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Republicans and Democrats Are Reversing Roles on Israel

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You used to be able to find critics of Israel in the Republican Party. Former senators Charles Mathias and Chuck Percy and Representative Paul Findley come to mind. But the Democrats, and particularly liberal Democrats, stood squarely behind whatever the Israeli government was doing. Over the last decades, however, as Israel’s governments have become more conservative, and as the occupation has persisted, the polarities have begun to reverse. You can now find the most militant defenders of Israel’s government in the Republican Party while the ranks of Democrats include a good number of critics.

Witness recent events: In Las Vegas last week, leading Republican presidential hopefuls Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and John Kasich journeyed to Las Vegas to pay tribute to GOP funder Sheldon Adelson and the Republican Jewish Coalition that he bankrolls. Adelson opposes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “To go and allow a Palestinian state is to play Russian roulette,” he told a forum last October. He doesn’t think there is such a thing as a Palestinian. Adelson was a major contributor to Republicans in 2012, and also to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He and the coalition are closest politically to the Likud party members who have opposed Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to achieve an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The presidential hopefuls made no attempt to distinguish their views on Israel and the Palestinians from Adelson’s. That became evident when Christie apologized to Adelson for using the term “occupied territories” to describe the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Christie had been chastised by Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, which Adelson also funds. “At a minimum, you should call it ‘disputed territories,’” Klein had told the governor. Klein and ZOA call them by their Biblical names Judea and Samaria and are known for criticizing AIPAC for backing a Palestinian state. After being rebuked by Klein, Christie personally apologized to Adelson. Even a decade ago, George W. Bush was championing a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, but now a wide swath of Republicans—from Adelson and the RJC to John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel to the neo-conservative Emergency Committee for Israel—are opposed to any meaningful concessions to the Palestinians or to the very existence of a Palestinian state..

On the other side, Democrats have become willing to break with Israeli government policy when they see it as too insensitive to the Palestinians and subversive of the peace process. Former Clinton administration official Jeremy Ben-Ami founded J Street in 2008 to counter AIPAC’s unwillingness to press for negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. J Street has become a player in Washington politics, and its youth organization, J Street U, has become a force within Hillels and on its own. But Ben-Ami was extraordinarily cautious in keeping J Street within what appeared to be the acceptable bounds of pro-Israel discourse. In September 2011, J Street went along with the Obama administration in opposing U.N. recognition of Palestine’s statehood, even though some of its rank and file thought otherwise.

But earlier this month, J Street took the kind of step that would have seemed out of character even a year ago. The organization opposed the Netanyahu government’s demand that the Palestinians agree to Jewish state as a condition for continuing negotiations. After several weeks of deliberation, Ben-Ami issued a statement saying that “it is simply unrealistic and unreasonable to expect any Palestinian leader to consent to what has become for all intents and purposes an Israeli ultimatum right now.” Ben-Ami’s statement coincided with reservations that Kerry had begun to express, but J Street’s decision to get in front of the issue had come earlier. Republican opponents of the peace process were quick to jump on the group. “J Street’s advocacy for the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state follows a nearly unbroken period of advocacy for Palestinian and Iranian interests since the group’s founding in 2008,” wrote the rightwing Washington Free Beacon.

Or take what is happening at the Center for American Progress (CAP), the chief liberal Democratic think-tank in Washington. In December 2011, CAP staff members who studied and wrote about the Middle East came under attack from former AIPAC Communications head Josh Block, who accused CAP of fostering “anti-Israel sentiment” and “anti-Semites.” Block’s complaints were echoed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other Jewish groups. Two CAP staffers ended up leaving, and those who remained felt embattled.

But this week, CAP will be hosting a conference in Jerusalem with Molad, a new left-center Israeli think tank. It was founded by Avner Inbar and Assaf Sharon, two peace activists from the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, which has been protesting the eviction of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Inbar and Sharon have tried to do for Israel’s opposition in the Labor Party and Meretz what CAP’s founders originally tried to do for the out-of-power Democrats: build a political infrastructure for the opposition to challenge prevailing government policies. The conference will focus on the peace process and on U.S. and Israeli relations with Iran. The session on the peace process promises a “critical assessment” of the negotiations, which, judging from the panelists, is likely to be critical not just of Netanyahu, but of Kerry for demanding too much of the Palestinians and too little of the Israelis.

The rise of J Street and the emergence of CAP as an advocate for the peace process are part of a larger shift among liberal Democrats. It can be seen, for instance, in widespread Democratic support for the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran, which the Israeli government has protested. J Street and CAP’s stands are certainly not anti-Israel. But they are opposed to the policies of Israel’s current government. By contrast, Republicans—including, it seems, the presidential supplicants at Adelson’s Venetian Hotel last weekend—are now headed in exactly the opposite direction. Polarization over economic and social policy has already crippled the parties; polarization over the peace process could have the same result.