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How Israel fractured the left and united the right

What’s behind the politics shift in the United States around Israel and Palestine — and how it might affect the 2024 presidential race.

President Biden, in a blue shirt and no jacket, puts a hand to his chin and looks down as he speaks to a small group of reporters with cameras and microphones crowded around him.
President Joe Biden speaks to the press aboard Air Force One on October 18, 2023, as he returns from a visit to Israel.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

At the November 14 March for Israel in Washington, DC, a bipartisan group of lawmakers delivered rousing speeches that decried the October 7 Hamas attacks and defended Israel’s military response in Gaza. Israeli and US flags waved. Tens of thousands of people filled the National Mall with calls of “no ceasefire.”

On stage, Democrats Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries held hands with Republicans House Speaker Mike Johnson and Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa while chanting pro-Israel messages. It was a stunning image of unity during an era of rancorous political division.

Seeing Democrats and Republicans share the stage “was actually a throwback to when there wasn’t really daylight between the parties on Israel,” said David Weigel, national political reporter at Semafor.

“It had the appearance of unity at a moment when there is less unanimity around support for Israel politically than any time I can remember covering,” he said.

Indeed, that bipartisan display was illusory. Republicans in the House had just introduced a bill that tied Israel aid to defunding the Internal Revenue Service, a poison pill meant to paint Democrats as hostile to Israel (while also indicating GOP hostility to the other part of the bill, more military aid to Ukraine). Republicans have largely rubber-stamped Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza and backed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Democrats have been deeply divided over calls by left-leaning lawmakers for President Joe Biden to pressure Israel to declare a ceasefire.

Weigel spoke with Today, Explained host Sean Rameswaram about how the politics around Israel and Palestine have shifted in the United States, and the implications ahead of the 2024 elections. Read on for an excerpt of the conversation, edited and condensed for length and clarity, and listen to the full conversation wherever you find podcasts.


Let’s talk about October 7. What is the initial response from President Joe Biden and how much does it waver from the script that presidents have had in the preceding decades?

I mean, it really doesn’t. And this is where a lot of the president’s problems with younger Democrats and critics of Israel come in. Israel is under attack, and he responds not that much differently than Richard Nixon did during the Yom Kippur War, which is, “We support Israel. They are our ally.”

So October 7, there is a burst of outrage at Hamas for the massacres they carry out. That weekend, there’s a [pro-Palestinian] rally in New York, in Times Square. Democratic Socialists of America’s New York chapter endorses the rally but doesn’t organize it. Inside the Democratic Party, there’s a sort of antibody response where any Democrat who associates themselves with those protests is pilloried, is accused of supporting antisemitism, is associated with the craziest view out there of Israel. You saw the governor in New York, you saw leading Democrats, people who are going to be probably at the head of the party for quite a while, condemning this and saying that this is antisemitism.

Younger Democrats see Israel as an apartheid state because they’ve seen an attempt at a peace process from Barack Obama be undermined by a pro-Trump Israeli government. What you see as the war continues is some of those prewar dynamics reasserting themselves. And by the middle of November, most Democrats say, “Yeah, I don’t want my country to be giving unlimited support to Israel no matter what they do.”

Tell me about where exactly the divisions are. Who specifically is breaking away from Joe Biden and maybe even other moderate Democrats?

The most obvious people doing this in Congress are members of the Squad. These are the four female Democrats who get elected in 2018, a few more Democrats are elected in 2020 and 2022, but a very small beachhead of left-wing Democratic politicians inside the House. Not really inside the Senate. You actually see a division in the first few days of the war between what those Democrats are demanding, and they’re calling pretty early for a full ceasefire. Not continuing conflict until Israel wipes out Hamas, which they say is their goal, but a ceasefire, contradictory to the Netanyahu policy.

You see other Democrats like [Sen.] Bernie Sanders — who’s really influential, the John the Baptist of the Squad, really coming before them and helping them get elected — he doesn’t even do that. But you see, within days after that, Sanders and a few other Democrats, some of whom surprised people like Dick Durbin, saying, “All right, no, I don’t think we should, as Democrats, as a country, be supporting whatever this government does,” as they see footage coming in from Gaza, as they see reports of children in hospitals being starved, civilian casualties.

There are incidents, for example, like reporting that a hospital was blown up by Israeli missiles that is then contested. [Rep.] Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat — Detroit and Dearborn, really — Democrat, advances that and is censured by the House for it.

She sticks to her guns, she gets censured, and she gains [support], not to everything she said, but on the quest for a ceasefire, they’re adding people day by day. I mean, you have a few dozen House Democrats who’ve called for a ceasefire. That is a minority. But I think the significance here is, one, that’s a lot of Democrats criticizing Israel in wartime. That is rare. The second part is, according to polling, they’re with the base. I covered some protests where people were pretty explicit about this. They would cite polling. There was one protest at the Democratic National Committee where there are people shining lights on the building that just show the poll numbers. When you ask people if they want a ceasefire without Israel’s conditions, like 80 percent of Democrats say yes. Ipsos/Reuters’ poll is the most recent that backs that up.

For a lot of these [pro-Israel elected] Democrats, it’s clear that their constituents in the Democratic base are not as interested in reflexive Israel support as they are. But it is important to discredit their opponents and say these people are crazy, these people are antisemitic, these people are dangerous. This is where the division, I think, gets a lot nastier. While this is happening, with fewer protests, they’re getting a lot of blowback from Arab Americans who think that what Biden is doing — and they knew he was pro-Israel when he won the Arab American vote in 2020 — what he’s doing is offensive to them, is murderous.

You see the term “Genocide Joe” being thrown around to attack Biden. That’s what you’re seeing eating away at Democratic support is both some stuff from far-left activists, many of whom are Jewish themselves, and then some from Arab American Democrats who say, “I can’t possibly support a president”— not that they’ll support Trump — “I can’t possibly go out and support a president who, if he’s reelected, is just going to do whatever Netanyahu says.”

And these few dozen Democrats who are supportive of a ceasefire, who do want to see a real shift in this war and are pushing for it in Congress, are they facing repercussions from the moderates or the staunchly pro-Israel factions?

The large groups I’ve been talking about — AIPAC, which is the Israel lobby in America; Democratic Majority for Israel, which is founded more recently and works in primaries to defeat left-wing Democrats, especially if they’re Israel critics — both those groups are very clear early on that they are going to continue working to beat Democrats who are critics of Israel. And ... really within days, but it becomes a little more clear at the end of October, there is an effort to find a candidate who can beat Tlaib. There’s an effort to support one candidate who could beat Ilhan Omar. There’s an effort to beat Jamaal Bowman in New York, and Cori Bush in Missouri. So three or four of the most prominent Israel critics in the Congress: “How do we beat them?” And they’re not hiding this. It’s not like a trap they’re going to spring later. They’re saying pretty clearly, “We want candidates to run against these people.” In a couple of cases, they have them.

How much of this is a generational divide within the party? Is it just young versus old, or is there something more going on here?

Well, young and old explain much of it for basic reasons. If you are born after 1973, and that’s most Americans, you don’t know Israel as a tiny democracy in the Middle East that needs American protection. You know it as a powerful country with wealth comparable to a Western European country, with a strong military that never loses. Maybe [it] can get ambushed and surprised, but it doesn’t lose wars. So you ask, “Okay, why is my government supporting this?” And there’s been a search for reasons among a lot of pro-Israel Democrats: What could have done this to our younger voters? How did our young voters grow up and become Israel critics?

There’s a lot of blame put on colleges. Okay. Colleges are very liberal and colleges are progressive. A few people are taught to be anti-colonial. That’s some of it. I think, in the intelligentsia of the left, everything that they say about this is true, that yes, there are people who have transposed their anti-colonial, anti-settler thinking and said “I’m against the Zionist state” for this reason. But this is across the education gap.

Post-Iraq, there is a lot of skepticism. Why is America spending all this money, not just on foreign aid, but foreign aid in the Middle East in particular? Where is this going? What is the point of doing all this? And what is the point in doing it when we’re not as vulnerable as we were in the 1970s to OPEC and to oil shocks? For a lot of Americans the answer is, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t care. Why is either party so reflexively supportive of this? That’s kind of the question asked by, I’d say, Democrats across educational lines under 40. Also just younger voters generally who are very, very skeptical of this.

And in the Democratic Party, we have young, we have old, and then we have really old, namely Joe Biden, who himself is older than Israel. Where exactly is he now, considering the state of affairs in his party?

He doesn’t comment from day to day on critics inside the party. He’s not been baited into criticizing the left the way that AIPAC is. What Biden wants, and what he says when he’s interrupted by a Jewish Voice for Peace activist at a fundraiser, is he wants a humanitarian pause, which is, we pause the conflict. We release hostages. When the hostages are released and tensions decline, maybe we can deescalate the conflict. At no point does he say “whatever Netanyahu wants.”

There is American pressure on ending hostilities as soon as possible, but it’s in the context of support for Israel, and sympathy for Israel, and sympathy for the people killed on October 7 by Hamas. It sounds like a very subtle difference. I think in some ways it is. But to activists and younger Democrats, it’s so clear to them morally that anything but demanding an immediate ceasefire and liberation for Palestinians is effectively genocide, that this is unacceptable.

This is what he’s struggling to navigate. He just doesn’t have a party base that agrees that “We should take pains to protect Israel as we try to end the war.” Their position is, why? Why do they get this treatment? Why are we treating them any differently than another country that has some sort of internal population that doesn’t have full democratic rights? Or in the case of Gaza, the ability to leave the Gaza Strip freely? Why are we doing that? And that’s not something Biden can answer. That’s something that explains why he starts angering so much of the base.

We’ve talked about this divide, this sort of schism on the left and all the factions involved and how complicated that mess is. I imagine this looks a lot less messy on the right?

Yes, that’s a good way to put it. On the right, so, it’s always easier to be out of power in some ways. You can say, as Sen. Tom Cotton from Arkansas said, this wouldn’t happen if Trump was president.

The easiest, clearest position they can take is that Joe Biden’s weak. If a war breaks out, that is because he’s weak. That is because of the decisions he made that invited this weakness. I think it is very hard to trace Biden’s decisions on Israel to that. But, you know, you’ve got a script. You’re going to stick to it.

The differences between the candidates for president, I think, are significant in showing how Republicans promise to be more reflexively pro-Israel if elected, as Trump was. I mean, Trump recognizes the Golan Heights. Trump moves the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump basically does everything Israel wants and Trump says out loud, as he likes to do. So that’s Trump’s position. That has not changed.

The people who are running against him — Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley being the most relevant at this point — they want to go further. They will fully support Israel, but they want to be clear that Palestinians should never get foreign aid. You also have them criticize Trump from the right by saying he’s too critical of Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump has a habit of kind of bloodlessly assessing another player in the world and saying whether they’re smart or not. Trump says that Hezbollah is smart.

I don’t think the Republican base cares. Not just my view, I mean, I’ve seen polls that the Republican voters don’t see Trump’s comments as insulting to Israel. It is a very pro-Israel party. It is a very anti-Palestinian party in the conservative commentary infrastructure. You know, one of the most influential figures is Ben Shapiro, who talked about the Palestinians as animals. The phrase “Pale-swinians” has traffic on the right for a long time. On the right, there’s no danger in saying, “I support Israel. I don’t care what happens to Palestinians.”

There’s a little bit of skepticism to this in the new right, in the nationalist right. There’s a little bit of the “why are we supporting them” attitude. There is a little bit of, frankly, antisemitic opposition to Israel’s existence. Not in the world of primary voters. That’s not very relevant among the people who will be nominating the party’s nominee.

So we’re talking about, you know, the presidential candidates. We’re talking about the base. Somewhere in between those two are Republicans in Congress. How has this played out on the Hill?

As much as we’ve been talking about America, let’s establish that the most important thing as far as Israel is concerned right now is probably not whether members of Congress say nice things about it. But most of the resolutions that have passed over the last month, or have been introduced on this, have been just condemning the attacks and then attacking Democrats who won’t condemn the attacks, passing funding with a poison pill Democrats [don’t] support, and then attacking Democrats for not supporting it. And the National Republican Congressional Committee, after the House passes Israel funding that would cut the IRS to pay for it, immediately is out attacking Democrats as, you know, anti-Israel antisemites if they don’t support it. There is more interest, just if I can speak cynically, in using this as an issue to divide Democrats than in unifying the country around one response. So not a lot has happened in Congress apart from political kayfabe.

Although we know that Republicans in Congress are very skeptical of Ukraine aid, how has that played out with Israel? Is it a totally different story?

Yeah. So again, the Biden position here is America needs to support Israel in its war against Hamas. It needs to support Ukraine in its war against Russia. For a lot of Republicans, it’s very clear. If there is a zero-sum amount of aid we should be giving out, including a zero-sum amount of military ordnance, bullets, etc., it should be going to defend Israel, not to defend Ukraine. That’s not unanimous in the party. But that’s the evolving Republican position, is that America’s first priority is its own self-defense, defending its own border. Its second priority is defending Israel. That’s the end of the list. There’s not really a priority in defending Ukraine right now.

Why are Republicans so unified on this issue? What’s behind that?

So a lot of it is a sense that Israelis are the good guys. If I can be direct about it, it is — now, there are Jews in the Republican Party; not that many — most support for Israel is driven by believing Christians, pro-Zionist Christians, who believe that Israel won its territory. It is a good steward of the Middle East. It is a democracy no matter how Palestinians within the country are treated. And it’s just not a hard call for them.

You mentioned that the sort of schism on the left has cast some shadow over Joe Biden’s presidential reelection bid. Do you think that what we’ve seen in the past 50 days and what might be coming in the next 50 could have lasting implications for our election, for our politics at home — which the presidential election is now finally less than a year away. Will people still remember all of the protests in the streets and the various fights in Congress and the various fights over funding, whatever it might be?

Well, there’s been a conversation on the left that I find a little tedious about, “Hey, if you’re saying that you’re going to boycott voting for ‘Genocide Joe,’ you’re effectively voting for Trump.” The other side of this will point out the election is 11 months away, a year away. This is the time to say this policy needs to change or we won’t vote for you. And so it’s unclear how much of that’s going to stick.

I think overall, though, and if you talk to peace activists — Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, etc. — their theory of what might happen here, I think, has been borne out in the first month of the conflict. I talked to them early in October around this period where they’re being condemned for having the audacity to have rallies where people said crazy things. Their thought was, “We’re going to get a lot of blowback right now,” and they were. “But as this war continues, people are going to look at the images from Israel and recalculate.” I think they were correct that that happened. Each time there is a conflict — there are different levels of military strength, different leaders, etc. — each time this happens, I feel like you see a decline in reflexive support for Israel. You can see less patience for the Israeli position. Every time a conflict breaks out and especially as this conflict lasted over October, November, you saw that fade, and in ways that I think will take a couple of years to play out.

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