presidential election, the Democrats will return to opposition, a situation which could once again offer the party a safe environment to experiment with new approaches towards Israel. Four to eight years of exile in opposition could turn out to be a time of drastic change in the party.
Foreign policy still has the potential to play a key role in generating grassroots support and enthusiasm. For example, progressive Democrats have also sought for the Biden Administration to rethink the US relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
But any major changes within the party will be strongly opposed by interest groups. “Domestic politics is the reality. Lobbies in the pro-Israeli community have a very powerful voice but not a veto,” Miller said.
"Support of Israel, while still strong, is clearly changing. The notion that there is a confluence between the United States and Israel is under great stress"
“A wilful and skilful American president usually has their way on this issue, whether it is arms sales, promoting a peace plan, this or that,” he added.
“The White House is the 24/7 energiser bunny when it comes to American foreign policy. That gives the administration a huge advantage. It’s very rare that Congress would act to constrain a president if that president makes a case when it comes to American national security.”
Danger abounds for the progressive Democrats who run afoul of powerful interest groups in US politics. In August 2022, Rep. Andy Levin lost his primary election to a pro-Israel, AIPAC-backed Democratic challenger. Furthermore, in the 2022 midterms, progressive Democrats appear to be falling behind in their quest to secure more seats in Congress.
“It still is an extremely salient political issue, since you have millions of evangelical Christians many of whom are in support of the state of Israel, and in many respects, there are parts of the evangelical community that have a much more united view on supporting Israel than members of the Jewish community, who are themselves are very big,” Miller said.
“My litmus test is when I see large numbers of House and Senate members, having a serious debate in public on two issues: One, Israel’s conduct towards Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, and two, what US policy should actually be towards the state of Israel when it comes to the Palestinian issue,” he added.
“Those are two issues where there is very little debate, certainly on the part of large numbers of Senators and House members from both parties.”
Christopher Solomon is a Middle East analyst, researcher, editor, and writer based in the Washington DC area. He works for a US defence consultancy and is the author of the book, In Search of Greater Syria (I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury). Christopher is a Co-Editor for Syria Comment and a contributor to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Follow him on Twitter: @Solomon_Chris