The Democratic Party, quite apart from Chuck Hagel or even President Obama, has an Israel problem. We’ve seen for anumber of yearsthat, although U.S. support for Israel remains high (above 60 percent), this is largely due to overwhelming supportamong Republicans; Democrats’ support for Israel is dramatically lower.
The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked a few questions about Israel. NBC was generous in sharing the cross-tabs on those questions, and the results are bracing. The poll asked if the United States should favor the Israelis, favor the Palestinians or treat both the same. Among Democrats, only 18 percent said favor the Israelis; 52 percent of Republicans picked Israel. The poll also asked for which side the respondent had more sympathy. Only 34 percent of Democrats picked Israel, while 67 percent of Republicans did.
Democrats have spent so much time denying that the president is anti-Israel, and groups such as AIPAC have been so fixated on retaining “access” to the White House and keeping up the pretense that support for Israel is entirely bipartisan that pro-Israel liberals have refused to acknowledge the dramatic downturn in Democratic support for Israel.
We can image several factors are at work. As the Democratic Party has moved to the left, left-wing nostrums (e.g., Israel is the “oppressor”; Israel is at the root of all the Middle East’s problems) have a stronger foothold. In addition, voters tend to take their cues from the party’s leaders, and the president has signaled repeatedly that there should be “daylight” between the United States and Israel. And finally, Israel itself has done a poor job of reaching out to younger, more secular Americans to present itself as a modern and pluralistic society.
Denial is a powerful force but a dangerous one. Here is the challenge (among many) for predominantly liberal American Jewish groups and for pro-Israel Democrats: Stop pretending there is no problem. Unless they want to see evaporation of all support for Israel on the left, they should start educating Democrats about the value of our U.S.-Israel relationship. It is ironic that all the positions which the left holds dear (e.g. women’s rights, gay rights, environmentalism, religious tolerance) are supported by a single country in the Middle East — Israel.
There is no mystery why the Senate’s entire Democratic caucus marched lock-step with the president on Chuck Hagel’s nomination. For Hagel Democrats, there is no political downside for condoning anti-Israel positions and rhetoric. It is perfectly acceptable in the Democratic Party to be dismissive or even hostile to Israel’s interests. With the retirement, defeat or passing of great Democratic champions of Israel (e.g. Ed Koch, Sen. Joe Lieberman, Rep. Howard Berman), the problem will only get worse.
Rather than meekly condone the White House’s rhetoric, actions and nominations for the sake of “access” (heaven forbid they should be dropped from the White House’s Hanukkah party or excluded from the pre-Rosh Hashanah conference call!), liberal Democratic Jewish leaders should start tending to their own flock. They’ve got a daunting task.