It’s the Republicans, not the Democrats, who are radical on Israel

It’s the Republicans, not the Democrats, who are radical on Israel

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The buildup to Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s Wednesday speech before Congress has been suffused with partisan bickering in Washington. Over the weekend, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) triggered backlash after making provocative comments on Israel at a liberal conference in Chicago. A crowd of pro-Palestinian protesters had interrupted a session and Jayapal, seeking to defuse the situation, explained to the activists that she understood their cause and concerns.

“As somebody who’s been in the streets and participated in a lot of demonstrations, I want you to know that we have been fighting to make it clear that Israel is a racist state, that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination and autonomy, that the dream of a two-state solution is slipping away from us, that it does not even feel possible,” Jayapal said.

Whatever the impact of that intervention in the room, Jayapal’s invocation of Israel as “a racist state” exploded over into a multiday national news cycle. Republicans and moderate Democrats condemned her rhetoric, with some suggesting that her remarks were antisemitic as they implied a rejection of Zionism and, therefore, Israel’s right to exist.

In an anguished statement Monday, Jayapal clarified what she said, insisting that she did not think the “idea” of the Israeli nation is racist, but that the policies perpetuated by its current government certainly were. The view that the Israeli state is racist is an assessment arguably supported by the world’s two most prominent human rights organizations — Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which both now define the status quo of Israeli rule over the Palestinians in the occupied territories, as well as discriminatory policies against Palestinian citizens of Israel, as akin to apartheid.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “extreme right-wing government has engaged in discriminatory and outright racist policies,” Jayapal said, gesturing to the prevalence of far-right factions in Netanyahu’s coalition that were not so long ago considered beyond the pale of Israeli politics. “There are extreme racists driving that policy within the leadership of the current government,” she added.

Nevertheless, Jayapal found herself on the backfoot, with a cavalcade of denunciations aimed at her and the handful of liberal lawmakers who spoke up in her defense. On Tuesday, Republicans in the House forced a vote on a pro-Israel resolution that affirmed the United States’ staunch support for the country and declared that it “is not a racist or apartheid state.” The goal of the measure — which was approved in a 412-9-1 vote — was to create fissures within the Democrats and further raise the political costs of criticizing the Israeli government.

The irony is that Jayapal, who supports a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians and opposes the expansion of Israeli settlements, represents what’s becoming a more mainstream position, certainly among Democratic voters. A Gallup poll this year found that Democrats are more sympathetic to Palestinians — millions of whom live under military occupation and without the same political rights as their neighbors — than Israelis by an 11-point margin. U.S. millennials, as a whole, polled marginally more sympathetic to the Palestinians.

A new poll carried out by researchers at the University of Maryland along with Ipsos found that, in the absence of a two-state solution, three-quarters of Americans — including 80 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans — would choose a democratic Israel that’s no longer Jewish over a Jewish state that does not confer full citizenship and equality to many non-Jews under its authority. Polling also found that a majority of Jewish Americans supported conditioning aid to Israel in certain circumstances.

But Republican lawmakers in Washington have seemingly yoked their agenda to the far-right Israeli settler movement and influential right-wing pro-Israel groups in the United States. They may be explicit in their unconditional and full-throated support for Israel, but what’s implicit in their rhetoric is far more telling. Even as mass protests against Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul Israel’s judiciary once again rocked the streets of Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, no prominent Republican politician has expressed concrete support for Israeli civil society or even concern about Netanyahu’s attempts to use his razor-thin margin in power to erode a major element of Israeli democracy. (A group of senators only voiced their worry in terms of whether the unrest and divisions would undermine Israel’s security posture.)

When it comes to the Palestinians, the GOP mainstream has long soured on the two-state solution and can’t countenance any talk of rights for millions of Palestinians living under military occupation because they aren’t even willing to recognize the fact of the occupation. A Republican-drafted House resolution earlier this year congratulating Israel on its 75th anniversary of independence stripped out language supporting the two-state solution, in a move that bemused their Democratic counterparts. Republican senators last week hyperbolically described a Biden administration to scrap U.S. funding for certain research projects in Israeli settlements — widely considered illegal under international law — as antisemitic.

Netanyahu’s Cabinet, meanwhile, is dominated by a clutch of extremist Israeli politicians who reject Palestinian statehood and advocate a Jewish supremacist project of settlement and annexation in the West Bank — actions that successive U.S. administrations have opposed in theory, if not always in deed.

At a Christian Zionist forum this week held outside Washington, a stream of Republican presidential hopefuls all stressed their embrace of maximalist vision of Israel. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis openly rejected the idea of a two-state solution along Israel’s pre-1967 borders, including a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. He said he didn’t think the West Bank was even “occupied.” In a speech earlier this year in Jerusalem, DeSantis stopped short of even recognizing the existence of the Palestinian people.

Other GOP contenders, including former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and former vice president Mike Pence, also flaunted their pro-Israel bona fides to an audience of U.S. evangelicals. The group, Christians United for Israel, is founded by Texas megachurch pastor John Hagee and sees in Jewish hegemony over the Holy Land a future road map for the coming of a Christian messiah. In an illustration of how far the Republicans have shifted in their approach, the late senator John McCain was compelled to reject Hagee’s endorsement in 2008 after it emerged the pastor had once said that God had sent Adolf Hitler to help Jews return to their biblical homeland. Now, no serious Republican contender wants to run without his backing.

The radical GOP status quo was entrenched under former president Donald Trump, who doled out political concessions to Netanyahu like candy and put forward a vision for Middle East peace that explicitly denied Palestinians meaningful sovereignty or statehood. Trump courted right-wing Jewish American donors and appointed a pro-settlement ambassador to Israel, but acknowledged that the political motivation for his efforts came less from American Jews, who still vote heavily Democratic, than the GOP’s evangelical base.

“No President has done more for Israel than I have,” Trump posted on social media last year. “Somewhat surprisingly, however, our wonderful Evangelicals are far more appreciative of this than the people of the Jewish faith, especially those living in the U.S.”

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