One cheer for political polarization: It freed Biden on Israel

One cheer for political polarization: It freed Biden on Israel
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Joe BidenJoe BidenWhite House: Window for finalizing sweeping budget package 'closing' Jayapal says tuition-free community college 'probably won't' be in spending plan Jan. 6 panel votes to hold Bannon in contempt MORE just did what no previous American president has successfully done — he jawboned Israel into a ceasefire with Hamas long before their leaders wanted it. Biden simply and forcefully demanded that Israel move rapidly towards a ceasefire.

The only comparable moment in Israeli-American relations was in 1982, when President Reagan ordered Prime Minister Begin to stop shelling Beirut; one hour later, the guns went silent. But that was weeks into an invasion of Lebanon. The Gaza conflict was one week old, and Israel had many more targets to get.

What changed? What allowed Biden to go further in pressuring Israel than any prior president?

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Polarization. 

Surprised?  

Political polarization is terrible for America, for the most part. It is destroying the country from within, dividing families, friends and institutions. It has almost completely broken Congress.

It even led some Americans to march on their own government on Jan. 6 and attempt an insurrection bolder than anything seen since the Confederacy.

But polarization isn’t all bad. It makes possible things that were never possible before. Like a Democratic president successfully putting public pressure on Israel to stop killing Palestinians.

And the change is in part Israel’s fault. Many prime ministers of Israel have opposed presidents on various policies, but none has ever worked directly with the opposition party the way Netanyahu did in his 2015 address to Congress. Netanyahu badly damaged the bipartisanship that was so central to Israel’s power in Washington. 

It helped Israel become a polarized issue, like almost all other issues in America. That’s what allowed Biden to force Israel into a ceasefire it didn’t want.

The people who are in favor of an unrestrained Israeli assault on Gaza already oppose Biden for the most part. The Christian right and the hard core of Jewish Zionism are against him, and with Trump. A solid majority of Jews vote for Democrats, but the majority of American Jews are uneasy about the emerging apartheid state in greater Israel. They don’t like Netanyahu much, and they really don’t like a lot of the neo-fascist racists that Netanyahu has been normalizing and empowering. 

And American Jews are getting polarized domestically, just like other Americans. Will many be so angry about Gaza in 2021 that they will stand with Trump against Biden? Will they not vote for Democrats in 2024, or not donate money to them? Unlikely.

When Israel had unbreakable friendships on both sides of the aisle in Congress, a president who took on Israel was facing the likelihood of a humiliating vote in Congress against his policies, at the very least.

That wouldn’t happen to Biden today, because of polarization. Biden can pressure Israel more boldly than any previous president could, because polarization erodes norms. That’s terrible when the norm is something like respecting elections. It was polarization that saved Trump from being impeached and indicted for inciting the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Any previous president who tried to violently stop the certification of an election he lost would have become public enemy number one to almost all Americans.

But congressional Republicans were willing to ignore even a violent attack on their own building, to avoid giving the Democrats a victory and angering their own base. 

Over and over, Trump used polarization to do things no other president would have dared to do, from petty graft to subverting our foreign policy to aid his reelection. 

Trump did one good thing, though. He showed that in this new world of polarization he helped create, many of the accepted rules and norms of American politics are simply no longer applicable. 

And that means that Joe Biden can stand up to Israel more than any president since Harry Truman. 

And if Israel evicts Palestinians from their ancestral homes in Jerusalem, radically expands settlements in the West Bank or unilaterally annexes Palestinian land, Biden will have more freedom to force Israel to stop violating international laws.

One cheer for polarization!

Jeremy Mayer is an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.