“Our historic alliance with Israel transcends party labels and partisan bickering,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan affirmed on January 6, 2017 during a House floor debate on H.Res.11. The resolution objected to UN Security Council Resolution 2334—which reiterates the illegality of Israeli settlement activity in Occupied Palestinian Territory—and the Obama administration’s decision to abstain on the resolution, thereby allowing it to pass.
While Ryan’s statement is undoubtedly historically accurate, the roll call vote on H.Res.11 exposed, for the first time, a yawning partisan divide on Capitol Hill over U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. Whereas ninety-seven percent of the Republican caucus voted in favor of the resolution, forty-one percent of the Democratic caucus voted against it or abstained.
A similar resolution currently on the Senate legislative calendar—S.Res.6—reinforces this partisan gap. To date, ninety percent of Republican Senators have signed on as cosponsors while nearly half the Democratic caucus has foregone co-sponsorship. Additionally, as many as four Democratic Senators have placed holds on the resolution, preventing it from being brought to a vote.
Even though more Democrats voted for H.Res.11 (109) than those who voted no or abstained (eighty), this was the largest partisan bloc opposing a pro-Israel resolution in recent memory. The large no vote will undoubtedly serve as an example to other Members of Congress, who have until now been reticent to publicly express their private concerns with Israel’s settlement drive. Seeing strength in numbers could embolden them to join the growing public opposition.
The unexpectedly robust Democratic opposition to the resolution was not solely limited to countering what Representative Gerry Connolly referred to as the “trashing” of President Obama by proponents of the resolution, the intent of which, he stated, was to “kick a President on the way out one more time.” Indeed, Democrats offered principled critiques of the resolution based on longstanding, stated U.S. opposition to Israel’s colonization of Palestinian land and the threat this settlement activity poses to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Furthering the partisan divide, on the same day as the House vote, Representative David Price introduced H.Res.23. This alternative resolution omits any specific condemnation of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 and reasserts U.S. support for a negotiated, two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The resolution now has 112 cosponsors, all of whom are Democrats.
The End of Bipartisan Support for Israel?
With these dueling resolutions, Congressional positions on Israeli-Palestinian policy are starting to align with developments in public opinion, as well as at the grassroots of the two major political parties, which have been evident for some time—namely, that Israel has become a conservative rallying point, while liberals are increasingly backing Palestinian rights.
One generation ago, party affiliation scarcely predicted Americans’ views on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, as Republican and Democratic opinions were virtually similar. In 2001, the Pew Research Center gauged conservative, Republican sympathy for Israel at fifty-six percent to twelve percent for Palestinians. That same year, liberal Democrats expressed sympathy for Israel, rather than the Palestinians, by a similar margin, forty-eight percent to eighteen percent. In the ensuing years, however, conservative support for Israel has skyrocketed, reaching seventy-eight percent according to a poll released in January 2017, with only eight percent expressing sympathy for Palestinians. Meanwhile, liberal support for Palestinians has increased to the point where more now sympathize with Palestine than with Israel, by a 38 to 26 margin.
Last summer, at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, this divergence in public opinion was reflected for the first time in the platforms of the two major parties.
Prior to last year’s conventions, both the Republican and Democratic platforms offered begrudging acceptance of Palestinian statehood as being in Israel’s best interest. In the run-up to last year’s Republican National Convention, however, the Republicans dropped even this token support for Palestinian statehood from its platform, instead supported Israel’s efforts to dictate terms for resolution of the conflict. Meanwhile, Democrats adopted platform language recognizing statehood as a right of the Palestinian people. The party also only narrowly rejected even stronger language, calling for an end to Israeli military occupation and illegal settlements.
This brewing division in public opinion and at the base of the Republican and Democratic parties has percolated upwards to Members of Congress. This was evidenced by the competing responses to President Obama’s decision to abstain on the UN Security Council resolution, reaffirming the illegality of Israeli settlements.
With Donald Trump entering the White House intent on melding U.S. policy with the aspirations of the most extremist elements within Israel’s far-right government—unrestrained colonization of Palestinian land in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem; Israeli annexation of some or all of these Palestinian territories; moving the U.S. Embassy to the contested city of Jerusalem and recognizing exclusive Israeli sovereignty there; and continuing to place Palestinians under permanent separate and unequal status—Republicans in Congress seem eager to back him.
As this radical agenda is implemented, more Democrats on the Hill will continue to peel away from full-throated support for Israel and will be forced to reckon with the fact that Palestinian statehood has been foreclosed in favor of apartheid rule. As Representative Luis Gutierrez stated during the H.Res.11 debate, “under the current strongman government in Israel, all pretenses and illusions are being stripped away,” when it comes to Israel’s refusal to allow for a Palestinian state.