March 18, 2019

Can Israel Win Back the Democratic Party?

Photo from Flickr.

In June 1972, Israel’s ambassador to the United States was criticized by The Washington Post for being an “undiplomatic diplomat.” The ambassador was Yitzhak Rabin. The occasion was the presidential election between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat George McGovern. Rabin’s supposed offense was expressing Israel’s preference that Nixon would come out on top. “While we appreciate support in the form of words we are getting from one camp,” Rabin told an interviewer, “we must prefer support in the form of deeds we are getting from the other camp.” 

Words — from the Democratic camp. Deeds — from the Republican camp.

Nearly 47 years later, a majority of Israelis feel the same as Rabin did then. Support for Israel is bipartisan in words mostly, in practice it is highly partisan — and not because of what Israel does or does not do. 

It is well-established fact that Democratic voters look less favorably on Israel than their Republican counterparts and fewer see it as a strong ally. Survey after survey, including a recent survey by Gallup, shows the gap. And as The New York Times reported a few months ago, the party itself is also changing, as “a cluster of activist Democrats … has dared to breach … strong support for Israel….” It’s true that mainstream Democrats call these Democratic Party leaders “fringe,” but the surveys indicate that this fringe might now reflect the perspectives of the party’s elected officials. 

For Israel, this is a highly troubling development, a matter of national security. Striving to have “bipartisan support” was always the policy of Israel and its allies. And while bipartisanship was always somewhat overhyped, it mostly worked well from the late 1970s until recent times. Rabin, the ambassador to the Nixon administration, had a close relationship with Democratic President Bill Clinton. 

The change in tone and attitude has been gradual. As Israel moved rightward, following the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Democratic Party moved leftward, from Clintonian triangulation to Barack Obama, and then even further to the left. Israelis feel at ease when Republican presidents — George W. Bush, Donald Trump — are at the helm. They felt much less comfortable with Obama, whom a majority of Israeli Jews considers the “worst president” for Israel in the past 30 years. 

While bipartisanship was always somewhat overhyped, it mostly worked well from the late 1970s until recent times. 

What can Israel do to mitigate the erosion of Democratic support? For many liberal Americans, and also some Israelis, the answer is simple: Israel must change its policies to win back the Democratic Party’s support. American liberals point their fingers at various Israeli policies — from not ending the West Bank occupation to bombing Gaza and passing “illiberal” legislation — that they say underlie the growing alienation. Opposition leaders in Israel blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for aligning his government with conservative Americans and thus creating a “serious problem” for Israel when the Democratic Party comes back into power. 

Undoubtedly, some of Israel’s policies contribute to making liberal Americans less enamored with the country they once adored. But a serious look at the trends must end with a disappointing conclusion from an Israeli viewpoint: There is not much that Israel can do to bring Democrats back into its corner, other than wait for the tide to reverse.

It goes without saying that Israel must invest in bipartisan support to the highest extent possible. No sane Israeli leader is going to forgo the support of half of Americans because of laziness or carelessness. On the other hand, U.S. bipartisan support is just one item on the list of many that Israel must worry about. First and foremost, it must worry about survival in a dangerous neighborhood. Thus, any discussion of Israel’s ability to impact the views of Democratic voters must begin with a straightforward question: What would be the cost of regaining their support? 

The answer — again, sadly — is that the cost seems to be too high. Here is one example: Democratic voters and legislators overwhelmingly supported the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. Israeli voters and their government believed this deal was dangerous for Israel. So, in 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak in Congress against the deal.

This was a highly partisan move, a “risky gambit” as professor Daniel Drezner called it. Back then I opposed it, believing that Netanyahu “has turned Israel into a political football.” Indeed, he had. Republicans cheered his speech; Democrats were furious with it. In retrospect, I was wrong. Had Netanyahu not decided that the benefit (making the case, refusing to surrender) outweighed the risk (further alienating Democrats), it would have been much harder to imagine Trump taking the bold step of withdrawing from the deal. 

Israel’s dilemma is not hard to understand: Losing bipartisan support is strategically dangerous; accepting a reality of an emboldened Iran is strategically dangerous. Sometimes a choice must be made. Which of these two is more dangerous? More urgent? More susceptible to influence?

While for Israel to assuage its policies on Iran, or on Gaza, is certainly dangerous, its ability to influence Democratic tendencies at a reasonable cost is far from clear. Rabin understood this in the 1970s, when he was looking at a Democratic Party smitten with McGovernites — “the kind of liberal he had learned to dislike,” as professor Ephraim Inbar wrote in his book, “Rabin and Israel’s National Security.”

Netanyahu probably sees a similar picture as he looks at a Democratic Party highly influenced by the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and highly attentive to activists whose philosophy is intersectionality. He looks at the party whose leaders not long ago vowed to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act was passed in the Senate by a 93-5 majority, with only one opposing Democrat) but recently, vehemently, opposed this move. 

Israel and the Democratic Party have changed since 1995. Democrats became less tolerant of hardnosed realistic policies — the exact types of policies that Israel gradually adopted. 

Can Israel make moves that would mitigate the trend of it becoming unfashionable among Democrats? Sure. It needs to make such goal a priority whenever possible. But it is important to acknowledge a frustrating reality: Since Israel is not going to completely alter its security policy, only little mitigation is possible.

Democratic support for Israel is weakening as a result of internal American dynamics. When Democrats turn to moderate centrism — as in the days of Presidents Lyndon Johnson or Clinton — relations with Israel are solid. When Democrats move leftward — as in the days of McGovern or Obama — relations with Israel become rockier. This is basically true whether Israel is led by a Labor government headed by a Rabin or a Likud government headed by a Netanyahu.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.