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Israel becoming political bombshell in Washington

The issue of American support for the Jewish state has created serious splits in the Democratic Party, pitting them against Republicans

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has enjoyed support from US President Donald Trump, who has taken major steps to consolidate ties with Israel.

Washington

THERE was a time, not so long ago, when the notion that the United States should support the State of Israel was considered to be one of Washington's political axioms. "You should not criticise the Jewish State" ranked just below "you should not attack the US Constitution" when it came to the set of rules that Democratic and Republican lawmakers would follow.

That the United States had a "special relationship" with Israel - not unlike the one that it had with Great Britain - reflected historical, cultural, political and geo-strategic considerations. This include the impact that the Jewish Holocaust in World War II has had on public opinion; the sympathy for the so-called Chosen People among Scripture-reading Christian Americans; and the influence of a politically active American-Jewish community whose members resided in key electoral states and contributed money for the two major parties; as well as the strategic ties between Israel and the United States that evolved during the Cold War.

The support for Israel was part of a bipartisan consensus, with both Republican and Democratic presidential and congressional candidates burnishing their ties with the Jewish State and showing up in droves for the annual conference of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful lobbying group representing the vibrant pro-Israel community.

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In fact, for many years it was the Democratic Party - the political home of the majority of American Jews, who have consistently been voting for Democratic presidential candidates - that has been regarded as promoting a more pro-Israeli agenda than the GOP, with many liberals lauding Israel as a democratic and progressive bastion in the Middle East, while the pro-business Republicans were seen as more aligned with the Arab oil-producing nations in the Persian Gulf.

But history never stands still. For several decades during and after World War II, a powerful China lobby helped consolidate support in Washington for the Chinese nationalist and anti-communist leader Chiang Kai-shek who became the founder of Formosa (now Taiwan), and ensured that the United States refrain from recognising the communist regime in Beijing as the representative of China.

But then the balance of power abroad and in Washington became transformed, leading to a major change in the US relationship with Taipei and Beijing, and to the collapse of the old China lobby.

CHANGING ATTITUDES

Is it possible that America's special relationship with Israel will also go through a similar transformation in the future? That is a question that friends of the Jewish state are asking themselves in the face of what seems to changing attitudes towards Israel - at least among members of one political party.

Indeed, the issue of American support for Israel has already created serious splits in the Democratic Party, highlighted by the response of the party's political elders to the criticism of Israel by the newly elected congresswoman from Minnesota, Representative Ilhan Omar - one of two Muslim female Democrats elected to Congress last November - who, among other anti-Israeli comments, tweeted recently that the support for Israel was "all about the Benjamins, baby", a reference to hundred-dollar bills.

Translation: The backing for Israel is bought by financial contributions from its lobby. Indeed, after being asked to elaborate on her comments, Ms Omar - who was born in Somalia and sits on the powerful House Foreign Relations Committee - simply tweeted: "AIPAC". In a separate media interview, she argued that Israel was not a democratic state and compared it to Iran.

The other Muslim female candidate elected last November, Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American lawyer from Michigan, has voiced support for replacing Israel with a non-Jewish state, and was attacked for suggesting that lawmakers who were supporting a pro-Israeli bill in Congress "forgot what country they represent".

Critics noted the two congresswomen were employing anti-Semitic stereotypes - that Jews use money to buy influence and that American Jews are suspected of exhibiting "dual loyalty" - an allegation that they both denied after apologising for what could have been construed as offensive remarks.

But in a way, whether their comments were echoing anti-Semitic biases or not may be beside the point since their criticism of Israel, and in particular its policies towards the Palestinian residents of the occupied West Bank, are now shared by large segments of the Democratic Party's electoral base. That could affect US policy towards the Jewish state if the Democrats regain control of the White House in 2020.

Case in point: Republican Senator Marco Rubio from Florida recently introduced a bill that would allow state and local governments to refuse to do business with companies that support the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has called on American public institutions and businesses to boycott the Jewish state.

A few years ago, the question of whether to approve such a pro-Israel legislation would have been regarded as a no-brainer for a Republican and Democratic lawmaker. But this time, four of the five Democratic senators running for president - Cory Booker from New Jersey; Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts; Kamala Harris from California; Kirsten Gillibrand from New York - voted against the measure proposed by Mr Rubio. The bill, however, was approved with the support of the Republican majority in the Senate.

It is possible that the four Democratic Senators who voted against the bill have been studying recent opinion polls which indicate that among the critical demographic groups who support the Democrats - African Americans, Hispanics, professional women, Millennials - there are signs of dwindling support for Israel, and more willingness to criticise the Jewish state and to consider reducing American military and economic support for it.

From the perspective of these Democrats, Israel is seen as a state dominated by white Europeans and which is controlling a repressed Third World people. That Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are seen to enjoy the strong support of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party only helps to intensify these sentiments, especially among young progressive Democrats who seem to be willing to challenge the party's old guard, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former vice-president Joe Biden, and Bill and Hillary Clinton who are long-time supporters of the Jewish state.

At the same time, while the Democrats are moving in one direction when it comes to Israel, the Republicans are moving in the opposite direction and have emerged as a bastion of support for the Jewish state, with a large majority of members and party leaders calling for strengthening the strategic alliance with Israel while standing up to its enemies, led by Iran.

MAJOR STEPS

Indeed, Mr Trump (who, before being elected as president, had appeared in television commercials calling for Israelis to vote for Mr Netanyahu and his Likud Party) has taken major steps to consolidate the ties with Israel, including relocating the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, revoking the nuclear deal with Iran, and encouraging Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states to establish diplomatic ties with Israel as part of an effort to form a military alliance against Teheran.

At the same time, the same opinion polls that have exposed the decreasing support for Israel among Democrats, indicate that members of the demographic groups that provide electoral backing for the GOP - a mirror image of the Democratic electoral base, including older white men and women without college degrees, and devout Evangelical Christians - are ardent supporters of the Jewish state and would not vote for a presidential or congressional candidate who does not share their sentiments on the issue.

This political reality should concern Israel and its American friends, since it suggests that support for the Jewish state relies now on a declining electoral group of ageing white Christian men and women while it is losing the backing of young Americans, Hispanic immigrants and blacks.

But this political reality also explains why Mr Trump and Republican congressional leaders did not lose time condemning Ms Omar's comments and calling for her resignation, and why the GOP is hoping to depict the Democrats in 2020 as anti-Israeli if not anti-Semitic.

While such a strategy could help secure the continuing support of Evangelical Christians and the rest of the party's electoral base for Mr Trump and Republicans, it is not clear if it would have any effect on another demographic group - American Jews. The latter have shown strong hostility towards Mr Trump notwithstanding his support for the Jewish state, proving that contrary to Ms Tlaib's enunciation, they do not exhibit any form of "dual loyalty".