At this writing, nearly two dozen Democrats are planning to boycott Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress in March.
Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy called the speech “a tawdry and high-handed stunt.” Minnesota Democratic Rep. Betsy McCollum said, “In my view Mr. Netanyahu’s speech before Congress is nothing more than a campaign event hosted by Speaker Boehner and paid for by the American people.”
“I’m offended as an American,” said New York Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel, who appeared to challenge Netanyahu to a fight over Twitter.
This once would have been unthinkable. “You used to be able to find critics of Israel in the Republican Party,” John Judis wrote in The New Republic last year, rattling off names like Charles Matthias and Paul Findley. “But the Democrats, and particularly liberal Democrats, stood squarely behind whatever the Israeli government was doing.”
“Our alliance with Israel is an alliance based on common democratic ideals and mutual benefit,” said a prominent Democratic senator in a 1980 speech. “We must never barter the freedom and future of Israel for a barrel of oil — or foolishly try to align the Arab world with us, no matter what cost.”
The name of that senator? Ted Kennedy, who was then running for president to the left of Jimmy Carter.
Pro-Israel Democrats think the recent tempest merely reflects tension between Netanyahu and Barack Obama, the Democratic president of the United States.
“It doesn’t matter that the president and the prime minister don’t like each other,” New York Democratic Rep. Elliot Engel, the ranking member on the House Foreign Relations Committee, told the Los Angeles Times. “The strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship has always been at its core a very bipartisan one. I think anything that threatens to jeopardize that is not good for the U.S. and is not good for Israel.”
Obama’s frosty relationship with Netanyahu has exacerbated the growing rift between liberal Democrats and Israel. Netanyahu clearly preferred his old friend Mitt Romney in 2012, while Obama has been similarly chummy with the Israeli opposition.
Secretary of State John Kerry linked Israel and apartheid, later apologizing but not particularly effusively. An unnamed Obama official told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that Netanyahu was a “chickenshit,” a remark they likely knew would be published.
But Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir didn’t get along famously with President George H.W. Bush or Secretary of State James Baker and that didn’t stop Republicans from moving in a more pro-Israel direction, including during the administration of George W. Bush.
The Obama-Netanyahu conflict reflects a real shift in Democratic sentiment that can’t be entirely attributed to the president. The Pew Research Center conducted a poll asking, “In the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, who do you sympathize with more?”
According to the poll, 66 percent of Republicans picked Israel while only 39 percent of Democrats did the same. Conservative Republicans were more likely to support Israel than moderate Republicans, moderate Democrats more pro-Israel than liberal ones.
Christians (55 percent) are now more likely than Jews (40 percent) to believe that God gave Israel to the Jewish people. Only Orthodox Jews are more likely to believe this than white evangelicals.
White evangelicals are more likely than Jews to think the U.S. isn’t supportive enough of Israel, and less likely to think the current level of American support for the Jewish state is “just right.”
Democrats booed references to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital at the party’s 2012 convention. In this case, it was actually Obama’s forces who pushed to have the pro-Israel language restored to the Democratic platform over delegates’ objections.
“Basically, support for Israel gets stronger as you move right, and weaker as you move left,” Bill McGurn observed in the New York Post.
Where liberals once saw Israel as a homeland for Jewish victims of discrimination and genocide, today’s liberals see the Palestinians as the victims and Israelis as the oppressors. Liberalism can more readily accept the nationalism of the former over the latter.
Israel is too Western for the multicultural left and Zionism fits uneasily alongside the priorities of contemporary multiculturalism. The Jewish state has launched military offenses that Republicans were more likely to support than Democrats. Liberals are more secular than in the past, and less impressed by Judeo-Christian Holy Land claims.
American supporters of Israel, on the other hand, have become more conservative and less secular, entangling this foreign policy question in the domestic culture wars. Israel itself has had center-right and right-of-center governments more frequently than the United States over the past 20 years.
Netanyahu is close to the American right. It’s no accident House Speaker John Boehner invited him.
The disagreement between Obama and Netanyahu over Iran, colored by their barely concealed distaste for each other, may compound all of this. But the Democrats’ drift away from Israel is likely to continue after the president and prime minister are gone.
W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.