Barack Obama reacted to Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in the Israeli elections as if the Republicans had retaken the Senate all over again.
If you think that’s an exaggeration, consider how much the administration’s public posture toward Netanyahu sounds like the sparring one would do with a domestic political opponent.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest described Netanyahu’s campaign comments about a Palestinian state as “cynical, divisive election-day tactics” that will lead Obama’s team to “rethink our approach” to Israel.
Asked Friday why the president didn’t take the prime minister at his word about a two-state solution, Earnest retorted, “Well, I guess the question is, which one?”
That’s the kind of zinger you might expect to be directed at the Republicans, but not an allied country’s head of government. But if it had been, say, Mitt Romney, the president might not have waited two days to congratulate him on his victory.
Mitch McConnell got a congratulatory phone call from Obama the morning after Republicans triumphed in the midterms.
Netanyahu is no stranger to campaign zingers himself. Although he was more diplomatic in his words about the president, his address to Congress had the feeling of a rally — both for his own reelection and the Republicans.
This leads people to conclude that the current problems in the relationship between the United States and Israel are a product of the demonstrably frosty relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. And there are problems if the administration is even hinting there might be more daylight between the U.S. and Israel at the United Nations.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Yes, there has been conflict between presidents and prime ministers before.
President George H.W. Bush actually withheld $10 billion in housing loan guarantees to Israel in order to extract promises from Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that the funds wouldn’t be used for West Bank settlement-building.
It’s not even the first time Netanyahu has been at the center of such tensions. President Bill Clinton reportedly asked after their first meeting in 1996, “Who’s the fucking superpower here?”
This time, Obama and Netanyahu symbolize broader political trends within their respective countries and political parties.
First, the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in the United States is showing signs of fraying. It’s one thing that nearly all the members of Congress who boycotted Netanyahu’s speech were Democrats and some of the Democrats who did attend didn’t seem too pleased.
That could be attributed to a desire to stand with a Democratic president. But grassroots Democrats are less pro-Israel than rank-and-file Republicans, according to polling, a shift since 1988.
Gallup found Republicans “nearly unanimously” support Israel, sympathizing with the Jewish state over the Palestinians by a margin of 80 percent to 7 percent. Only 48 percent of Democrats said the same, a drop of 10 points in one year, though 60 percent still have a favorable view of Israel.
White evangelicals — a crucial Republican voting bloc — are more than twice as likely than Jews to say God gave Israel to the Jewish people, lagging only two points behind Orthodox Jews.
By contrast, major Democratic voting blocs like blacks, Hispanics and young people are more likely to favor neutrality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The harder left increasingly identifies more with the Palestinians than the Israelis. Today’s American left is more secular, more skeptical of nationalism, more multicultural (read: less intrinsically sympathetic to Western culture) and more inclined to side with the weaker and poorer side of a conflict.
Even center-left thinkers now openly muse about what they describe as the “conflict between Zionism and liberalism,” with commentators like Ezra Klein writing about Israel’s “racially unequal politics.” Many of these liberals liken Israel to British colonialism at best, South African apartheid at worst.
Meanwhile, Israeli politics is trending rightward. Jewish residents are becoming more religious. Unlike in the United States, young people and immigrants are reinforcing rather than undermining the move to the right.
That’s not to say American discussions of Israel will always fall along predictable partisan or ideological lines. But the American left and the Israeli right are both making demographic gains, and are otherwise headed in opposite directions.
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.