On the surface, it looks like the U.S.-Israel relationship is having its best year ever. In May, President Donald Trump fulfilled Israel’s dream of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and his administration is preparing a Middle East peace plan that will almost certainly have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s blessing. Congress, meanwhile, is poised to approve $3.3 billion in new defense assistance to Israel, a new high.
But there are political undercurrents that spell trouble for what has traditionally been unquestioned U.S. support for Israel, particularly within the Democratic Party on the eve of a midterm election that could swing the balance of power in one or both chambers of Congress and perhaps profoundly and permanently change the dynamic between the longtime allies.
Democratic disillusionment with Israel, which has been quietly simmering for years, gained traction when Netanyahu spoke to a joint session of Congress urging lawmakers to oppose the Iran nuclear deal championed by the Obama administration. Dozens of Democrats defiantly boycotted the March 2015 speech.
The political division became even more apparent when Trump took office two years later and Netanyahu backed some of his most controversial domestic policies. And when Trump embraced cutting off aid to the Palestinians, many Democrats balked at the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Gaza, which the party had previously ignored.
In May, Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, condemned the Israeli government for the “horrific slaughter” of more than 50 Palestinians protesting just inside the border fence of the Gaza Strip.
“We are witnessing the use of unabated brutality and force against civilians to stifle civil unrest,” tweeted Yarmuth, who is Jewish. “America must expect and demand more from its close allies.”
It’s no accident that Democrats’ sharp criticisms of Israeli policies come as the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — the longtime powerhouse among pro-Israel groups — has waned within the party. More liberals are turning to the left-of-center J Street, which was established a mere 10 years ago and gives Democrats some political cover to oppose Netanyahu’s policies while still backing Israel.
AIPAC, which has historically tamped down any public criticism of Israel, maintains an unparalleled lobbying operation, spending $3.4 million in 2017, nearly 10 times what J Street spent, according to figures by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. But when it comes to making direct campaign contributions, J Street’s PAC tops the list for the 2018 cycle, with nearly $1.9 million so far this year. Over 97 percent of that was funneled to Democrats.
By comparison, employees of AIPAC contributed under $25,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, although the behemoth organization indirectly influences a much larger pot of campaign giving.
Public opinion, meanwhile, is changing. In January, a Pew poll found the widest partisan gap ever between how Republicans and Democrats view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Self-described liberal Democrats’ sympathies for Israel have plummeted from 48 percent at the beginning of the century to just 19 percent today. Democrats as a whole are just as likely to sympathize with the Palestinians as they are the Israelis, a marked difference from just a few years ago.
“Progressives are growing more openly critical of Israel, I suspect, because they see Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as embodying many of the values — militarism, xenophobia and religious extremism — that they disdain,” Peter Beinart wrote in a May column for The Forward, a publication covering the Jewish-American community.
Within the Jewish-American community, the drop in support for Netanyahu’s policies is just as profound. A June survey released by the American Jewish Committee found growing fissures between Israeli Jews and American Jews. While 77 percent of Israeli Jews support Trump’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations, just 34 percent of American Jews do. Nearly double the number of American Jews (41 percent) said they disapprove strongly of Trump’s Israel policies as those who strongly support them (21 percent).
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who leads T’ruah, an organization that advocates human rights in the United States and Israel, argues that what it means to be pro-Israel has become more nuanced.
“What we’ve noticed really loud and clear is that there is an increased awareness of human rights issues in Israel, of the occupation, that the status quo isn’t sustainable,” Jacobs said.
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In March 2017, 46 Democratic senators voted against Trump’s nomination of his former bankruptcy attorney, David Friedman, to serve as ambassador to Israel. Friedman had come under heavy fire from progressive activists for his castigation of supporters of J Street as “far worse than kapos,” using a term for prisoners who helped the Nazis maintain order in concentration camps. The only Democrats to support his nomination were Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.
Two months earlier, Netanyahu outraged many Democrats when he tweeted support for Trump’s efforts to build a wall on the Mexican border, noting that Israel’s own southern border wall with Egypt had been a “great success” in stopping “all illegal immigration.” The 30-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus sent a letter to Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, to voice their “disappointment and deep concern” with the prime minister’s comments.
But perhaps no issue has been more polarizing than the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. This spring, 13 Senate Democrats wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticizing Israel’s blockade of Gaza and urging him to “do more to alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.”
Israel’s land, sea and air blockade of Gaza, along with mismanagement by Hamas, which has governed the 141-square mile territory since 2007, has led to a 46 percent rate of unemployment and widespread poverty. Residents only have electricity for four hours a day and less than 10 percent have access to safe drinking water. The United Nations says the territory is basically uninhabitable.
The Senate letter followed a February letter from 102 House Democrats urging Trump to reverse hundreds of millions of dollars in funding cuts to the U.N. agency that provides services to Palestinian refugees, including the more than 1.3 million living in Gaza. That same month, 76 House Democrats sent a letter to Netanyahu, urging him not to bulldoze the village of Susya and other nearby Palestinian communities in the West Bank.
Since June 2015, there have been 10 letters and joint statements from U.S. lawmakers that highlight Palestinian humanitarian concerns, press Israel to improve its treatment of the Palestinians and call on the Trump administration to protect the future of a two-state solution, according to the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby group.
“These kinds of expressions from not just one member but a significant portion of the Democratic caucus, in my mind, is groundbreaking,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, noting that some of the most notable letters have come since Trump took office. “It’s part of an overwhelming trend.”
What many Palestinian rights activists are most excited about is legislation from Rep. Betty McCollum, a nine-term Democrat from Minnesota, that would prohibit Israel from using any of the billions of dollars in annual aid received from Congress for “the military detention, interrogation, abuse, or ill treatment of Palestinian children.” The bill has 28 co-sponsors, all of them Democrats, including Rep. Seth Moulton, a former Marine from Massachusetts who is heavily involved in recruiting fellow veterans to run for Congress.
The McCollum bill has no chance of passing in this Congress, but its backers say its introduction was a sign of serious change.
“It really is the first-ever example of a bill being introduced in Congress that completely centers on Palestinian human rights,” said Josh Ruebner, policy director for the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, a national coalition of hundreds of organizations pushing the United States to end its support to Israel until there is an equitable solution reached with the Palestinians.
A number of the co-sponsors of McCollum’s bill — such as Reps. Ro Khanna of California and Pramila Jayapal of Washington — are newly elected, signaling a generational shift within the Democratic Party.
“There are new members of Congress, new voices on this issue and they are doing this because they are hearing from their constituents,” said Kate Gould, legislative director for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Gould said she has heard from more congressional offices about how to push back against AIPAC talking points on the McCollum bill than she has on any other Israeli-Palestinian issue.
As McCollum’s bill picks up some interest among lawmakers, the liberal grass roots, including several Jewish-American organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, is far outpacing them. These activists are demanding Washington use its influence to pressure Israel to lift its blockade. They also want Congress to reconsider the billions it provides Israel in annual foreign aid.
Backlash to the backlash
Almost no other foreign policy issue has so divided congressional Democrats than how to respond to a growing global movement to boycott not only West Bank-based Israeli companies but also Israel proper. Known as BDS — for boycott, divest and sanction — the economic pressure campaign has sizable public support in the European Union and in recent years has picked up steam across the United States.
As of last November, the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights had documented 200 supportive actions for BDS in the United States. Those include 10 student referendums, student council resolutions and changes to school bylaws supporting divestment at college campuses across the country.
A number of mainstream Protestant churches have also taken actions to end their financial relationships with companies involved in abusing Palestinian rights. Last month, the Presbyterian Church USA’s biennial General Assembly easily approved a slate of resolutions favorable to the Palestinians and critical of legislative efforts at the state and federal level to criminalize BDS actions.
Activists attribute the BDS momentum, at least in part, to progressives’ frustrations with Congress, particularly lawmakers’ reticence to tying diplomatic and military support for Israel to improvements in the Middle East peace process and treatment of Palestinians. Some analysts say Democrats’ criticisms of Israel may be an effort to show activists that Congress is changing.
“You are seeing a huge, huge shift in how important grass-roots and civil-society groups are relating to this issue these days,” Ruebner said.
Alarmed by the BDS movement’s progress, the Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC and other conservative pro-Israel groups support bills in each chamber that would impose criminal penalties, including hefty fines, on U.S. companies that participate in Israel boycotts promoted by the United Nations and other international organizations.
The legislation’s opponents object to it conflating boycotts of Israeli businesses located in the occupied Palestinian territories with Israel proper. They also see it as a U.S. government-sponsored attack on individual Americans’ right to protest Israel’s policies.
“You have a country that was founded on act of boycott, the tea party, and here you have legislation that in its original version suggested a 20-year criminal penalty,” Ruebner said of the Senate version of the bill, while contending the House legislation could still allow a prison sentence.
Critics and supporters of the bills dispute whether the proposed new regulations would apply to U.S. entities that voluntarily participate in international BDS actions against Israel.
Maryland Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin, the Senate sponsor of the bill, has come under fire from groups like the ACLU. But Cardin insists his legislation is intended only to protect American businesses from being coerced into participating in a boycott and that company owners can still exercise their First Amendment-protected political speech of choosing not to do business with Israel.
“I will defend the right of freedom of speech and will never do anything to infringe upon freedom of speech,” Cardin said.
Cardin’s bill, which he introduced with Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio in March 2017, has 55 co-sponsors, including 14 Democrats. The legislation presumably has enough support to pass a Senate filibuster but it has yet to come up for a markup in the Banking Committee.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved its version of the bill, which is seen as harsher than Cardin’s, in June and it is expected to be passed by the House.
A changing party
Hard-left activists have a derisive term for Democrats like Cardin: PAPs (Progressives Except for Palestine), meant to draw attention to what they argue are the intellectually inconsistent policies of liberal lawmakers who advocate universal human rights, except when it comes to criticizing Israel’s half-century-long occupation of the Palestinian territories.
“What is changed of late is that it has been fair game in recent years to use issues about Israel as political wedge issues even though it may weaken the public support of Israel,” Cardin said.
The Democratic Party is likely to remain divided over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the trend lines are clear. The liberal grass roots — and, to a lesser extent, the party’s rising national stars — are much more willing to criticize Israel.
Indeed, new House Democrats like Khanna and Jayapal tend to quickly embrace the Palestinian rights issue, and their ranks could grow with the midterm elections as the party’s progressive branch moves further to the left.
There are multiple signs the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be the next major foreign policy fight the party will have internally. The conflict has come up for a topic of debate in primary contests across the country, including in Georgia, Maryland, South Carolina and California. Democratic-Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated Rep. Joseph Crowley of Queens, the fourth-highest ranking House Democrat, in a surprise blowout in June, has called the Israeli military’s shootings of scores of Palestinian protesters a “massacre.”
“I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it such,” she tweeted this spring. “Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else. Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore.”
California Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, who lived in Gaza for several years as a child, will face embattled Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter in November and has also spoken out about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the state’s top-two primary in June, Hunter came in first with 48 percent to 17 percent for Campa-Najjar.
Looking ahead to 2020, several Democratic senators considered contenders for the presidential nomination have not signed on to Cardin’s anti-BDS bill. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York initially was a co-sponsor but dropped off the bill last year over concerns with its free-speech issues.
“A lot of these people that are expecting to be 2020 contenders are not racing forward on this legislation and are, in fact, turning the other way on it,” Gould said.
In a July interview, Dermer said it was important for his government to identify what is driving the partisan gap in support for Israel, which he said goes back 40 years, far before the Netanyahu administration. “We have to continue to do outreach to core constituencies of the Democratic community,” the ambassador said.
Support for Israel has skyrocketed among Christian evangelicals, who overwhelmingly vote Republican. The question is whether that support will be enough to make up for Democrats.
“The gap is mostly opening up because Republicans are shooting up off the charts. When you break them out and you look at them, what is behind the billowing rise are the Republicans,” said Shalom Lipner, who advised seven consecutive Israeli prime ministers, including Netanyahu, on the U.S.-Israel relationship.
According to the January Pew poll, nearly 8 in 10 Republicans sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians, which is equal to the number of evangelical Christians who feel the same way. No other religious denomination comes close in their support for Israel.
Before Trump, it had been the policy of multiple Republican administrations to advocate for a two-state solution and to pressure Israel to halt its settlement building in the occupied territories. In recent years, though, there has been little criticism from Republican lawmakers of Netanyahu’s hard-right policies toward the Palestinians or his cabinet, which generally wants to see a single state over most or all of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank that does not grant Palestinians equal rights under the law.
Even as the uptick in evangelical support comes as Democrats — and Jewish-Americans, in particular — are falling away, some Israeli government officials are suggesting it’s well worth it.
In a May interview with The New York Times, Dermer said “devout Christians” now make up the strongest core of American support for Israel. “It’s got to be a solid quarter of the population, and that is maybe 10, 15, 20 times the Jewish population,” the Israeli ambassador said.
Still, “I wouldn’t say that it’s a trade-off,” Dermer said of the loss of Jewish-American support and the gain in evangelical support.
But many Jewish-Americans and liberal Israelis say they are concerned about the changing dynamics, arguing it is against Israel’s best interests.
Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion analyst in Israel, said Netanyahu and his Knesset allies are not paying attention to Democratic Party dynamics. “There is very short-term thinking and a lot of denial or repression of long-term potential political threats,” she said.
J Street’s Ben-Ami said that in Netanyahu’s fervent embrace of the Trump administration, he is “sacrificing” historical broad bipartisan American support for Israel to throw in his lot with Republicans, whose share of the voting population is trending downward.
“It is absolutely not in the state of Israel’s interest for Israel itself to become a partisan political football,” Ben-Ami said.
Clarification 10:09 a.m. | This story has been clarified to note that the AIPAC contributions came from individual employees, not the organization.