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Opinion Republicans are far more radical than Democrats on Israel

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) during a news conference last week on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Last week’s Gaza war highlighted the growing partisan split over Israel. But, contrary to the conventional wisdom, which claims that President Biden and his party have turned against the Jewish state, it’s Republicans who have shifted far more than Democrats.

It’s true that Democratic support for Israel is declining, particularly among younger voters. A new YouGovAmerica poll finds that 23 percent of Democrats sympathize with the Palestinians compared to only 5 percent of Republicans. Among Democrats in Congress, there are a few outspoken critics of Israel, such as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). A Palestinian American, Tlaib supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which singles out Israel for opprobrium that is not directed against far worse human-rights violators such as China and Iran.

But hostility toward Israel remains a minority position within Democratic ranks. In 2019, only 16 House Democrats voted against condemning the BDS movement. Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (Ga.) is firmly in the Democratic mainstream when he writes: “I strongly oppose the BDS movement and its anti-Semitic underpinnings, including its supporters’ refusal to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.”

Most Democrats are where President Biden is on the issue. As Biden said on Thursday, “I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy.” That is in line with the historical Democratic position. While President Harry S. Truman recognized Israel’s independence and presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson deepened the U.S.-Israel alliance, presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton made breakthroughs for peace by pressuring both sides for concessions.

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Republicans have changed positions far more than Democrats. They have become pro-Israel zealots who opposed any attempt to bring the recent bloodletting to an end. Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, criticized Biden for “calling for Israel to de-escalate while the terrorist group Hamas is still firing rockets at Israeli citizens.” (Of course, Biden was calling for Hamas to stop firing rockets, too.) Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) accused Biden of “caving to the Hamas sympathizers within his party” by eventually demanding a cease-fire. Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) claimed that “every one of those [Hamas] rockets might as well have Joe Biden’s name written on the side of it.”

None of these Republicans showed the slightest concern for the 248 Palestinians (including at least 65 children) killed in the Gaza Strip — or any awareness that the current flare-up was triggered by Israeli threats to evict Palestinian families in East Jerusalem.

The GOP hasn’t always been so relentlessly one-sided. President Dwight D. Eisenhower forced Israeli troops to evacuate the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip during the 1956 Suez Crisis. President Richard M. Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger likewise forced Israel to give up conquered Arab territory after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. President Gerald Ford announced a short-lived “reassessment” of U.S. policy toward Israel. President Ronald Reagan criticized Israel for bombing a nuclear reactor in Iraq and for attacking Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon War. President George H.W. Bush browbeat Israel into joining the 1991 Madrid peace conference with Arab leaders and demanded that it stop settlements in occupied territories. Secretary of State James Baker III famously told Israel “when you’re serious about peace, call us,” and even provided the White House phone number. President George W. Bush pressured Israel to end its 2006 offensive in Lebanon with civilian losses mounting and became the first president to endorse a Palestinian state.

All of these Republican presidents and diplomats were pro-Israel, but they also sought to preserve some balance. They understood that Israelis were not 100 percent right and Palestinians 100 percent wrong.

All that changed with Donald Trump’s presidency. He moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the conquered Golan Heights, cut off aid to the Palestinians, and even unveiled a peace plan with no Palestinian input.

This recklessly one-sided approach was the culmination of a long-term shift in the GOP driven by White evangelicals who are more hawkish on Israel than American Jews. As FiveThirtyEight noted, while a majority of U.S. Jews believe that Israel can coexist with an independent Palestine, only 23 percent of evangelicals in a 2017 poll said that Israel should agree to the creation of a Palestinian state. (In a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 42 percent of U.S. Jews said Trump was too pro-Israel compared to just 15 percent of evangelicals.) Evangelicals believe that God gave the Holy Land to Israel — and that’s that.

Many Republicans now agree with some ultraliberal Democrats in rejecting a two-state solution, albeit for different reasons. Many conservatives think that Israel can occupy the Palestinian territories indefinitely, while some progressives think that Israelis and Palestinians should merge into a single state — which would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish homeland. Both views are extreme and not conducive to peace. A two-state solution remains the only way out of the current quagmire.

Democrats understand that. Republicans do not. Indeed, the 2016 GOP platform omitted any endorsement of the two-state solution. When it comes to Israel — as with every other issue — the GOP has gone much further to the right than the Democrats to the left. The recent conflict simply confirms the shift.

Read more:

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Netanyahu has more than the left to worry about

Fareed Zakaria: The only way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem

Jason Rezaian: What happens when allies like Israel don’t respect the free press?

Jennifer Rubin: How the Hamas-Israel conflict can come to an end

David Ignatius: Israel has no coherent strategy for the Palestinians. The U.S. should push for a reset.