President Barack Obama is betting that the Arab Spring and its populist movement is the future, and that it is in America’s interest to align with it. He is shifting American policy in the Middle East, including negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. In using the 1967 borders as a starting point, he clearly signaled to all the participants America was adjusting positions.
America’s support of change over stability sends a message to Israel that its current position is not sustainable. In this new era, it must adopt a more sophisticated strategy that includes a new negotiating position if peace is ever to be realized – or even support retained among Western nations.
The administration calculated that even in a re-election year, a shift was the smart position. Obama’s strategy now aligns with the position of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which would advocate for a more balanced, and hence, a more pro-Palestinian policy than has been the historic American position.
Americans have favored Israelis over Palestinians by 60 percent to 20 percent for decades. Opinion breaks closer to 50-50 when testing actions in which Israel has asserted itself, such as in Gaza and Lebanon. Israeli aggression evokes sympathy for Palestinians as underdogs and concern for human rights related to living conditions and occupation. Liberal Democrats lean in favor of Palestinian rights because of “fairness.”
• Democrats and Republicans have long held significant differences in their support of Palestine and Israel, although a majority of both support Israel’s position.
• The far left wing of the Democratic Party – for example, campus activists – considers itself pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist.
• Worldwide public opinion has long remained against Israel. Only American vetoes or veto threats protect Israeli interests in the U.N.
• The administration believes Israel’s inflexible position has become unsustainable in the current Middle East upheaval. Old allies have fallen and new forces will be more aggressive for the Palestinian position. Palestinians recognize the opportunities in the new environment and have unified. They are exercising renewed political and street action.
The domestic potency regarding the defense of Israel’s interests has depended on major concentrations of pro-Israeli Jews in major cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, and in media, financial and political strongholds of power. But, Jewish leaders themselves tend to be liberal Democrats and are constrained by party and ideology from having a pure pro-Israeli position.
Ignoring the administration’s claim that this was not a new position, the backlash from the Washington D.C. pro-Israel interests was immediate and potent. In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has an aggressive and articulate spokesperson. But, he’s playing a defensive position with a weak hand. A significant portion of Israel’s defense needs are met through American armaments. Obama’s realignment will be praised by many foreign policy realists, neo-cons and, of course, the Democrats’ foreign policy liberals. Although Republicans will try to attract some of the Democrats’ usual widespread Jewish support (upward of 75% of American Jews are Democratic), Democrats remain optimistic they will continue to hold most American Jewish support.