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How the embassy move widens the partisan divide over Israel

How the embassy move widens the partisan divide over Israel
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It was fitting that evangelical pastors John Hagee and Robert Jeffress participated in the ceremony marking the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem. Both men are known for their strong support of Israel and their closeness to the Republican Party establishment. At the same time, Jeffress has been criticized for his bigoted views of non-evangelicals and for claiming that Islam, Judaism, Mormonism and Hinduism “lead people to an eternity of separation from God in Hell.”

It’s fitting because unlike in previous years, when vocal support for Israel was a bipartisan affair, the vast majority of the American political figures who were part of the embassy’s opening ceremony were Republican. Tellingly, not a single Democratic member of Congress attended. Notwithstanding Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture How to fast-track climate action? EPA cutting super pollutant HFCs MORE’s congratulatory message to President TrumpDonald TrumpDemocrats, activists blast reported Trump DOJ effort to get journalists' phone records Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report MORE about the embassy move, Democrats have been remarkably quiet on this matter.

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Domestically, the embassy move was aimed at placating Trump’s increasingly conservative base. It’s a base that remains staunchly pro-Israel but continues to alienate Americans around the country.

 

Moreover, with the Trump administration essentially giving a green light to Israel’s current expansionist policies, the prospect of a two-state solution is all but over. This combination of domestic realignments and fundamental shifts in the region is going to accelerate the growing divide between Democrats and Republicans over the Israel-Palestine issue. 

As Israel celebrates the U.S. Embassy moving to Jerusalem amidst the killings of more than 60 Palestinians at the Gaza border, American support for Israel is quickly becoming an openly partisan issue.

In America, popular support for Israel appears to be rising among Republicans, but is falling rapidly among Democrats. That decline is also found among younger American Jews, and even among younger American evangelicals.

Progressive grassroots activists deserve a lot of credit for this shift. They have been successfully raising awareness about the Palestinians’ struggle for self-determination and openly questioning Washington’s conventional wisdom on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Starting in 2014, when activists vocally criticized Democrats’ support for Israel during its war on Gaza, the left wing of the Democratic Party has moved steadily towards a position of open support for Palestinian rights and international law.

There is still plenty of establishment support for Israel on both sides of the aisle. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMcConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' Hillary Clinton: There must be a 'global reckoning' with disinformation Pelosi's archbishop calls for Communion to be withheld from public figures supporting abortion rights MORE’s strong pro-Israel positions were reflected in the 2016 DNC platform, and the 2017 AIPAC Policy Conference featured 32 members of Congress, over half of whom were Democrats. 

But things are changing quickly. Last November, Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap Lawmakers react to guilty verdict in Chauvin murder trial: 'Our work is far from done' Senate Democrats call on Biden to restore oversight of semiautomatic and sniper rifle exports MORE (D-Calif.) and nine other Democratic caucus senators wrote a strongly worded letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him not to destroy two Palestinian villages in the West Bank slated for demolition. Co-signers included Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGOP is consumed by Trump conspiracy theories Manchin on collision course with Warren, Sanders Sanders on Cheney drama: GOP is an 'anti-democratic cult' MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDebate over ICBMs: Will 'defund our defenses' be next? Manchin on collision course with Warren, Sanders Hillicon Valley: Broadband companies funded fake net neutrality comments, investigation finds | Twitter rolls out tip feature | Google to adopt 'hybrid work week' MORE (D-Mass.), both of whom are widely hailed as progressive leaders and discussed as possible 2020 presidential contenders. That same month Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumTop general: Defense officials nearing plan for Space National Guard Republican, Democratic lawmakers urge fully funding US assistance to Israel Progressive lawmaker to introduce bill seeking more oversight of Israel assistance MORE (D-Minn.) introduced bill introduced calling for an end to the Israeli detention of Palestinian children. And just two weeks ago Sanders released a Facebook video explaining the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. 

This partisan rift over Israel has been years in the making. Even though the Obama administration increased U.S. military aid to Israel, President Obama’s criticisms of Israeli settlement activity earned him the ire of Netanyahu and the U.S. Republican establishment.

In response, Netanyahu sided openly with Republican nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe American Rescue Plan was a step toward universal basic income Cheney drama exposes GOP's Trump rifts The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Florida's restrictive voting bill signed into law MORE in the 2012 presidential elections. In 2015, Republican leaders invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in order to undermine Obama’s efforts to reach a deal on Iran’s nuclear program.

By December 2016 Obama administration officials had grown frustrated with Netanyahu’s ongoing intransigence on the settlement issue. As a result, the U.S. abstained from — rather than vetoed — a U.N. Security Council Resolution criticizing Israel’s settlement policy.

This unprecedented move came as the Trump administration was aligning with pro-settlement hawks. Trump’s Ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman, has claimed that settlements are “part of Israel,” while Trump’s son-in-law, Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerNew Kushner group aims to promote relations between Arab states, Israel Republicans request documents on Kerry's security clearance process Iran moves closer to a diplomatic breakthrough that may upset Israel MORE, co-directed his family foundation as it donated $58,000 to Israeli settlements.

This may explain why Kushner directed former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn to lobby Russian diplomats (and apparently diplomats from several other countries) to either delay or veto the December 2016 Security Council vote, undermining the Obama administration’s formal position. 

Since coming into office, Trump has sided more openly with Israel on a number of occasions. Most recently, he announced the U.S. was withdrawing from the Iran deal and seeking to reimpose sanctions on Iran. Trump’s move was welcomed by Netanyahu, but was met with criticism from the Democratic leadership and from European allies.

This shift in U.S. policy towards a more open embrace of Israel’s right wing has important consequences for the region. Last year, members of the Israeli Likud party introduced a “Greater Jerusalem Bill,” which sought to annex a settlement cluster between Jerusalem and Hebron, thereby expanding Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries.

Doing so would bisect the West Bank into northern and southern halves, precluding the establishment of a contiguous, viable Palestinian state in the West Bank. The bill was tabled indefinitely last October amid heavy U.S. pressure, but that pressure seems to have dissipated now. It’s likely that we’ll see a renewed effort to push the bill through, ending any hopes for a two-state solution. 

With the prospect of a peace deal based on a two-state solution pretty much gone, perhaps we can start talking about alternative solutions that will lead to a just and lasting peace for all sides.

Maha Nassar is an assistant professor in the School of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. She is the author of “Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World” (Stanford University Press, 2017).