By Brandon Greife, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Republicans and Democrats have plenty to argue about. From the impact of the healthcare bill to the parameters of financial regulatory reform, there is no shortage of outlets for spirited debate. But I fear that we have stoked the partisan fire beyond our ability to extinguish it. The bipartisan pro-Israel stance might be the first casualty. What has been one of the parties’ greatest areas of agreement is fast becoming another wedge issue in a heated election season.
Not all hope is lost. Unfortunately, watching the news recently you might have felt otherwise. Media coverage was slavishly devoted to covering every angle of the public disagreement between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Obama over a new Jewish housing development in East Jerusalem. Headlines spanned everything from “Obama Criticizes Israel Over Settlement Building” to “Democrats Begin to Criticize Obama on Israel.” What fell by the news-cycle wayside was the bipartisan letter, signed by 333 Congressmen, reaffirming “the unbreakable bond that exists between our country and the State of Israel.”
Being pro-Israel remains a strongly bipartisan position in government. The letter was cosigned by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Republican Whip Eric Cantor, Congressmen who are all too often vocal critics of one another. The recent pro-Israel policy conference sponsored by AIPAC featured Sens. Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham as speakers, two names that are rarely on the same side of any issue. Nevertheless, there are cracks in the nation’s unified stance toward Israel.
Two new Gallup polls suggest that while Congress remains in near unanimous agreement, the American public is becoming increasingly divided on its view of Israel. One poll finds that 85 percent of Republicans and 48 percent of Democrats support Israelis more than Palestinians--a 37 percent partisan gap. A separate Gallup poll finds that while Israel’s favorability ratings remain high (67 percent) in the aggregate, when broken down by party 80 percent of Republicans and 53 percent of Democrats hold a favorable view. Each of these polls represents an alarming change from the traditionally bipartisan norm.
As the political process plays out, elected officials will inevitably begin to reflect voters’ views on the issue. The pace of the change will only be hastened if Israel becomes a partisan voting cue. Beyond the recent political posturing over President Obama’s rebuke, there are reasons to suggest that it will be increasingly used in elections. For instance, a surprising new McLaughlin poll finds that a plurality of Jewish voters would consider voting for someone other than Barack Obama for President. Given that Obama won Jewish voters by an overwhelming 78 percent to 21 percent margin, this represents an incredible coup for Republicans.
The trick for both parties is to not fall into the partisan trap suggested by each of these polls. Republicans must be careful not to create public controversy where none exists solely because they believe it is a winning issue with their own voters and a chance to appeal to traditionally Democratic Jewish voters. Likewise, Democrats would be foolish to waiver from their pro-Israel stance in order to induce concessions from Prime Minister Netanyahu in Palestinian bargaining talks. In an era when peace is at a premium, in the halls of Congress and in the Middle East, both parties would be wise to remember their agreement over Israel.
Israel is not a wedge issue. Israel is a friend in a region where we have few. Israel is an outpost of democracy in a region of instability. Israel is, as President Harry Truman said, the “embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization.” What a great waste it would be if it were simply another voting cue.