Democrats and Republicans’ Positions on Israel Ahead of the 2024 Election

Although relations with Israel are usually foreign policy talking points for American politicians ahead of national elections, it seems that the issue has come early this election cycle, as various US political leaders are already staking out their positions. President Joe Biden, despite his long-standing support for Israel, is keeping Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at arms-length, refusing to issue him a formal White House invitation, primarily because of the latter’s proposed judicial overhaul, and secondarily due to the inflammatory comments and policies of the far-right members of his cabinet on the Palestinian issue. Meanwhile, leading Republicans, including current and likely presidential contenders, are going out of their way to show that they are in lockstep with Netanyahu regardless of the controversies surrounding him. However, Netanyahu, keen not to alienate former President Donald Trump and his die-hard supporters, is playing a cautious game for now, evidenced by his downplaying of Florida Governor (and likely Republican presidential candidate) Ron DeSantis’ recent visit to Israel.

Israel’s Right-Wing Government Becomes an Issue Among Democrats

Even though Israel has long enjoyed broad American political support, its policies have come under greater scrutiny in recent years, particularly among Democrats. Polls have indicated that once-solid Democratic support for Israel has waned as more and more Democrats have focused their sympathies on the plight of the Palestinians. This is not to say that Democrats in Congress have turned against Israel—indeed, a recent resolution in the Democrat-controlled Senate commemorating the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding has received overwhelmingly bipartisan support—but many Democrats, and not just those in the progressive wing of the party, are increasingly displaying outward criticism of Israel’s policies and actions toward the Palestinians.

The inclusion of two extreme right-wing politicians in Netanyahu’s cabinet—National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was once convicted of anti-Arab racism, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a settler leader who has made equally offensive and inflammatory remarks—has added to this scrutiny and criticism. In October 2022, even before Netanyahu formed his coalition government, Democratic Senator and Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who is a staunch supporter of Israel, warned Netanyahu not to include Ben-Gvir in his government. Menendez reportedly told the Israeli leader that he had “serious concerns” about the inclusion of “extremist and polarizing individuals like Ben-Gvir” in an Israeli cabinet. The senator also reportedly underscored that a coalition cabinet of this sort could gravely erode bipartisan support for Israel in Washington.

More recently, in early March 2023, more than 90 progressive and moderate Democrats in Congress signed a letter to President Biden urging him to pressure Netanyahu and his right-wing government not to proceed with their judicial overhaul plans, charging that doing so would not only undermine democracy but would “empower far-right lawmakers seeking to entrench settlement of the West Bank and advance a pro-annexation agenda, undermining the prospects for a two-state solution.” The letter also noted that some 60 Palestinians had been killed at that point in 2023, adding that US diplomatic leadership was needed “to preempt counterproductive unilateral actions and prevent violent escalations.”

Interestingly, the letter arrived at the White House the same day that 16 Jewish members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Biden expressing their concern over the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plan, which they said could “undermine Israeli democracy and the civil rights and religious freedoms it protects.”

Biden Operating Under Protective Political Cover

Over the course of his political career, Biden has had a contentious relationship with Netanyahu. Although he has described the Israeli leader as a longtime friend, Biden has previously disagreed openly with Netanyahu over settlement building in the occupied Palestinian territories and on other issues, including the Iran nuclear deal, especially after Netanyahu slammed the Obama administration for moving ahead with the international agreement. Adding insult to injury, Netanyahu, in a breach of diplomatic protocol, accepted an invitation by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2015 to address the Iran nuclear issue, completely bypassing the Obama White House, in which Biden was vice president.

Thus, when large segments of the Israeli polity began to stage massive demonstrations against Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plans, Biden had no qualms about entering into the political fray in Israel. He reportedly phoned Netanyahu to voice his opposition to this measure and said publicly that the Israeli government “cannot continue down this road.” In response to the charge that he was interfering in Israeli domestic affairs, Biden stated matter-of-factly, “We’re not interfering. They know my position. They know America’s position. They know the American Jewish position.”

More Democrats have focused their sympathies on the plight of the Palestinians.

This last comment was not a slip of the tongue, but rather was meant to underscore to Netanyahu that a majority within the American Jewish community is supportive of Biden’s criticism of the Israeli judicial overhaul plan. Clearly, Biden feels politically secure in taking on Netanyahu and in not inviting him to the White House at this time, knowing that these actions accord with the position of many prominent American Jewish organizations and citizens on the liberal side of the equation. To be sure, right-wing elements and organizations within the American Jewish community continue to back Netanyahu and agree with his plans, but—as Biden the career politician knows well—these people were never going to be on his side in any event.

Biden also knows that many, if not most, Democrats in Congress, along with liberal elements of the American Jewish community, see extreme right-wing Israeli cabinet members like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich as outliers because of their extreme anti-Palestinian inflammatory rhetoric and actions, despite the fact that such extremism is rapidly becoming the norm in Israel. Hence, by keeping Netanyahu at arms-length and not giving people like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich political acceptance, Biden can stake out a position of being tough on the Israeli right wing, while still being supportive of Israel and its liberal and center political factions. And given the polls that suggest that Democrats are unwilling to give Israel a blank check—at least politically—Biden likely believes that he has staked out a comfortable and protected position on Israel going into 2024, when he plans to run for reelection.

Republicans Taking an Uncritical Position on Israel

Not surprisingly given the partisan nature of US politics, Republicans are staking out the completely opposite position on Israel and the Palestinian situation. Part of this has to do with the support they have received from the white evangelical Christian community, which tends to be uncritically supportive of Israel based on what they believe to be a literal understanding of the Bible. Another part of Republicans’ position has to do with their ties to right-wing elements of the American Jewish community, and a third part has to do with enduring support of former President Donald Trump, who has been able to maintain a strong hold on the Republican Party’s base.

During Trump’s presidency, he did Netanyahu so many political favors that the latter featured an image of the two leaders together on Israeli campaign billboards. Trump not only recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, he also endorsed Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights and produced a so-called Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that would permanently give about a third of the occupied West Bank to Israel. In addition, he supported the Abraham Accords, which saw the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab states without any Israeli concessions on the Palestinian issue. Moreover, Trump cut off most US funding for the Palestinians and closed down the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington, as well as the US consulate in East Jerusalem that had long served the Palestinian community.

Because of these positions, other prominent Republicans, wanting to either curry favor with Trump and his base or to run for president themselves, have been equally indulgent of Israel and tried to burnish their pro-Israel bona fides in recent months.

Trying to Outdo Each Other

One of the first Republican contenders to have thrown her hat into the presidential ring is Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and formerly the US ambassador to the United Nations under Trump. Haley, in her speeches to the Republican Jewish Coalition and other right-wing Jewish groups has touted her record at the UN as being unflinchingly supportive of Israel. In an address before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference when she was UN ambassador, she boasted that, “The days of Israel bashing are over,” and said, “I wear heels, but it is not a fashion statement. It’s because if I see something wrong, I’m gonna kick ‘em every single time.”

Such statements and policies have garnered Haley some important endorsements. Indeed, three board members of the Republican Jewish Coalition circulated a letter in March urging their colleagues to join them in endorsing her as the “best candidate for Jewish Republicans.” In addition, they said, “No presidential candidate has been more committed to Israel’s continued security and prosperity than Nikki.” The problem for Haley is that other Republicans may question why she is running against her former boss, as Trump has not only entered the race but is leading Republican candidates by a large margin in the polls. And while Haley may tout her pro-Israel credentials, Trump can always undermine her by saying that she was merely following his orders.

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is expected to run for president, is also touting his pro-Israel credentials. In early April, he flew to Israel, where he signed a law that had been passed by the Florida legislature to combat anti-Semitism, met with several Israeli politicians, and gave a keynote speech marking the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding. In this speech, he not only bragged about his pro-Israel voting record when he was a US congressperson but he took an indirect swipe at Biden as well, saying that the United States must “respect Israel’s right to make its own decisions about its own governance…It shouldn’t be for us to butt in to these important issues.”

However, the most newsworthy aspect of DeSantis’ trip was what did not happen. After he visited with Netanyahu, the prime minister’s office issued no statements or photographs on the meeting, almost as if it had not happened. Clearly, Netanyahu is hedging his bets. Knowing that DeSantis is Trump’s main rival in the Republican party at this point, Netanyahu did not want to anger Trump—or the former president’s political base—by giving the appearance of boosting DeSantis’ position. Some analysts have suggested that Trump is still upset with Netanyahu for congratulating Biden on his having won the 2020 presidential election, which Trump still incorrectly claims was a stolen contest. Meanwhile, DeSantis is trying to position himself as supportive of Trump’s policies—including those vis-à-vis Israel—without all the scandals and baggage associated with the former president. Although DeSantis himself welcomed this meeting with Netanyahu and highlighted it on his website and on Twitter, his doing so did not carry the same weight as a Netanyahu-issued statement and photos would have.

While in Israel, McCarthy said that Biden has waited “too long” to welcome Netanyahu to the White House.

Not to be outdone, Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy led a bipartisan delegation to Israel at the end of April and the beginning of May. Because McCarthy is not running for president and is loyal to Trump, Netanyahu had no problem extending him all kinds of courtesies, including the opportunity to address the Israeli Knesset—only the second time that a US House speaker has done so. While in Israel, McCarthy said that Biden has waited “too long” to welcome Netanyahu to the White House, adding that if it did not happen, he would invite the Israeli leader, whom he called a “dear friend,” to the House of Representatives.

This comment was meant to show how close the Republicans are to Netanyahu, but without a concurrent White House invitation, McCarthy’s offer may not come to pass given the backlash that ensued in 2015 when Netanyahu spoke to Congress. Nonetheless, McCarthy’s statement was newsworthy in Israel, but not always in a positive way. One prominent Israeli political commentator noted that such an invitation could be counterproductive, as it would “further identify Netanyahu solely with the Republicans in direct confrontation with Biden.”

What Is in Store for the Future?

Right now, the political headwinds among Republican voters are in Trump’s favor, and he has increased his lead over DeSantis in the last couple of months, while Nikki Haley’s numbers remain quite low. However, a lot can happen between now and election day in November 2024. Trump faces many legal battles, and more Republicans are likely to enter the presidential race. Nevertheless, it is hard for any Republican to outdo Trump in being pro-Israel, which will work to his favor among evangelical Christians, conservative Jewish voters, and foreign policy hawks who see Israel as a pro-US outpost in a “dangerous” Middle East. Meanwhile, Biden believes he has secured for himself a safe spot on the Israel/Palestine issue, even though progressive Democrats will try to push him to be more pro-Palestinian, while some, but certainly not all, moderate Democrats (such as those who accompanied McCarthy to Israel) will want him to tone down his criticism of Netanyahu.

However, while such political machinations take place in Washington, the sad reality is that no positive changes are occurring on the ground in the Israeli/Palestinian situation. Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government offers no hope for a durable and just peace, and young Palestinians are growing increasingly frustrated with the Israeli occupation and the ineffectiveness of their own political leadership. Hence, while Washington fiddles, the Israeli/Palestinian situation continues to burn.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured Image credit: GPO/Amos Ben Gershom