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The Democrats’ shift away from Israel

Rep. Ilhan Omar's (D-Minn.) remarks on Israel have pushed Democrats into two camps, setting up a harsh divide for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to navigate. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) recent comments criticizing U.S. support for Israel have caused a rift in the Democratic Party — and coincided with some pressure on Democratic presidential candidates to skip this week’s conference of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

But has the Democratic Party really shifted on this issue? A new poll provides new evidence it has.

The Quinnipiac University poll shows Democrats are newly split on their sympathies between the Israelis and the Palestinians. While 27 percent of Democrats said they sympathized more with the Israelis, 26 percent sided more with the Palestinians.

Back in January 2017, Democrats were much more tilted toward the Israelis, 42 percent to 23 percent. In a 2011 Quinnipiac poll, the numbers were a little closer, but the party as a whole still favored the Israelis, 36 to 21.

It’s not clear that the change is a reaction to the Omar controversy, however. The Pew Research Center, which has asked a similar question, has also shown a shift away from Israel — but one that started a few years ago.

Gallup, however, had shown Democratic support for the Israelis over the Palestinians as recently as early February — before Omar’s most recent controversial comments sparked a national dialogue. Before that, 43 percent of Democrats sympathized more with the Israelis and 30 percent sympathized more with the Palestinians. It was a similar 47 to 29 in 2017.

We’ll have to see if other polls bear out this shift, but it’s notable that the unprecedented Democratic split in Quinnipiac’s regular polling of this question matches the shift we’ve seen in Pew polling. And the fact that we see presidential candidates such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) actively boycotting AIPAC is also significant and suggests Democrats see some currency in distancing themselves from pro-Israel interests.

In the first few weeks of her time in Congress, Omar apologized twice for what she said were unwitting uses of anti-Semitic tropes to criticize U.S. support for Israel. But when she used what many felt to be a third one — suggesting some supporters of Israel had an “allegiance to a foreign country” — she declined to apologize. When Democratic leaders moved to rebuke her through a vote condemning anti-Semitism, the liberal base and some Democratic members of Congress balked. Eventually, the resolution was watered down to criticize many different types of hate speech.

Some Democrats have clearly been uncomfortable with Omar’s rhetoric — and have said so publicly. Most recently, both Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) made comments at AIPAC that seemed targeted at the Omar situation. Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish member of Congress, assured the patriotism of supporters of Israel, while Hoyer said people who think supporters of Israel have dual loyalties should “accuse me” of that.

“By the way,” Hoyer added, “there are 62 freshman Democrats. You hear me? Sixty-two, not three.” (The “three” seemed a rather clear reference to Omar and fellow high-profile freshman Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who have also made waves and caused some internal Democratic strife.)

Whatever you think of Omar’s comments, the practical effect of them can be to shift the debate and even expand the range of opinions seen as being within the mainstream — a concept known as the “Overton window.” It’s also possible the defensive reaction of some Democrats could reflect a shift that had already begun.