by Matthew Knee

In a closed door meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz asked Netanyahu to demand a pledge from the Republican Jewish Coalition not to make Israel a campaign issue in 2012. He did not.

To the uninitiated, Wasserman Schultz’s bizarre request seems almost too chutzpadik to be believed, as much blogospheric mocking shows. However, Wasserman Schultz was in a sense parroting AIPAC’s bipartisan party line, albeit in an ironically partisan way. AIPAC works to ensure that Israel-related bills in Congress pass with crushing bipartisan majorities, and that American presidents pursue pro-Israel policies. To do this, they must establish that Israel is not a partisan issue, allowing pro-Israel activists and donors of both parties to use their clout to ensure that elected officials – especially otherwise indifferent ones – remain influenced by pro-Israel supporters.

Ideally, Israel should not be a partisan matter, and AIPAC works hard to prevent it from becoming one – they need to win votes no matter who is in power, and they do, by enormous bipartisan margins. Obama’s backpedaling at AIPAC shows that they still are quite good at this. He might have been dissembling, but the fact that he felt the need to do so says a lot about AIPAC’s power and success.

However, the partisan divide on Israel stems directly from many Democrats becoming less pro-Israel. Wasserman Schultz manages to turn the principle that pro-Israel policies should be bipartisan upside down, using it to provide cover for some Democrats to defect to the anti-Israel side of the fence. If one is to “erase the aisle” on Israel issues, as Wasserman Schultz suggests, one must ensure that the parties are equally supportive of Israel – not simply stop talking about the fact that they are not.

Democrats are not becoming anti-Israel because Republicans are calling them anti-Israel. Republicans claiming to be more pro-Israel won’t make pro-Israel Democrats defensive about anti-Israel positions they do not hold, and considering the high level of Democratic partisanship in the pro-Israel community, Republicans expressing invalid criticisms of Democrats’ Israel views is unlikely to leave Democratic politicians without influential pro-Israel supporters any time soon.

The problem is that these criticisms have merit. Democrats are becoming less supportive of Israel because American liberalism, influenced by Postcolonialism, anti-anti-Islamist sentiment, cultural relativism, and the decline of nationalism (and the attendant affinity for nations like ours), is no longer as compatible with support for Israel as it once was. While 85% of Republicans sympathize more with the Israelis than the Palestinians, only 48% of Democrats do. Last year, when Gallup polled Americans about their views on 20 different countries, the partisan favorability gap on Israel – 27 points – was the highest of any country. I encourage everyone to read Jennifer Rubin’s more detailed rundown of the numbers.

While Democrats may be becoming less pro-Israel in absolute terms, the spectrum itself has shifted to the right. As Palestinian rejectionism has moved Israel’s own positions rightward, far more Democrats than Republicans have suddenly found themselves on the not-pro-Israel side of the shifting divide. This also increases the gap between the very pro-Israel and the go-along-to-get-along types, potentially complicating bipartisan legislation.

If the Democratic Party had no Israel problem, they would respond to Republican challenges by matching or beating their bids. They would take offense at the implication that they are any less pro-Israel and fight to prove their critics wrong. Some are trying. Many Democrats have taken the side of Israel (not to mention American values and commitments) in the recent Obama-Netanyahu dust-up. But as party chair, Wasserman Schultz is stuck slathering lipstick on the Obama’s not-so-kosher Israel policies, and faces the reality that on average, Democrats are simply not as pro-Israel as Republicans. She doesn’t have the hand to match the GOP’s on the issues, so all she can do is bluff them into folding.

Ironically, by rudely forcing a direct confrontation between the RJC and the National Jewish Democratic Council on this issue, Wasserman Schultz likely exacerbated problems of partisanship in the pro-Israel community. Republicans can hardly be expected to ignore their policy differences with the administration, nor abandon Israel as the facts on the ground push it rightward. They especially can’t do these things because the Democrats demand it. I hope that the trend of Democrats turning against Israel is reversed, but in the mean time, pro-Israel Republicans need to continue fighting for what is right and holding the Obama administration responsible for their actions – with or without Democratic support.

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