What Can Make Democrats Pivot Back To Supporting Israel?

Democrat Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania is now an outlier in his party for his support of Israel, in the face of progressives and leftists.

John Fetterman wikimedia

Ever since the first four members of the left-wing congressional “Squad” made their debuts on Capitol Hill in January 2019, centrist Democrats have sought to reassure pro-Israel voters that the quartet of radicals were outliers in their party. At the time, that was largely true since most Democratic politicians and their congressional leaders were generally pro-Israel.

But the days of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and her pals—Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.)—being isolated within their own caucus with respect to their attitudes towards Israel are over. Six months after the Hamas massacres in southern Israel on Oct. 7, their intense hostility to the Jewish state has spread far beyond the original members (whose own numbers have multiplied in the next two congressional elections) to become mainstream opinion within the Democratic Party. Large numbers of Democratic members of the House and Senate have come out in favor of bans on military aid to the Jewish state, as well as endorsing Hamas propaganda talking points about Israel committing “genocide” in the Gaza Strip.

More than that, the Biden administration has finally bowed to the intense pressure that had been building against it within their party base. After months of lobbying and petitions from lower-level federal officials, congressional staffers, Arab-American officeholders in Michigan and even President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign staff to pivot away from its initial stance of strong support for Israel and the eradication of Hamas finally succeeded in the last month.

Moving the ‘Overton window’

This means that just five years after “The Squad” entered the American political lexicon, not only have its members’ positions become mainstream opinion among the Democrats, it is those centrists who have stuck to their support for Israel who are now the outliers in the party. Among Democrats, as well as in mainstream media outlets and the popular culture that liberals control, the so-called “Overton Window”—a term that describes what is or is not acceptable discourse in polite society—has moved decisively towards the “Squad” when it comes to Israel.

Prominent among the new Democratic outliers is Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), whose outspoken advocacy for Israel and support for the war against Hamas—and willingness to troll the pro-Hamas leftists who have been hounding him on Capitol Hill and elsewhere by repeatedly waving an Israeli flag in their faces—has not only brought down on him the opprobrium of the left but caused several prominent members of his staff to leave him.

Fetterman isn’t entirely alone among Democrats in sticking to what would have once been considered a normative expression of a bipartisan consensus but that is now generally only a position uttered by Republicans. Others like Sen. Jackie Rosen (D-Nev.) and Rep. Richie Torres (D-N.Y.) are also among those Democrats who haven’t bowed to the dictates of their party’s intersectional base. It’s also true that some members of the now-expanded “Squad”—Omar, Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.)—are facing tough primary challenges from more centrist opponents who are getting a lot of support from the pro-Israel community.

Whether they survive those contests or not, it’s clear that the Democratic Party is at a crossroads with respect to the Jewish state.

Until his recovery from the massive stroke he suffered while campaigning for the Senate in 2022, Fetterman was assumed to be a hardcore left-winger and won the Democratic primary that year largely on that basis. His more recent stands are only newsworthy because they are so very different from those of the rest of the Senate Democratic caucus. That includes Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who, despite his farcical claim to be Israel’s shomer or “guardian,” has openly backed Biden’s about-face and demanded regime change in Jerusalem in order for the Jewish state to elect a more pliant leader who will obey Washington’s diktats.

Biden backs a Hamas victory

Biden’s efforts to force Israel to accept an immediate ceasefire with Hamas and stern warnings that any effort to finish the destruction of the terrorist group’s military formations in their last stronghold in Rafah would result in exactly the ban on military aid that left-wing Democrats have been demanding all along. Threats of Washington allowing dangerous U.N. resolutions that would make Israel a pariah state to pass are also on the table. Essentially, it is now administration policy that aid to the side that started the war on Oct. 7 is the priority and that on no account should Israel act to eradicate the terrorist group that is pledged to its destruction. That means that if Biden’s pressure on Israel succeeds, Hamas will emerge as the victor of a war that the Islamist group began with the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust.

Given the vehemence of Biden’s first reactions to Oct. 7 and his commitment to the elimination of the terror group, this is a remarkable turnaround.

The origins of the Democrats pivot can be seen in former President Barack Obama’s spats with Israel, and his appeasement of Iran and its nuclear program, which most Democrats endorsed despite the danger it posed to Israel and the West.

The recent turnabout can in part be blamed on the drumbeat of biased media coverage of the war as liberal corporate media outlets have acted as Hamas’s stenographers, repeating their bogus casualty statistics; ignoring the terrorists’ theft of aid; and mainstreaming smears about Israel committing “genocide” and being responsible for starvation in Gaza, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

But it would be wrong to blame it all on Obama, or the distorted reporting and commentary about the war in news outlets that Democrats read and watch. The sea change among Democrats has been decades in the making as leftist ideologies like critical race theory and intersectionality, which falsely labeled Jews and Israel as “white oppressors,” became orthodox opinion in liberal institutions rather than being confined to the fever swamps of the far left.

The mobs chanting for Israel’s destruction and terrorism against Jews in the streets of America’s cities and on college campuses, as well as those harassing Biden on the campaign trail by accusing him of aiding Israeli “genocide,” aren’t being ignored or condemned by Democrats. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are determined to conciliate them and demonstrate that they understand and respect their positions.

Just as significant is when prominent Democrats like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren endorse the blood libel that Israel is committing genocide, not only has she not faced an avalanche of criticism from Democratic activists, donors and voters, but it is considered an unremarkable and normative statement.

No one should be surprised by any of this.

Even in 2019, when centrists were pooh-poohing alarmism about the acceptance of “Squad” members, their assurances rang hollow. Those radicals had enough influence within the Democratic caucus back then to prevent one of their charter members—Omar—from being singled out for censure by the House of Representatives for her open and blatant antisemitism. Almost from the first moment that they set foot in Congress, they were treated like rock stars by the corporate liberal media, including appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and being feted on the late-night comedy shows that are daily in-kind contributions to the Democrats.

The progressives take over

This process continued the following year when, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, Democrats en masse endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement that was tainted by antisemitism. In the moral panic of that summer, Democrats also found themselves adopting the toxic radical ideologies that helped motivate the “mostly peaceful” riots that wreaked havoc around the nation. Other than conservative critics, no one in the media seemed to notice the capture not just of the academy by the far left, but also of Washington after Biden signed executive orders in January 2021 that made the woke catechism of diversity, equity and inclusion official government policy had also helped move the “Overton window” about Israel. Whereas in the past, one would have never encountered advocacy for Israel’s destruction on the editorial pages of The New York Times or The Washington Post or viewed on MSNBC, soon it became routine.

Seen in that light, the open revolt of the left-wing activists who help staff Democratic Party offices and institutions against Biden’s first reactions to Oct. 7 was entirely predictable. And though it didn’t have to happen, given the fact that Biden has—throughout his half-century in politics—been a weathervane that always pointed in the direction of popular opinion in his party, it was also probably inevitable that his pro-Israel impulses that were on display six months ago would quickly be discarded.

Though most Democrats don’t seem to realize this, in a nation where most Americans still support Israel and oppose its terrorist opponents, there are still more pro-Israel votes to be lost in the political center by abandoning the Jewish state than on the far left for being too hostile to Hamas. Yet it has become the conventional wisdom among Democrats that the continuation of the war until Hamas’s elimination is an obstacle to Biden’s re-election. That is the reason for the reluctance of even Democratic Congress members who were considered stalwart backers of Israel to condemn Biden’s threats and be willing to mandate a Hamas victory.

There has been a troubling outbreak of anti-Israel sentiment that embraces antisemitism among some conservative talk-show hosts like Candace Owens and Tucker Carlson. But almost all Republican officeholders have lined up behind Israel and against Biden’s betrayal of the Jewish state. Evangelical and conservative Christian support for Israel rooted in their faith will also ensure that the GOP remains faithful.

Where does that leave Democratic outliers, like Fetterman?

Democratic centrists are numerous enough to still exercise some influence within their party and are likely to succeed in general elections when they can count on pro-Israel voters outnumbering the antisemites in districts and states that aren’t deep blue. But it would be foolish to pretend that they are the future of the party when compared to media stars like AOC, who can count on the support of not just loyal activists, but leftist press and cultural institutions. It’s hard to see how any scenario in which the political left’s hold on the Democrats weakens either in the event of a second Biden term, where they will remain in power, or in opposition if Trump wins in November and the party probably becomes even more susceptible to extremism.

The horror of Oct. 7 should have resulted in the isolation of Israel-haters; however, the opposite has happened among Democrats. That means that politicians like Fetterman are going to be increasingly the exception to the rule among Democrats, and it will make his political courage all the more praiseworthy and deserving of support. But it will also leave us increasingly in a situation in which the vital backing that Israel needs from America will become solely a function of partisan battles between Democrats and Republicans. No matter which party prevails in 2024, that’s very good news for antisemites, who have long fantasized about the crackup of the U.S.-Israel alliance and can now see their dream close to realization.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate. 

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Swords of Iron Israel Joe Biden Democrats politics