1. The Democratic Party is changing
There’s nothing new about claims that the Democratic Party Joe Biden inherited is nowhere near the one he joined five decades ago. It also comes as no surprise that Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tend to voice views that are way left of center and far from Biden, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi’s ideas of what it means to be a Democrat. And it should not come as a great shock that many of these political fissures become acutely visible when the debate turns to Israel.
But Jerry Nadler? Dick Durbin? AIPAC favorites Robert Menendez and Gregory Meeks?
Since when are mainstream Dems so willing to challenge the policy of a Democratic administration on Israel?
This is surprising, even mildly shocking.
It’s not about progressive circles questioning America’s unconditional support for Israel, nor is it about the far-left margins of the party that reject the mere idea of supporting Israel. It is about centrist Democrats willing to break rank and express views that—while still supportive of Israel—doubt Israel’s goals and question the tactics in the ongoing Gaza conflict.
The violent outbreak, the worst since 2014, caught Democrats unprepared.
For Biden and his administration, who have made a conscious decision to move the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a back burner, the outbreak served as a stark reminder that they cannot wish the problem away.
Congressional Democrats had also hoped they would avoid this hot-button topic for a while. And while progressives had been making small gains in mainstreaming their call to condition aid to Israel on taking steps toward peace, they had not turned this issue into their rallying cry.
When the rockets and missiles began flying across the border, Biden and his foreign policy team moved into their standard operating procedure formulated during decades of Middle East flare-ups: First, take a step back, then express unwavering support for Israel and concern over the loss of innocent civilians’ lives, followed by some work behind the scenes with regional mediators—usually Qatar and Egypt—and then, if and when then the situation deteriorates, make a public call for a ceasefire, backed by private, high-level phone conversations with Israeli leaders.
But congressional Democrats came to this round of the conflict with a different playbook.
Frustrated at seeing no vision for resolving the conflict, pressed by their own party’s left flank and angry at Netanyahu for the way he had been treating them, Democrats chose a subtly different tone than usual.
Some Jewish House members, all known for their strong support for Israel, issued a letter urging Biden to push for an immediate ceasefire, even though Israel had clearly stated it was not interested in holding its fire. Senators who’ve always been considered safe pro-Israel votes, including Democrats Menendez and Chris Coons, issued statements speaking out against Israel’s actions in East Jerusalem and calling for calm at a time when Israel would not even discuss a possible ceasefire. In the Senate, Jewish freshman Senator Jon Ossoff gathered 27 colleagues—more than half of the Democratic caucus—to sign a letter urging an immediate ceasefire. Not to mention House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Gregory Meeks, who, in a highly unusual move, agreed to delay a huge arms sale to Israel in order to allow lawmakers a chance to review whether it is the right moment for America to provide the Israel Defense Forces with $735 million worth of precision-guided missiles, presumably used against Palestinian targets in Gaza.
These comments and actions, as well as other views expressed in interviews and speeches, are not what Israel is used to hearing from Democrats, especially at a time of such violence.
These cautiously dissenting voices aren’t likely to make much of a change on the ground, but they are being noticed in Jerusalem and could mark the first visible sign of a Democratic realignment over Israel.
2. But the basics remain unchanged
While much has changed, many things stay the same.
Most of the debate Democrats are having is taking place within the confines of the pro-Israel field.
Sure, the united praise for Israeli policy and the wall-to-wall refrain from even the slightest hint of criticism are gone, but by and large, Democrats remain in the pro-Israel camp, which has now become a bit more nuanced than it was before.
Real criticism of Israel is still relegated to the far-left corners of the party, and there are no signs it has made inroads into mainstream Democratic thinking.
Years of tense relations with Netanyahu and a rough four-year stretch in which Donald Trump tried to redefine the meaning of being pro-Israel have left many Democrats more willing to question Israeli actions and perhaps even to flex a muscle or two when it comes to foreign aid or arms deals. But being pro-Israel remains the prevailing sentiment in the party.
It’s also noteworthy that key figures such as Schumer, Pelosi and Senator Ben Cardin have not budged an inch and did not sign on to letters or express views that diverged from the Biden line on Israel.
3. The Biden approach: practical, not ideological
Biden is less prone to try out new tricks.
True to his reputation, the president came to his first Middle East conflict with a mix of skepticism (about America’s ability to resolve this recent turn in a decades-long conflict) and educated concern about the wisdom of applying too much pressure on Israel too early in the game.
In contrast to his two immediate predecessors, Biden is not aiming for a Nobel Peace Prize (Obama won one before he even got a chance to do anything; Trump never stopped complaining about not getting the award, which he believed he truly deserved). Biden, always practical and hardly ever ideological, approached the latest outbreak with one wish: to see it go away without sacrificing too much American political capital.
He has remained largely silent, delegating the work to his subordinates, and when required, he has stuck to standing by Israel, condemning Hamas, rejecting any intervention by the United Nations and issuing generic statements of concern over the loss of life. Nothing said the Biden administration wants no part of this conflict more than the decision to dispatch Hady Amr, a highly-appreciated but in no way high-level deputy assistant secretary of state, to the region. No one in the White House believed this was a case for high-powered American intervention.
It is Biden’s pragmatic approach that has made his policy evolve, slowly and gently, as the crisis has continued with killing and destruction becoming worse by the day. Biden increased his in-person involvement with calls to Netanyahu (three times) and Mahmoud Abbas. He also made gradual adjustments to his rhetoric, adding words of concern over Israeli conduct, and eventually calling, both in his phone conversation with Netanyahu and in public, for a ceasefire.
4. Will Gaza change Biden’s approach?
This first flareup between Israelis and Palestinians in the Biden era could be instructive.
One lesson might be that this is how Biden plans to roll: erring on the side of support for Israel, playing it safe with his words and actions and avoiding any major diplomatic undertakings.
But it could also become a moment of change.
Could the sights of crumbling apartment buildings in Gaza and of Israelis sheltering in fear make Biden rethink his belief that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a lost cause for America? Has the conflict become too explosive for America to leave unattended?
If this is the case, Biden may wish to take the path each of his predecessors in the 21st century has taken and launch an initiative, whether wide or limited in scope, to try to actually solve the conflict.
Will Biden take this route?
With everything else that’s on his plate, and given his clear understanding of the low returns this investment carries, the answer is probably no.
5. Jewish views are changing too. It’s generational
Another victim of Gaza outbreak collateral damage is seen in the Pew Research Center’s new survey of Jewish Americans, which came out last week, only to be overshadowed by the surge of violence in Israel.
Once events in the region cool down, it’s worth looking through the survey and the many eye-opening pieces of reporting and analysis already written about it.
Meanwhile, a quick peek into the views of American Jews on Israel may shed some light on the reasons behind shifting political views regarding Israel’s military operation in Gaza.
Most American Jews view Israel as an important part of their Jewish identity, think the U.S. should support Israel and feel emotionally attached to it. That’s the good news, at least for the pro-Israel community.
But the survey’s findings on Israel put numbers behind a trend that many have been feeling for a long time: All these positive sentiments toward Israel decline based on the age of the Jewish American respondents.In other words, the younger you are, the less likely you’ll be to care about Israel and to justify its actions. For Israel, and for the American pro-Israel community, this is a troubling trend.