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28 April 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 12:42pm

How Donald Trump has transformed US political debate over Israel

The president’s uncritical embrace of Binyamin Netanyahu’s government has created political space for sceptical Democrats 

By Emily Tamkin

The Democratic presidential primary was always going to demonstrate that US politics on Israel had changed. It was going to show that Democrats – and specifically, would-be leaders of the Democratic Party – were willing to criticise Israel, even if they still supported it. And it was always going to show that, regardless of what individual Democrats said and did, they would be accused of being anti-Israel.

It was on the first part – the shift in Democratic Party politics – that observers of the US-Israel relationship focused. In the run-up to the 2016 Democratic convention, Bernie Sanders made headlines by mentioning Palestinian rights in a debate against Hillary Clinton. Sanders’ delegates sought to include a reference to “occupation” in the 2016 Democratic Party platform. They were unsuccessful. But something had been wrenched loose in US politics. 

“I actually don’t know how it’s gonna go. What I do know is we’re gonna have a debate,” Jim Zogby, a Sanders delegate in 2016 and founder of the Arab American Institute, told me back in 2019. 

Over the last four years, Democrats have held that debate in Congress. In part, this reflects those who have been given a national platform. Two Democratic members – Michigan representative Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar – support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. (Omar has been criticised for tweeting that American support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins”, a remark for which she apologised and for which she has been accused of hating Jews by Donald Trump, who in 2015 told Republican Jews that they wouldn’t vote for him because he didn’t want their money.) 

It’s also in part because Donald Trump has tied himself so tightly to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and cutting aid and diplomatic ties to Palestinians – that it’s become easier for Democrats to say that they support Israel, but not this government or these policies. Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg both avoided this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference (though Buttigieg subsequently sent a video message). 

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There has been a shift, too, at the grassroots level. At its conference last autumn, J Street, a liberal group which was founded in 2007 as a a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” alternative to AIPAC, shared with journalists the results of a May 2019 survey by GBAO Strategie, which found that 84 per cent of Jewish Americans believed that “someone can be critical of Israeli government politics and still be pro-Israel”. Sanders and Buttigieg were among the presidential candidates who attended J Street’s annual conference. And groups to the left of J Street – such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voices for Peace – have held a still larger microphone in the agora of public discussion. 

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But if that was all that happened, perhaps Democratic Party politics would not have shifted as much as predicted. The presumptive nominee, after all, is not Sanders but former vice-president Joe Biden, who, in a debate against Sarah Palin in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, declared: “No one in the United States Senate has been a better friend to Israel than Joe Biden.” Biden may have warned AIPAC, in a pre-recorded video message, that future Israeli annexation of the West Bank, or parts thereof, was undermining support for Israel from young Americans, but the reality remains that he sent a video message. One could have been forgiven for thinking that there would not be a shift in Democratic politics after all.

Yet there was another, less appreciated factor. While some of the pressure for change originated from within the party, it was also triggered by external forces. When Trump declared that Omar “hates Jews”, what should have been appreciated is that he could – and would – say it of the Democrats at large, and that Republicans would follow. 

In a certain sense, this was already evident. Last August, Trump stated that American Jews were “disloyal” if they voted for Democrats – a remark that understandably upset people who recognised that the president was playing on a trope of dual loyalty. Though the Republican Jewish Coalition tried to suggest that the president was saying Jewish Americans who vote Democratic – which, in 2018, was roughly 80 per cent of US Jews – are disloyal to themselves, Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, helpfully clarified that the president meant disloyal to Israel.

Even so, the past two weeks in US-Jewish-Israeli politics have been unexpected. For the first time in history, J Street endorsed a presidential candidate, confident that they would not upend that candidate’s campaign. “I’m honored to have earned J Street’s first-ever presidential endorsement,” Biden said, adding that, “I share with J Street’s membership an unyielding dedication to the survival and security of Israel, and an equal commitment to creating a future of peace and opportunity for Israeli and Palestinian children alike.” 

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J Street, told The Daily Beast: “The alignment in the Democratic Party and the shift of the conversation on our issues allows us to feel really great about lining up behind someone like Joe Biden … Politics is different in 2020 than it was in 2016, and this issue is no exception. The way the politics in Israel has moved so far right and the way Trump has embraced what’s going on there has created a lot more space for Democratic candidates.”

In response, the Republican Jewish Coalition sent out a fundraising email. It didn’t matter that Biden, not Sanders, had been endorsed. “Joe Biden isn’t wasting a moment trying to prove to his far-left base that he will continue the anti-Israel policies of the Obama/Biden administration,” the email opened. “These were indeed dark days. In April alone, Biden has come out in support of lifting sanctions on Iran, invited the foreign policy advisors of Bernie Sanders to join his team and said he was ‘honored’ to receive the endorsement of the viciously anti-Israel group, J Street.”

The email concluded: “Can you really afford to delay your support for our election fund that supports pro-Israel Republicans?”

Many Democrats have actively worked to make theirs a party that supports but criticises Israel. What other Democrats, including the traditionally staunchly pro-Israel Democratic leadership, will be forced to realise is that they will be seen as critical of Israel regardless of what they do. That’s the other party’s party line.

Meanwhile, in Israel, a coalition agreement between Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz could lead to annexation of parts of the West Bank starting as early as 1 July. Biden will be labelled anti-Israel regardless of what he does; it’s the substance of what he says and does that’s still up to him.