The Erosion of Bipartisan Support For Israel
Jonathan Sciarcon is an assistant professor of history and Judaic studies in the Department of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. He has taught at the University of Denver since 2010. Sciarcon's research focuses on Ottoman Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He teaches courses on the rise of Islam in the Middle East, the modern Middle East, the Crusades and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Feb. 15, 2017 may end up being a decisive day in the history of U.S.-Israeli relations. On that day, President Donald Trump, during a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, became the first president in nearly a quarter-century to refuse to commit to supporting a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. These comments, along with Netanyahu’s enthusiastic support for the president, will hasten the day that Israel loses bipartisan support in the United States.
Since Israel’s establishment in 1948 it has enjoyed consistently strong support from both parties in Congress. Such support has been essential in pressuring presidents to protect Israel in international forums and to refrain from criticizing Israel for pursuing policies that contradict U.S. policy goals in the Middle East. This bipartisan support rests on the foundation of perceived cultural similarities between American and Israeli citizens. However, it also depends on evangelical Christian, and to a lesser extent Orthodox Jewish, support for Israel in the Republican Party and non-Orthodox Jewish support for Israel in the Democratic Party.
Such bipartisan support manifests itself in various ways. For example, during the presidency of George W. Bush, Democrats in Congress often criticized the administration for its general handling of foreign policy in the Middle East while praising the administration’s nearly unconditional support of Israel. In the recent past, President Barack Obama, in an attempt to build a veto-proof minority block in the Senate, struggled to convince enough Democratic senators to join him in backing the Iran nuclear deal, which was viewed by many in both parties as detrimental to Israeli security. Additionally, in 2016 the Obama administration, along with a Republican-controlled House and Senate, signed a new 10-year, $38 billion military aid package with Israel.
These recent developments, however, mask a profound transformation of attitudes toward Israel within the liberal American Jewish community. Social scientific research over the past decade has identified an increasing correlation between religiosity and support for Israel among younger American Jews. While older Orthodox and non-Orthodox American Jews report relatively similar, and high, levels of support for Israel, among the younger generations, roughly American Jews born after 1970, Orthodox Jews profess support for Israel at much higher levels than do their non-Orthodox counterparts. There are multiple reasons for this change, but one key factor is that an increasing number of younger non-Orthodox American Jews no longer view Israel as a military underdog or as a state that adheres to liberal principles in either its foreign policy, especially toward Palestinians, or its domestic policies, notably with regard to the role of religion in politics.
Trump’s comments, and Netanyahu’s praise for the president, must be viewed within the context of this shift in support for Israel among younger, non-Orthodox American Jews. Many younger Jewish Democrats are already angry with Netanyahu for repeatedly interjecting himself into U.S. politics over the past half-decade and for subsequently cozying up to a new president who likely received votes from less than 15 percent of non-Orthodox Jews. Trump’s refusal to support a two-state solution and his nomination of David Friedman, a staunch advocate of settlements who once referred to American Jews who don’t support his right-wing view of Israel as Kapos, will only work to fuel this group’s anger toward Israel’s prime minister and America’s president.
A Republican administration that acquiesces to, or possibly promotes, the right-wing Israeli dream of a Greater Israel is one that will lead many younger, Jewish Democrats to abandon support for close U.S.-Israeli relations. Once this happens it is unlikely that the Democratic Party will maintain its nearly unconditional support for Israel. At that point Israel will lose its automatic support in the U.S. Congress and be more susceptible to pressure from future U.S. presidents. This will have dire ramifications for Israel at the United Nations and in its general conduct of foreign relations.