From the Center

This viewpoint is from a writer rated Center.

Seven years ago, when violence between Israelis and Palestinians last reached these levels, Israel was still a bipartisan issue in the U.S. Congress. But today, as bombs drop on Gaza, as rockets are fired toward Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and as riots rage on the ground throughout the region, it’s clear how dramatically the political debate over Israel in America has shifted.

The Democratic Party has split in half, and is now divided between their older and more traditional members whose support for the Jewish state has remained consistent over the decades, and a younger and growing group of progressives who are harshly critical of Israel. Changes within the Republican Party have complicated the conversation even further, as GOP leaders have become increasingly fervent in their backing of Israel’s government at the same time nativist sentiments among ultra-conservative racialized voices in this country have been directed toward Jewish Americans.

The result has been the rise of two different brands of resurgent anti-Semitism from opposite ends of the political spectrum, one emerging from vitriolic anti-Zionism from the far left and the other cloaked in blood-and-soil nativism on the extreme right. But these developments took place during a period when ongoing animosities between Israel and the Palestinians had become less visible. But now that the violence has moved from a low simmer to all-out warfare, the same criticisms that many liberals direct toward Israel seem much less symbolic and much more impactful.

The last time Israel and Hamas went to war back in 2014, the Democratic and Republican establishments were both such stalwart allies of Israel that Barack Obama’s low regard for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was less relevant. But Netanyahu’s attempt to pressure Obama through his development of closer relationships with GOP leaders created an environment where anti-Israel voices in Democratic ranks could speak more freely. Donald Trump’s enthusiastic and unyielding patronage of Netanyahu made it even easier for those critical voices from the left to speak out. With the exception of Orthodox Jews, and many Israeli and Persian emigres, Republican backing for Israel has never resulted in increased support for their candidates from Jewish voters. But many of those who occupy the left wing of the Democratic Party no longer feel the need to soft-pedal their hostility toward Israel, because it can be presented as part of a broader anti-conservative and anti-Trump argument.

As young people, minority voters and other progressives have grown their ranks in Democratic politics, and as evangelicals and other religious conservatives have solidified their influence in the GOP, the partisan schism has widened. A Gallup poll taken earlier this year showed that Democrats believed by almost a 2-1 margin (53-29 percent) that the U.S. should put more pressure on the Israelis than the Palestinians to resolve the tensions in the region, while Republicans felt by a margin of almost 4-1 (65-17 percent) that this country should put more pressure on the Palestinians. That was before the latest outbreak of violence, but it still demonstrates how deeply polarized these issues have become.

Joe Biden made it clear from the beginning of his presidency that he was not interested in devoting much of his political capital toward the Israeli-Palestinian challenge. Biden’s priority was China, and to the extent that he was going to spend any time on the Middle East at all, it would be on nuclear negotiations with Iran rather than on long-festering and potentially unsolvable problems in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. But in addition to his foreign policy goals, Biden also understood that the internal divisions within the Democratic Party would keep him from making any meaningful progress on Israel.

But now that Israel and Hamas are at war, it’s no longer possible for him to stay away. In the past, American presidents of both parties have spoken on Middle Eastern issues with the confidence that their country stood behind them. Now Biden must prepare to navigate the intractable politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knowing that not only do Democrats and Republicans disagree on how to move forward, but that his own party is badly divided as well. No matter how Biden tries to address the violence, there will be a sizable number of Democrats who will be angry with him for not backing their side more strongly At precisely the time when he is working to build party unity to achieve his domestic policy goals, a fight in his own ranks over Israel is the last thing he needs.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

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This piece was reviewed and edited by managing editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

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