Redacted from an excellent, in-depth 5 page article that must be read in its entirety.
By JONATHAN S. TOBIN
December 2015 (No, nothing has changed since December – worse if anything with Bernie or Hillary in the leadership)
President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran survived a congressional challenge in September 2015, despite its extreme unpopularity with the American people. With very few exceptions, Democrats in the House and Senate rallied to the president’s side and (in the case of the Senate) refused to allow even a token vote to be cast in opposition. This was a turning point, for the deal formally recognizes the eventual right of Iran to become a nuclear power—a right that places Israel in profound existential jeopardy.
Supporters of Israel will continue to claim that the Jewish state is a bipartisan cause in the United States, but as the Iran vote has made painfully clear, this assertion has become more hope than reality. When it came to the most important vote for Israel in a generation, Republicans in both the House and the Senate unanimously opposed the agreement, while an overwhelming majority of Democrats backed it.
Though many Democratic activists and voters remain ardent backers of Israel, those making up the liberal base of the party are not. On issues such as Iran and the conflict with the Palestinians, Democrats are, at best, split, with their left wing increasingly speaking in open opposition to the Zionist cause. More to the point, much of the Democratic Party has followed President Obama’s lead in seeking to redefine what it means to be pro-Israel. They claim they are acting out of “tough love” rather than disdain, and that they are acting in Israel’s best interests in contravention of the views of Israel’s own lively and disputatious electorate.
Those claims ring increasingly hollow, but until now they have proved sufficient for a strong majority of Jewish voters and a great many financial backers of Jewish origin in the Democratic Party. It seems that while Republicans actually compete with one another to demonstrate their pro-Israel bona fides, Democrats no longer have to bother.John F. Kennedy was the first American president to meet with an Israeli prime minister and became the first to sell arms to the Jewish state. But a U.S.-Israel relationship did not really take off until Lyndon Johnson succeeded him. Johnson’s “green light” to Israel to defend itself against Arab aggression just prior to the outbreak of the 1967 war was a critical moment in the development of the alliance between the two countries.
It was only after Israel had triumphed in that war and gained the strategic depth it needed to be less vulnerable to annihilation that American leaders began to think of Israel as an asset to the West in the Cold War, not a mere irritant to relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Jimmy Carter’s thinly disguised disenchantment with Israel led to a record-low Jewish vote for a Democratic presidential candidate when he ran for re-election in 1980—and Carter’s unyielding bitterness about that was a key motivation for his emergence as an unmistakably anti-Israel voice in the decades following his humiliating defeat.
Carter’s four years in office featured near-constant strife with Israel and the Likud government led by Menachem Begin, who took office in 1977. It was the first rightist government Israelis had elected in the state’s 29-year history. Though Begin’s supposed intransigence was blamed for the trouble—an intransigence belied by the accords that were Carter’s only foreign-policy success—the real issue was Carter’s sub-rosa hostility toward Israel, a factor that would not be fully understood until he left office.
In 1979, UN ambassador Andrew Young took it upon himself to meet secretly with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, then correctly designated as a terrorist group. The strength of pro-Israel sentiment among Democrats was such that Carter faced enormous pressure to fire Young, who later resigned at Carter’s request. But the incident became a flashpoint, as black leaders hotly protested Young’s departure in an intra-party split that foreshadowed future problems for Israel with left-wing Democrats.
Carter’s thinly disguised disenchantment with Israel led to a record-low Jewish vote for a Democratic presidential candidate when he ran for re-election in 1980—and Carter’s unyielding bitterness about that was a key motivation for his emergence as an unmistakably anti-Israel voice in the decades following his humiliating defeat.
Many Americans had fallen in love with a pioneer Israel governed by the socialist Labour Party and represented by the romance of the agricultural and social collective known as the kibbutz. For liberal Democrats, the full-throated nationalism of Begin’s Likud Party proved disquieting, as Likud’s voting base was made up not of Jews of European origin like them but of Sephardic Jews to whom they felt little connection. Though his policies were little different from those of his Labour predecessors when it came to security issues, Begin was demonized in the press and disdained by Jewish liberals following the lead of disgusted Ashkenazi Israelis astonished to find themselves out of power for the first time.
Begin had retired by the time the first Palestinian intifada broke out in 1987. By this point, media depictions of Israel as an imperial force dominating a captive populace could no longer be blamed exclusively on Likud. The country was then led by a coalition government, and the task of putting it down fell to none other than the former Labour prime minister and future peace-process martyr Yitzhak Rabin, who oversaw a response he himself called “might, power, and beatings.” The Palestinian attempt to pose as the underdog in the conflict with Israel was assisted by a liberal mainstream media that viewed the Palestinians as the new David to Israel’s Goliath.
Arafat responded to Camp David by launching the terror war known as the Second Intifada. Nonetheless, many Democrats clung to the idea that the Jewish state had not taken enough risks for peace. The peace process itself had ironically bolstered the fallacious notion that Israel was the possessor of stolen goods rather than the administrator of disputed territories to which it also had rights.
But as the intifada continued, any concerns that liberals might be abandoning their support for Israel were entirely overshadowed by concerns about the first President George Bush. Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker was as openly hostile to Israel as Carter had been. At one point, Bush refused to give Israel loan guarantees to build housing for Russian Jews because of a dispute over West Bank settlements. Democrats railed against Bush’s treatment of Israel and reaped the benefits in 1992 when Jewish support for Bush in his failed reelection bid reached a modern low of 11 percent.
Bush’s replacement by Bill Clinton seemed to further solidify the Democratic Party’s standing as the preeminent pro-Israel party. Clinton’s affection for the Jewish state was genuine, and his hosting of the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasir Arafat on the White House Lawn earned him applause from most of the pro-Israel community.
Soon enough, the “peace process” created new problems for Israel among Democrats. With the Oslo process already failing in 1996, Israelis again turned to the right and elected Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. Netanyahu proved willing to continue negotiating with the Palestinians in spite of their violations of the accords. But the liberal disaffection with him was unmistakable, and it fed off the idea that the dark face of Israel had been unmasked at the moment that Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzhak Rabin during a pro-Oslo rally in 1995.
Arafat responded to the Camp David Accords by launching the terror war known as the Second Intifada, which should at least have demonstrated to all honest observers that the Palestinians were more interested in pursuing their quixotic goal of eliminating Israel than in a two-state solution. Nonetheless, many Democrats clung to the idea that the Jewish state had not taken enough risks for peace. The peace process itself had ironically bolstered the fallacious notion that Israel was the possessor of stolen goods rather than the administrator of disputed territories to which it also had rights. In the view of a growing number of liberals, the rationale for Israel’s existence depended on giving up this land no matter the consequences for its security.
Israelis across the political spectrum lost faith in the peace process owing to both the Second Intifada and the conversion of Gaza into a terror state after Ariel Sharon withdrew every settler, soldier, and settlement in 2005. But their concerns had no impact on many Democrats who still claimed to be friends of Israel.
By the time of Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008, the leader of the Democrats was a man who made no bones about representing himself as someone who was hostile to Israel’s Likud Party even as he claimed unconvincingly to be sympathetic to the country itself. And unlike his recent predecessors, Obama believed that creating more “daylight” between Israel and the United States was the key to the peace process.
But unlike presidents who had picked fights with Israel before, Obama seemed able to do so without getting significant pushback from his own party. He could consistently rely on the backing of most Jewish Democrats in his constant quarrels with the Netanyahu government.
Obama then maneuvered worldwide the Iranians recognition for their nuclear program and the end of sanctions, Obama began getting tough with both Israeli critics of his policy and Democrats who were stepping out of line.
This struggle proved to be the culmination of the Democratic Party’s long march away from Israel. In early 2015, opponents of a nuclear Iran thought they could still count on overwhelming support from both Republicans and Democrats for an effort to head off a bad deal. Bipartisan majorities had backed toughened sanctions on Iran over the president’s objection before, and there was hope that a new sanctions bill could pass as well. But at this point, Obama started to treat improved relations with Iran, and a consequent cooling of ties with Israel, as his foreign-policy priority.
The Iran-deal vote must be understood in the context of a Democratic Party whose base is now comfortable explicitly articulating its opposition to the Jewish state. At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, pro-Israel motions were omitted from the party platform. Democratic leaders sought to correct the mistake during the proceedings and were visibly shocked when a large majority of those responding to a voice vote on pro-Israel measures expressed their opposition.
Changes in American Jewish life are having an additional impact on the decline of pro-Israel Democrats. The 2013 Pew Survey also points to marked decline in a sense of Jewish peoplehood and pro-Israel sentiment among a group that comprises disproportionately loyal Democratic voters and donors. . As that segment of voters became less connected to Jewish identity, so, too, the influence of the pro-Israel community declined among Democrats. Jewish liberals were never single-issue voters obsessed with Israel. But as Israel’s image was battered by wars and the disdain of Obama, it slipped even lower on their list of priorities.
In Barack Obama’s Democratic Party, pro-Israel voices have been marginalized. That marginalization might not be permanent. The next generation of Democrats might come to understand that Obama’s foreign policy—a set of actions that have led to the rise of ISIS, the growing strength of Iran, and “daylight” between the United States and Israel—has made this country and the world more unstable and more dangerous. In American politics, the centrifugal pull of the center ultimately shifts both parties back to moderation on key issues.
That dynamic is the last best hope we have for a pathway back to support for Israel on the part of a Democratic Party that has lost its way.
(And, it sure won’t find the way back via either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. That fact is a given) jsk
Jerome S. Kaufman
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