Democratic Coalition Faces Unprecedented Strain Amidst Israel/Palestine Conflict. The Democratic coalition’s cohesiveness has been explosively and unexpectedly impacted by the war over Gaza. The major social and cultural issues that have divided American politics for decades now include immigration, guns, and gender, with Republicans typically on one side and Democrats on the other. Foreign policy issues have only occasionally come up, and never in the way that Israel/Palestine has in recent weeks.
Republicans have occasionally used the Middle East to further their political agenda by enlisting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an effort to score points against Democratic presidents. The first occurred when Netanyahu was asked to speak before a joint session of Congress by then-Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, in an attempt to undermine President Bill Clinton’s efforts to advance the Oslo peace process. The other occasion was when Netanyahu was asked by Speaker John Boehner the time to try to thwart President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear agreement. Both initiatives eventually paid off in the long run, creating barriers to peace and opening the door for President Donald Trump to renegotiate the nuclear agreement.
Even though these issues were divisive, they mostly remained limited to Washington and never made their way to the political grassroots in the manner that Israel/Palestine has in the volatile political climate of today. There were no widespread appeals or large-scale protests in favor of or against the Iran Deal or the peace process; both remained partisan issues.
The deadly attack on Israelis by Hamas on October 7 and the current brutal Israeli assault on Gaza, which has lasted for a month, is very different. First and foremost, both the American Jewish and Arab/Palestinian American communities were directly impacted by these events. The Jewish community was appalled by the scenes and the reports of the wanton slaughter. It brought back memories of the horrific Holocaust trauma, past pogroms, and a sense of vulnerability. Democratic Coalition Faces Unprecedented Strain Amidst Israel/Palestine Conflict
When it became evident from Israel’s horrific bombings of Gaza and the racist, genocidal rhetoric used by Israeli leaders that this wouldn’t be like previous attacks on Gaza, Palestinians and Arabs retreated in shock and fury. Palestinian and Arab Americans witnessed the Nakba unfolding in real-time, with thousands of people killed, half of Gaza City and its surrounding neighborhoods destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians escaping for their lives to an uncertain future in the southern region of the impoverished Strip. There was trauma and vulnerability here as well.
This drama has a political component to it in part because Republicans, driven by their staunchly conservative Christian base, are supporting Israel. However, despite the fact that Democratic politicians who have long catered to the demands of the pro-Israel lobby have also shown their support for Israel, the party’s base is becoming more divided.
Nationwide pro-Palestinian protests have erupted, culminating in a sizable assembly in Washington last week. There has never been such a strong wave of solidarity with the Palestinian people. Most importantly, there has been a remarkable diversity of participants in the mobilizations calling for a ceasefire and Palestinian rights, including sizable groups of young American Jews, Arab, Black, Latino, and Asian Americans.
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The events taking place in Gaza and the United States have struck a chord with the very constituencies that Democrats have long considered indispensable to winning elections. This is a first for history. To be sure, they were able to rally support when Jesse Jackson brought up the subject of Palestinian rights during his two presidential campaigns in the 1980s and again when Bernie Sanders did the same in the previous ten years. This, however, differs in that it resembles the massive outpouring of support seen during the Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’s March, and the anti-Trump Muslim ban. However, there is a distinction once more.
Democrats mobilized for those protests, and the party leadership offered little real resistance. On the other hand, pro-Israel organizations have mobilized to threaten, humiliate, and punish those who are speaking out against the Israeli assault on Gaza, turning the pro-Palestinian protests into an intra-party conflict. Some Black and Latino groups lost funding, authorities disbanded campus organizations, and critics publicly derided some public figures who spoke out against racism as antisemitic. Democratic Coalition Faces Unprecedented Strain Amidst Israel/Palestine Conflict.
Before October 7, a majority of Democrats expressed more favorable sentiments towards Palestinians than Israelis, indicating a split on the issue of Palestinian rights. As the atrocities of the Israeli response became apparent, one may have believed that Hamas’ massacre of civilians would have changed that, but polls are indicating that the majority of Democrats are against it.
Pro-Israel groups taking repressive actions against students and others could potentially lead to a true breakup of the Democratic coalition. As well as their recent announcement that they would be spending millions to unseat Congressmen. Who voices opposition to Israel or support for Palestinian rights? The optics of a pro-Israel group threatening to spend money. (Raised from a small number of billionaire donors—some of whom are Republicans) will not sit well with other Democrats. Since all of the threatened congressional representatives are young people of color.
The party’s leadership will have to step in to rein in this behavior. If they hope to succeed in 2024 and beyond. Promote reasoned conversation and debate, but neutralize threats before they cause too much division.