Will the 2016 Election Reverse the Partisanization of US Support for Israel?

Since its founding in 1948, the State of Israel has generally enjoyed widespread bipartisan support in the US, support that has taken on material and strategic form since the late 1960s. Since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, however, many commentators have anticipated the opening of a partisan divide over the US’s support for Israel, with out-and-out support for the Jewish state becoming an increasingly Republican cause. Fueling this anticipation has been the rough personal relationship between Obama and Israeli PM Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as specific rifts over matters of policy—most especially the US’s nuclear agreement with Iran. Signs have also pointed to the Democratic Party growing more restless on matters related to Israel in general. At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, the party initially removed language from its platform affirming Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. After protests, the language was restored and approved over clear, boisterous, vocal objections in a controversial voice vote. Recent polls have also shown that support for Israel has declined among Democratic voters but remained steady or increased among Republicans, revealing the largest partisan gaps over support for Israel in decades.

As with so much else, though, the 2016 election is likely to defy these trends—at least at the top of the tickets. Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s seeming ambivalence towards Israel has unnerved many traditionally-Republican supporters of the Jewish state (Sheldon Adelson excepted). As with a number of issues, Trump has swayed wildly between different policy positions, claiming at different times that he would be “very pro-Israel” or “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In other comments on foreign policy in general, he has advocated a reduced role for the United States on the world stage, making his slogan “America First.” Besides this flailing on policy, Trump’s candidacy in general has served to divide or alienate traditional pro-Israel constituencies within the Republican Party. The rift among evangelicals over Trump has been well-documented, even as a plurality of self-described evangelicals have supported him. The largely neoconservative Republican foreign policy establishment has refused to work with him. At the same time, Trump’s campaign has brought to the surface an antisemitic white nationalism trafficking in outright hatred of Jews and the Jewish state. Even as Trump has begun to toe a more conventional, if vague, pro-Israel line since sewing up the nomination, even as he has offered vague, if delayed, denunciations of white nationalist support, his campaign has alienated many within the traditional pro-Israel Republican camp, even as Republicans are broadly more pro-Israel than ever.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has grown more insistent in her support for Israel throughout the campaign. In a recent foreign policy speech, she specifically chided Trump for saying he would “stay neutral on Israel’s security.” In March, she delivered a speech to AIPAC, arguing, “The United States and Israel must be closer than ever, stronger than ever and more determined than ever to prevail against our common adversaries and to advance our shared values.” Beyond the US’s relationship with Israel, Clinton has called for an expansive American role in the world that a number of neoconservative commenters have praised.

All of this has come, of course, as Democrats more generally have grown skeptical of the US’s “special relationship” with Israel. Although Clinton’s primary challenger, Bernie Sanders, has laid out no specific policy alternatives on the subject, he has criticized her defense of Israel’s conduct in the 2014 Gaza War. At the same time, a number of Sanders’s representatives on the Democratic platform drafting committee have also pushed for a more neutral approach to Israel on the platform. It remains to be seen, though, whether Sanders’s appointees will have an ultimate effect on the platform’s Israel policies.

What does this all mean for November? As with everything, Trump’s general unpredictability makes it unclear. What is predictable, though, is that Clinton will likely continue with her general pro-Israel line, while also defending the Iran nuclear deal and touting her support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With support for Israel so popular among the American public in general, she has little to lose politically from staying the course as she turns towards the general election, drawing a clear contrast with both Trump’s ambivalence towards the Jewish state and his more isolationist leanings on foreign policy. While she will not peel evangelical supporters of Israel (several leading never-Trump evangelicals have advocated voting for neither candidate in the fall), she is likely to win some support from those who prioritize support for Israel on geopolitical grounds, particularly among the neoconservatives.

Does this mean a halt to the partisanization of US support for Israel? Or even its reverse? If it means either, it will probably only be temporary—barring actual results (of the victor’s foreign policy—not the election). While the tops of the Republican and Democratic tickets suggest a reverse in recent trends, those trends remain strong among members of both parties, at least with regard to the US’s Israel policies. It is possible that the candidates’ broader stances towards foreign policy could portend a shift among the parties, with Democrats embracing an expanded global role for the US and Republicans favoring a reduction of it (though House Republicans’ recent policy proposals suggest otherwise). However, whether such debates will fall along party lines depends on where Trump’s foreign policy oscillations end up stopping—if they ever do.

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