With Their Eye on Midterms, Don't Expect Democrats to Break With Israel

A protester shouts anti-Israeli slogans during a demonstration in front of the White House on May 31. Jewel Samad-AFP / Getty Images

Since Israel's attack on a flotilla of six Turkish ships bound for the Gaza Strip early Monday, Israel's critics in advocacy organizations and the left-wing blogosphere have eagerly anticipated that this might be a "tipping point" in U.S.-Israeli relations. (By tipping point they mean the point at which the U.S. adjusts its staunch support of Israel's defense policies.) Liberal blogger Digby's incensed post on the attack is simply titled "Tipping Point?" And Salon's Glenn Greenwald writes, "If Israel's goal were to provoke as much disgust and contempt for it as possible, it's hard to imagine how it could be doing a better job."

In much of the world, and at the United Nations, Greenwald's analysis is correct, as CNN reports. In fact, more than a month ago, Arafat Shoukri, president of the European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza, said the flotilla's purpose was to highlight the adverse effects of Israel's blockade of Gaza, saying, "One action or event will likely not be enough to force Israel to realize that the siege is unsustainable. But conditions are ripe to make this flotilla the 'tipping point.' "

When it comes to the U.S., those hoping that the deaths of nine foreign-aid workers will produce a notably different stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ought not to hold their breath. Current political circumstances, including the fact that this is an election year, make it very unlikely.

Just consider the difference in the statements by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and President Obama. "I condemn the violence, and Israel must explain," said Ban, while Obama was considerably more circumspect. The White House statement on Obama's call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "The President expressed deep regret at the loss of life in today's incident, and concern for the wounded, many of whom are being treated in Israeli hospitals. The President also expressed the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances." This is not a paradigm shift, nor will it become one.

What Israel's left-wing critics seem to forget is that, unlike a few decades ago when anti-Zionist paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan still held sway in the Republican Party, Israel's most unquestioning support is not found among the mainstream liberal humanitarians who might be swayed by its aggression toward the Palestinians and their allies. Neoconservatives and anti-U.N. nationalists like John Bolton and Dick Cheney have taken over the Republican Party's foreign-policy establishment, while Christian conservatives have decided to embrace Israel for theological reasons. Liberal doves should know better than to think those groups will be so moved by the deaths of nine foreign Muslims as to rethink their stance on the Middle East.

So what they are really hoping for is a shift within the liberal/Democratic establishment. Bad timing. The Democrats are at risk of losing both houses of Congress this fall. No strategist in his right mind would tell them to shift focus away from their popular efforts on financial reform, unemployment relief, or letting gays serve openly in the military to pick this fight with the GOP. The Democrats side with Hamas against the only democracy in the Middle East? The RNC press releases would write themselves.

The Democrats' relative strength has always been domestic issues. They never want to switch the debate to foreign policy in an election year. That's why they caved and pushed through George W. Bush's resolution on the use of force in Iraq in 2002, hoping to change the topic to more comfortable ground.

And that's beside the fact that leaders of the Democrats' congressional strategy such as Sen. Charles Schumer and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel are noted Israel supporters, and so are many important Democratic donors in New York and California.

Meanwhile, as Digby herself complains, the media coverage of this issue does not lend itself to a popular uprising against U.S. support for Israel. Given the bipartisan nature of Israel's support in Congress, the obligatory left-versus-right debate that frames every partisan issue does not get placed on this one.

As Peter Beinart noted in his recent New York Review of Books essay, the organizations that promote Israel's interests in the U.S. are completely unwilling to criticize its human-rights violations—even human-rights groups within Israel are much more critical. The pro-Palestinian side simply does not have a comparably skilled apparatus. So there is not an anti-Israel voice in every piece that pulls the debate in their direction.

Even if there were, pundits should think about whether there is even any real evidence that Americans care about the violent deaths of people from other regions, however they may be justified. Remember how all that earnest activism and editorial writing about how the U.S. must lead an effort to stop the atrocities being perpetrated in the Darfur region of Sudan were successful? Neither do I.