With Democrats now in charge of both the executive and legislative branches, what changes might one expect in U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict?
Personnel appointments so far fit the center-left mold. On the plus side, as analyst Steven Rosen observes, this means that none of the team brings a "defined left agenda of dangerous delusions – indeed, many of them are sensible and intelligent, resistant if not immune to the nonsense that blinds the majority of academicians." Especially when recalling Barack Obama's earlier associations (Ali Abunimah, Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said) and the potential alternate "dream teams", this comes as a relief.
On the minus side, Rosen notes, the prospective staffers "are moderate and centrist to a fault, with no one to sound the alarm about the extraordinary dangers we face, to propose a response beyond the usual."
Looking at the larger picture, beyond personnel, one finds a similar mixed picture. Note the pro-Israel resolution Congress passed earlier this month "recognizing Israel's right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza, reaffirming the United States strong support for Israel, and supporting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process." It passed the Senate unanimously and the House by 390-5, with 22 members registering "present." Of those 22, 21 were Democrats; and the 22nd was Ron Paul, a Republican in name only.
This vote implies two points: First, the strong, bipartisan pro-Israel attitude of Americans has weathered the Gaza conflict. Secondly, persons cool or hostile to Israel overwhelmingly find their niche in the Democratic Party.
Polls over the past decade consistently substantiate that Americans strongly back Israel, but Democrats less so than Republicans. Already in 2000, I showed that "several times more members of the Republican Party are friendly to Israel than are Democrats, and their leaderships reflect this disparity." In recent years, poll after poll confirmed this pattern, even during the Hezbollah and Hamas wars. To cite a few:
March 2006, Gallup: "are your sympathies more with the Israelis or more with the Palestinians?" Reply: 72 percent of Republicans and 47 percent Democrats sympathize more with Israelis. (Difference: 25 percentage points.)
July 2006, NBC/WSJ: "are your sympathies more with Israel or with the Arab nations?" Reply: 81 percent Republicans and 43 percent Democrats sympathize more with Israel. (Difference: 38 percentage points.)
August 2006, LAT/Bloomberg: Do you agree that "The United States should continue to align itself with Israel"? Reply: 64 percent Republicans and 39 percent Democrats agree. (Difference: 25 percentage points.)
March 2008, Gallup poll: 84 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Democrats look at Israel favorably. (Difference: 20 percentage points)
December 2008. Rasmussen Reports: 75 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats say Israel is an ally of the United States. (Difference: 20 percentage points.)
Republican support for Israel is persistently larger, ranging from 20 to 38 percentage points more than the Democrats and averaging 26 percentage points. It was not always thus. Indeed, Democrats and Republicans have dramatically changed places in their attitudes toward Israel over sixty years and three eras.
In the first era, 1948-70, Democrats like Harry Truman and John Kennedy showed warmth to the Jewish state while Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower were cool. In the second, 1970-91, Republicans like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan came to appreciate Israel as a strong ally; as I concluded in 1985, this meant that "Liberals and conservatives support Israel versus the Arabs in similar proportions." With the end of the Cold War in 1991, however, a third era began, in which Democrats focused on the Palestinian cause and cooled to Israel, while Republicans further warmed to Israel.
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition rightly notes that "Democrats are increasingly turning their backs on Israel." That trend anticipates a likely tension over the next four years, whether or not to adopt a more "European" approach to Israel.
Tensions already exist. On the one hand, the Obama team has been uncritical of Israel's war against Hamas, while stating that it will not deal with Hamas, that Israel is the key Middle East ally, and that U.S. policy will take Israel's security interests into account. On the other hand, it has shown a willingness to associate with Hamas, plus displays tendencies to a more "even-handed" approach, to push negotiations harder, and to divide Jerusalem.
In short, policy toward the Jewish state is in play.