The Democratic Party, who once seemed to be staunchly opposed to turning America’s friendship with Israel into a partisan issue, have recently become more silent in speaking out against President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy. Often we have heard prominent party members such as Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz and New York Senator Chuck Schumer rally against the politicization of America’s friendship with Israel. On the surface it appears that U.S. politicians on both ends of the political spectrum value the importance of maintaining America’s strategic friendship with the only democracy in the Middle East. However, Democrats in general, with few exceptions, are appearing to be more sheepish in contrast to their right-wing counterparts.
While support of Israel from the Democrats has generally trailed that of the GOP for several years, the gap has grown exponentially with the most recent turn of events. In the past, Washington and Jerusalem have had their differences of opinion, although it was never enough to drive a wedge through their special relationship. This is because the partnership between the two countries is bonded by multiple similarities; the sharing of Western values, including equality regardless of race, gender and sexual preference, the contributions it brings to world in technological advancements, and in its ongoing fight against global terrorism and extremism. However, since entering office, Obama’s approach toward Israel and the Mid-East at large has moved in a radically different direction than that of his predecessors, almost to the point of marginalizing its smaller ally. This approach has alienated and silenced many of his party’s supporters. Democrats, who are hesitant to oppose their colleague in the White House, have in turn created a power vacuum which the GOP has readily grabbed, while calling the president out on many instances.
In 2009, for example, when the President made his first tour of the Middle East and spoke in Cairo about the importance of reaching out to the Arab World and fostering stronger ties, he did not add Israel to his itinerary. Following up, in 2011, during the so-called Arab Spring, the President’s response appeared to be passive, to the point of keeping daylight between himself and the imminent unraveling of order in the Middle East. He even went as far as embracing the newly elected President Muhammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. In doing so, many felt that Obama had sold out long time loyalist and ally President Hosni Mubarak, and allowed chaos to ensue in both Egypt and neighboring Libya. Furthermore, critics pointed out that Obama ignored the Brotherhood’s ties with Hamas, also an extremist organization dedicated to the destruction of Israel. At the same time, Obama has kept his relationship with the Israeli leadership more distant, in contrast to his relationship with the new and controversial Egyptian president. Although Morsi’s inept government was replaced the following year by a secular party, who in turn respected the rights of minorities and women, Obama failed to show the same receptiveness as to his predecessor.
Most recently, the president has been warming towards Iran. He is trying to negotiate an agreement in order to lift sanctions, despite Prime Minister Netanyahu’s protests based on understandable reasons. A nuclear armed Iran would not only prove to be an existential threat against the state of Israel, but more dangerously, it could spur an arms race in the already unstable Middle East. Still, despite the strong ties between the the U.S. and Israel, a large number of Democrats have shied away and even outright boycotted Netanyahu’s most recent appearance before Congress. Many supporters, however, are questioning this silence by the Democrats, a group that has traditionally been more supportive in the past.
One change may be due the media’s reporting of the current situation in the Middle East. Recently, much of the media, which tends to be more supportive of the Democratic party, has shifted further to the left, supporting movements such as BDS, which calls for the boycott, divestment and sanctions of companies doing business with Israel. This movement has gained ground among left-wing students and professors who are the most vocal in colleges nationwide. Additionally, some prominent Democrats are turning away from the mainstream Israel lobby group, AIPAC, in favor of J Street, a left-wing group which claims to be pro-Israel, but supports initiatives that are controversial to many mainstream Israel supporters. Perhaps these Democrats feel that by opposing these groups outright, they put their own public support in jeopardy. Another reason for their change may be their fear of validating the agenda of the Republican Party in showing opposition to the President. By staying silent, they hope to form a stronger front against the GOP, which has been progressively gaining ground. A third explanation for the Democrats being silent to speak out against Obama’s Middle East Policy could be the fear of being exiled from their own careers. Critics point out that New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, one of the Democratic Senators to support the Prime Minister’s visit to Congress, came under investigation for corruption only a few days after his speech.
Whether one or all of these reasons hold true, it is imperative for the Democrats to demonstrate to their supporters, as well as themselves, that they are the ones who represent progress and fairness. A starting point for this could be based on Israel, which time and time again has shown its willingness to work with the U.S. When asked to suspend expansion of settlements and in exchange for sit down at the negotiating table with the Palestinian Authority, Israel has done so. In 2000, at Camp David, and in 2001 in Taba, and in 2008 in Annapolis, the Israeli government outlined generous offers that were turned down by Arafat and Abbas twice without receiving a counteroffer. As well, in each of its cross-border wars with Hamas to the South and Hezbollah to the North, when Washington called for a cease fire, Israel abided each time only to have it subsequently broken by the other side. Past American presidents have never called for a freeze on building in Jerusalem. However, when President Obama called on Israel for a ten month freeze on building in already the existing towns in northern Jerusalem, in exchange for sitting down with Abbas without demanding preconditions, Israel complied, only to have Abbas agree to come to the table after the ten month period ended and demanding another freeze.
Democrats must argue that in addition to Israel complying with Washington’s wishes, Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East, in contrast to most of its neighbors, most of which are either Soviet-style dictatorships or monarchies. While minorities in Israel have equal rights and opportunities, and there is freedom or worship, the same rights are absent in most other Arab countries. In fact, Jews are not even allowed to hold residence in countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and are classified as second class non-citizens in most of the other surrounding countries. In addition, Israel is one of the prime exporters of technology in the security and medical industries, instrumental in saving lives.
Most Democrats are aware of the importance of Israel’s friendship with America, but must work towards breaking the silence against Obama’s Middle East policy. They simply cannot talk the talk, they must walk the walk in their professing to be non-partisan and against the politicization of key issues. They must demonstrate to the people who voted them in that their approach to Israel is non-partisan. Many people in the past who voted Democrats into power are now switching political platforms. Until the Democrats demonstrate to their voters that they are the friends of Israel they say they are, they will continue to ground to the GOP, and in the process, lead the country further in the direction of partisanship.