For Democrats, the crisis in Israel could be a unifying force

The crisis in Israel offers an opportunity for Democrats to bridge a foreign policy divide that Republicans have exploited for years and to unite their party behind a president facing one of the region’s biggest geopolitical challenges in decades.

In recent years, the Democratic Party’s traditional support for Israel has been tested by a vocal liberal wing, which has called for curbs on US military and financial support. But as the full extent of Hamas’ crimes became clear, those voices were largely confined to the fringes of party politics.

Comments by more liberal members — including Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Cori Bush of Missouri — calling for an “immediate ceasefire and de-escalation” within hours of Hamas’ initial attack on civilians drew widespread condemnation from the party. Even the White House joined in, with Karine Jean-Pierre, President Biden’s press secretary, describing comments calling for a ceasefire as “disgusting” and “disgraceful.”

But that pro-Israel consensus — and Mr. Biden’s ability to rally his party around financial and military support — could be sorely tested as Israel’s counterattack leads to greater Palestinian casualties and more images of Gaza neighborhoods reduced to rubble.

“The key thing for us is not to fall into moral ambiguity,” said Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a Democrat and Jewish military veteran who represents suburban Boston. “We have tough weeks ahead, and Congress will have to steel itself.”

Republicans tried to exploit the cracks in the party. At the Capitol on Tuesday, a Fox News reporter followed Representative Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan, as she pushed the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress to comment on Hamas atrocities. Mrs. Tlaib refused to answer the question as she walked briskly through the halls. The day after the attack, Ms. Tlaib described Israel as an “apartheid government” and called for an end to “unconditional” US aid to the country.

Asked about the moment in an interview with Fox News the next morning, Nikki Haley, a former ambassador to the United Nations who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, said: “I don’t know how they justify 1,200 dead. I don’t know how they justify torture. That is between them and God.”

Former President Donald J. Trump spent years highlighting the comments of Ms. Tlaib and others to try to break down traditionally overwhelming Jewish support for Democratic candidates. In 2019, Mr. Trump even went so far as to call Jews who voted for Democrats “disloyal to Israel” — a comment criticized for echoing the anti-Semitic trope of dual loyalty. And in 2021 American Jewish Committee surveya nonpartisan group that conducts public opinion research on the Jewish community, found that 68 percent of Jewish voters reported voting for Mr. Biden in the 2020 election.

After the attacks on Hamas, Democratic leaders, strategists and donors dismissed the views of lawmakers like Ms. Tlaib as coming from a small, largely powerless faction of their party. They pointed to Mr. Biden’s long record; Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York; and House Democratic leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, who supports Israel. In his remarks on Tuesday, Mr. Biden said that Israel and the United States were stronger and safer when they acted “within the rule of law,” addressing some of the concerns on his left flank.

“This very small group in the Democratic Party is very vocal, but we should not forget that they are still a small minority,” said Haim Saban, an Israeli-American media investor who is one of the party’s biggest donors. “The leadership of the Democratic Party is where it is in our national interest to be, which is to support Israel.”

And yet there are already signs that the broad consensus may be somewhat fragile. During the 2022 midterm elections, divisions over Israel exploded in party primaries, with more hawkish organizations targeting Democratic candidates they felt did not support Israel enough. In Michigan, the American Israel Policy Committee and the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC spent millions to oust Rep. Andy Levin, who is Jewish, largely because he frequently criticized the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians.

Mark Mellman, founder and chairman of the Democratic Majority for Israel, said he was surprised by the unanimity of his party in the days following the brutal attacks.

“You have people who last week would be considered critics of Israel standing up at rallies with the pro-Israel community denouncing Hamas,” Mr. Mellman said. “Even Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez condemns Hamas.”

Even if the elected leaders remain united, key parts of the Democratic coalition have expressed a greater willingness to question the traditional alliance between Israel and the United States. Polls conducted by Gallup in March found that Democratic affinity for the Palestinians rose 11 points in the past year, with more party voters saying they sympathized more with the Palestinians than with the Israelis.

Overall, however, support for Israel remains strong in the United States, with nearly seven in 10 Americans saying they feel very or mostly favorable toward Israel. By contrast, only a quarter of Americans say they feel very or mostly favorable toward the Palestinian Authority.

Still, pro-Palestinian sentiment has roiled college campuses, traditionally a reliable source of Democratic votes in election years. At Harvard, a letter from a student coalition holding “the Israeli regime fully responsible for all violence” sparked a national reaction. At New York University, a law student who accused Israel of “genocide” in a student publication prompted a law firm to withdraw a job offer and the school to issue multiple statements distancing itself from the comments.

“I’m worried about the next generation of policymakers,” said Mr. Auchincloss, a Democratic congressman from suburban Boston. The environment that surrounds students, he said, is one that is “hostile to Zionism and increasingly hostile to Jews.”

Those divisions are likely to become political fodder. In California, where three Democrats are in a tight race to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who died last month, the issue ended an hour-long candidate forum on Sunday.

Representative Barbara Lee said the United States should call for a ceasefire. Representative Katie Porter focused on the impact in the United States, saying, “It’s important to remember, as we stand with Israel, as we fight terror, as we grieve, that we learn the lessons of our own 9/11, which led to Muslim-phobia hatred and civil liberties violations.” rights.”

Representative Adam Schiff, who represents a part of Los Angeles with a significant Jewish population, later criticized his opponents for not expressing strong support for Israel.

“We should remember what happened to us on 9/11,” he said in an interview. “And what Israel needs right now, in addition to our military support and our intelligence support, is our unequivocal moral support. I am deeply troubled by some of the comments from my colleagues on both sides of this war. It should have no place in our current discussion about Israel.”

Ruth Igielnik contributed reporting from Washington.

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