Israel has long enjoyed bipartisan support in the United States. However, recent statements from U.S. and Palestinian leadership may signal a shift in support of Israel from the left, which has serious implications for advocates on campus.
In his eulogy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process last week, Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, made a series of unsettling (pardon the pun) remarks. Among the most striking were the comments which, in effect, denied any historical connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Predictably, the Jewish-American alphabet soup of organizations decried Abu Mazen’s remarks—and even J Street, which came under fire for blaming President Trump for the outburst, referred to Abbas’ speech as “unacceptable.”
To be sure, the POTUS has done little to build optimism for the two-state solution, angering folks on both sides of the issue with a recent tweet in which he said the negotiations for Jerusalem’s status were “off the table” and suggested that Israel may have had a disadvantage in later negotiations because of it. The tweet came after Trump’s announcement on the status of Jerusalem, which was broadly condemned internationally, though with limited violent response, despite warnings from extremists and expert predictions to the contrary.
Following Abbas’ speech, the US is poised to limit payments to a United Nations group that largely funds Palestinian refugees – another shot fired in the escalating Trump-Abbas feud (in his speech, Abbas reportedly directed a “May your house be destroyed” bracha to POTUS).
The big loser in the Trump-Abbas debacle, however, is neither one of the parties involved. The biggest loser is Israel and the American college students tasked with advocating on her behalf.
The partisan polarization of the Israel issue becomes increasingly apparent when looking at American politics in recent years. Republicans almost universally take hawkish pro-Israel stances (save for far-righters who would rather we not spend money or time on any foreign nations). The left however, has seen its support of Israel drop dramatically. A new Pew study released last week showed support for Israel among Democrats at an all time low — just 27 percent of Democrats supported Israel over the Palestinians, compared with 25 for the reverse. Just last year, a similar Pew study showed 33 percent of Democrats have more sympathy for Israel over the Palestinians. To contrast, Republicans support Israel over Palestinians by 79 percent to 6 percent, where last year, it was 74 percent to 11 percent. This trend is terrifying for supporters of Israel, who know Israel is strongest with broad U.S. backing.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues marching a domestic agenda that is toxic to progressive campus communities — whether ending DACA, environmental protections or threatening to tax the bejesus out of graduate students (though thankfully this provision was dropped from the final “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”). The President continues to butt heads with Democrats on all of these issues, steadily coaxing opposition to the entire palette of Trumpland policies from progressives.
Stoking the flames of feud with the Palestinian Authority’s top brass will only add to a portfolio of “things to oppose Trump for doing” and ease anti-Israel sentiment into the Democratic Party’s mainstream. Israel can only persist with strong support from both major American parties — in short, Israel needs a “two-party solution.”
It’s no secret Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, did not get along with Trump’s predecessor. In his post-election jubilation, Bibi endorsed Trump’s Wall plan and overeagerly celebrated the president’s early first-term visit to Israel. Netanyahu’s government is already not helping itself keep the favor of American Jewry, pursuing policies in 2017 that limit non-Orthodox conversion and maintaining restrictions on egalitarian practice at the Western Wall. On campus, Bibi’s embrace of Trump puts Israel advocates in the undesirable position of supporting the same thing that Trump supports, in an environment where Israel is already a contentious issue among the broader community as well as more and more so within the Jewish community.
Pro-Israel and Jewish students are increasingly seeing themselves pushed out of progressive campus spaces, and openly supporting controversial Trump policies —any Trump policies — are grounds for exile. While Trump has been largely mum on West Bank settlement development, he isn’t currently ground zero for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), but his recent rhetoric has been differently received across the aisle in the U.S. Amplifying this divide is going to make advocacy on campus increasingly difficult, but it seems the Trump administration’s actions will do exactly that.
It is not hard to imagine the long-term consequences of a partisan Israel issue. A U.S. president whose rhetoric sounds more like SJP than Bruins for Israel would be really bad news for the U.S. relationship with a strategic, democratic ally. It is imperative for the sustainability of Israel to keep support for Israel a bipartisan issue — lest American financial or military aid to the Jewish state be dependent on the president’s party.
Of course, support for Israel should be a Democratic Party platform staple — if for no other reason than national security and strategic alliance. As the party of peace, it shouldn’t be hard to see Abbas’ remarks as digging in his heels for prolonged conflict — worthy of widespread condemnation from leaders in the Democratic Party.
Liberal, pro-Israel advocates are often called “PEPs” or “Progressive Except for Palestine.” This name derogatorily implies a departure from the litmus test liberals must pass for acceptance into the fight for other causes like DACA or the Dakota Access Pipeline. With a U.S. administration set on recklessly pursuing a set of stream-of-consciousness policies and a Palestinian leadership essentially on record against the peace process, it is up to Israel’s government to sell to Democratic Jewry and for Democratic Jewry to rightfully advocate for Israel in party circles.