Analysis

The Trump-Netanyahu Axis Pours High-octane Fuel on the Fire Consuming Democrats’ Support for Israel

A new Pew Research poll highlights the scale of the erosion and provides a stark warning about the future

File photo: U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump's address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to seek government approval for naming a new settlement on the Golan Heights after U.S. President Donald Trump. It’s not clear why Netanyahu neglected Jerusalem the Eternal, which surely deserved at least a neighborhood in honor of a president who moved his embassy there, but the precedent is now set. If the ploy to launder Israeli annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank — aka Trump’s “deal of the century” — is successful, Netanyahu is likely to create a whole new city in Judea or Samaria in Trump’s honor. It will be called “Trumpiel”, which, as Jared Kushner will tell his father-in-law, means “Trump is God.”

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Netanyahu’s pandering gestures are pleasing for many Israelis and Trump’s fans in America, but they make Democratic stomachs turn. Most Democrats view Trump as a clear and present danger to America and its democracy — and his supporters as active collaborators. Netanyahu, who turned Israel into Trump’s most enthusiastic cheerleading squad, has cast himself, in the eyes of Democrats, as the devil’s disciple. Sympathy for him and, by extension, for Israel is plummeting.

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The new Pew Research Center poll published on Wednesday highlights the extent of the avalanche. More Democrats view the Israeli government unfavorably than they do the Palestinian leadership. Only a tenth prefer Israelis to Palestinians: a majority expresses sympathy for both. More significantly, perhaps, 53 percent claim that Trump’s policies have been too tilted in favor of the Jewish state: Small wonder that senior Israeli officials expressed concern this week that a Democratic president would act quickly to reverse some of Trump’s actions — and Netanyahu’s achievements — with the main focus on the U.S. abandonment of the nuclear deal with Iran.

The horizon, according to the Pew poll, seems even darker. The younger the respondents — Democrats and Republicans alike — the more likely they are to be critical of Israel. Democrats between the ages of 18 and 49 actually — and astonishingly — view the Palestinian government more favorably than Israel’s. Given that Netanyahu is about to set up a new government that will be even more ethnocentric, theocratic and “Trumpian” than the outgoing one, it is reasonable to assume the American public’s support for Israel is fast approaching a tipping point from which there may be no return.

Pew Research Center poll on Americans' views on Israelis, Palestinians and their respective governments

The poll refutes the efforts of Netanyahu’s camp to shift blame away from their idol and to ascribe the animosity in the Democratic Party to its new and militant radical wing. But with all due respect to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or her Muslim colleagues Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, they are not responsible for the accelerating erosion. That honor rightly belongs with history, politics and, first and foremost, Netanyahu himself.

Netanyahu, as Billy Joel might say, didn’t start the fire. But he doused it with high-octane gasoline that is turning it into an inferno. Israel has never had a prime minister so closely identified with one side of the U.S. political map. The distancing of Democrats from a right-wing Israel may have been inevitable even without him, but Netanyahu’s attitudes and statements have changed a slow and gradual trend into a virtual free fall, en route to a fatal crash.

The writing was etched clearly on the wall this week, after presidential candidates Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Bernie Sanders used the adjective “racist” to describe Netanyahu and his government. The hitherto verboten invective was not only received enthusiastically by supporters, but the Democratic leadership mostly failed to react with once-expected outrage and kept silent instead.

A completion of the total role-reversal between Democrats and Republicans is now within sight. Historically, Democrats have served as the anchor of American support for Israel, while Republicans, until Richard Nixon if not Ronald Reagan, were perceived as beholden to Arab oil and touched by anti-Semitism. Democrats supported Zionism as an anti-colonialist movement and, after the Holocaust, as a bastion of democracy and social justice. In the wake of the Six-Day War, the radicalization sparked by protests against the war in Vietnam threatened to intersect with the Israeli occupation and its military control over millions of Palestinians. But the flame was eventually doused by a Democratic Party eager to return to the electable center.

Jimmy Carter, who would have never won elections were it not for Watergate and his bumbling rival, Gerald Ford, was an exception to the rule. The more centrist Bill Clinton loved Israel with all his heart, but his tenure nonetheless marked a distinct line in the sand: He admired and even loved Yitzhak Rabin, but was far cooler and distinctly disdainful toward his successor, Netanyahu.

Democratic support for Israel continued to be strong in the new millennium, buttressed in a negative way by the September 11 terror attack and the horrific suicide bombings of the second intifada. Barack Obama’s tenure marked the beginning of the fall: As a candidate, he was met by unparalleled venom from the so-called “pro-Israel” Jewish right, and as president he endured unusual hostility and even subversion from the Israeli prime minister. Democrats took note and began to fall away.

To this mix one must add the Jewish factor. Tensions between Netanyahu and Obama escalated in tandem with a widening rift between increasingly nationalist Israel and America’s overwhelmingly liberal Jewish community. The confrontation with Obama, especially after Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech to Congress, upset Democratic Jews; the rupture with Israel over recognition, conversion and prayers at the Western Wall enraged them; and Netanyahu’s intense romance with Trump broke many of them completely. The pro-Israel dam that Jews had built inside the Democratic Party by virtue of their political activism and generous donations began to crack, and is showing signs of disintegration. The road was thus cleared for Democratic hopefuls such as Sanders and O’Rourke to speak of Israel in the harsh terms hitherto limited to the European left.

Netanyahu’s new testament with evangelicals added insult to injury. The increasing identification of the Israeli right with messianic Christians, which Jews view as their mortal enemies on issues of church and state, elicited negative gut reactions, compounded by the fury of a lover scorned: Under Netanyahu’s guidance, evangelicals supplanted Jews as Israel’s main lifeline in the White House and Congress.

The overarching impetus for the rift between Democrats and Israel, however, was the intensifying political polarization and the radicalization that it inevitably spawns. The fierce resistance of the American left to George W. Bush and his war in Iraq enabled the election of its first African American president; the hostile reaction to Obama paved the way for a supposedly unelectable loudmouth such as Trump. The mutual animosity between the two main political camps pushes both to extremes, turning their political battle into total war, one in which nuances are destroyed and attitudes are determined by one binary equation: With us or against us.

Many Democrats now view Netanyahu as the commander of the foreign legion that is, by virtue of its alliance with Trump, their enemy. The fallout from Netanyahu’s statements and behavior, from the nation-state law to his courtship of Meir Kahane’s racist disciples, is compounded by his guilt by association with the nationalism, white supremacism and hatred of the other ascribed to Trump. The old guard of the Democratic Party, which is still influenced by the Holocaust and Israel’s creation, is trying to stem the erosion. But their ability to rebuff the rising wave of animosity to Israel is limited: Like all politicians, their careers depend on maintaining the loyalty of their electoral base, especially its enthusiastic activists, who have only viewed Israel through the prism of the Trump-Netanyahu axis, which they naturally abhor.

The hour of decision is fast approaching. Even if the 2020 Democratic candidate will be an Israelsupporter such as Joe Biden or the up-and-coming South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, he — or she — will necessarily take a radically different approach from Trump. Among other things, they will seek retribution for Trump’s efforts to reverse or neuter policies identified with Obama, from the Affordable Care Act to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. This is the risk that Netanyahu took, despite being warned: His achievements, admired as they are by most Israelis, are viewed by Democrats as the rotten fruits of Trump’s time in the White House.

The election of a Democrat in 2020 is thus emerging as a direct threat to Netanyahu, especially if the new president subscribes to Sanders’ attitudes rather than Biden’s. In addition to the enormous debt he owes Trump for his grand gestures, from Jerusalem to the Golan, as well as his blatant intervention on his behalf in the recent Israeli election, Netanyahu will feel compelled to intervene on behalf of his benefactor as a matter of pure survival. Netanyahu and his ministers will sing Trump’s praises and warn against the changes contemplated by his challenger who, sooner rather than later, will also be dubbed an anti-Semite.

Which is how Netanyahu’s gamble on Trump will lead him to go all in, winner-take-all or bust. The rift with Democrats will widen to an unbridgeable rupture. If Trump wins, the danger will be delayed for at least four years. But if Netanyahu’s hopes are dashed and a Democrat goes to the White House, the earthly delights of Trumpland will be gone forever, replaced by what Netanyahu will inevitably describe as apocalypse now.

One thing is for sure: Netanyahu will reject accusations that he was the main catalyst for the downfall. He will accuse his detractors of defeatism and disloyalty, describe himself as victim and pin the responsibility on his usual rogues gallery of the media, the left, the New Israel Fund, George Soros, the Holocaust and whatnot.

Based on recent experience, one can safely assume that most of the Israeli public will believe him.