On Tuesday night, there was a single mention of the word “Israel” during the Democratic debate. It was uttered by the most conservative candidate on the stage, Jim Webb, while arguing that the Iran nuclear deal is a “strategic failing” that upset the balance of power between “our greatest ally Israel” and other Middle East powers, and ultimately opened the door for Russian intervention in Syria.
Contrast that with 23 references to Israel during the two “primetime” Republican debates. Carly Fiorina pledged that if she were elected, her first call, “on day one in the Oval Office,” would be “to my good friend Bibi Netanyahu to reassure him we will stand with the state of Israel.” Jeb Bush promised that his administration would “make sure that [Israel has] the most sophisticated weapons.” And, echoing a promise that’s been in the Republican platform since 1995, Ted Cruz said that his election would assure that “the American embassy in Israel will be in Jerusalem.”
One shouldn’t read too much into this. Democrats still go out of their way to assure the world that they “stand with” the Jewish state. And despite his administration’s well-documented tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama assured skeptics of the Iran nuclear deal that he’s “pursued an unprecedented level of military, intelligence and security cooperation with Israel.” The numbers back that up. The administration has given $20.5 billion in foreign military assistance to Israel since 2009. And next week, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will travel to Tel Aviv in an attempt to persuade Netanyahu, who cut off talks in protest of the Iran deal, to accept a big increase in military aid over the next ten years.
But the parties’ disparate focus on Israel is consistent with the increasingly partisan nature of “pro-Israel” politics in the United States, something that’s become a near-obsession of the Israeli and Jewish press. A Bloomberg poll conducted in April found that “Republicans by a ratio of more than 2-to-1 say the U.S. should support Israel even when its stances diverge with American interests,” while Democrats, “by roughly the same ratio, say the opposite is true and that the U.S. must pursue its own interests over Israel’s.”
The context here is rising polarization in both the United States and Israel. Israeli politics have shifted far to the right over the past 20 or so years, culminating in Netanyahu’s reelection in March following a campaign in which he abandoned the two-state solution—the foundation of decades of US Middle East policy—and promised to build more settlements.