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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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerFive takeaways from the final Tennessee Senate debate Schumer rips Trump 'Medicare for all' op-ed as 'smears and sabotage' GOP senator suspects Schumer of being behind release of Ford letter MORE’s congratulatory message to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: 'I don't trust everybody in the White House' JPMorgan CEO withdraws from Saudi conference Trump defends family separations at border 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 ClintonHillary Clinton on if Bill should’ve resigned over Lewinsky scandal: ‘Absolutely not’ Electoral battle for Hispanics intensifies in Florida Trump adds campaign stops for Senate candidates in Montana, Arizona, Nevada 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 FeinsteinTop Judiciary Dems call for unredacted 'zero tolerance' memo MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace: I told Jeb Bush 'he should have punched' Trump 'in the face' Kavanaugh tensions linger after bitter fight 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 SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSenators pledge action on Saudi journalist’s disappearance Senators concerned as Trump official disputes UN climate change warning Jake Tapper hits Trump over 'Medicare for all' op-ed: ‘It’s only an hourlong show, we can’t get into every lie’ MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden leads crowded field of Dems in potential 2020 matchup: poll Trump attacks Democrat in Ohio governor's race Warren responds to 'arrogant woman' insult: 'Was I tough on John Kelly? ... You bet I was' 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 McCollumHouse completes first half of 2019 spending bills House lawmakers vote to give modest budget cuts to EPA, Interior How the embassy move widens the partisan divide over Israel 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 RomneyRomney defends Trump’s policies as ‘effective,' disputes he led 'never Trump' movement Trump adds campaign stops for Senate candidates in Montana, Arizona, Nevada How America’s urban-rural divide is changing the Democratic Party 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 KushnerFive things to watch for in deteriorating US-Saudi relations NYT: Kushner paid almost nothing in taxes thanks to business tax break Trump to call Saudi king about missing journalist 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).