US Presidential Elections: The Israel Angle

Viewpoints, August 2016
Prof. Eytan Gilboa


Both the Democratic and the Republican presidential nomination conventions approved platforms which include interesting paragraphs about Israel. Party platforms aren’t binding and US presidents often ignore then, but they clarify fundamental positions for voters.

The Republican platform includes a relatively long pro-Israeli paragraph, easily and unanimously approved, while the Democrats fiercely fought over their platform language on Israel.

The Republican platform begins with overall strong support for Israel. It mentions the values and the interests the two countries share. “Support for Israel is an expression of Americanism” the language reads, “and it is the responsibility of our government to advance policies that reflect Americans’ strong desire for a relationship with no daylight between America and Israel.”

The Republicans recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and call for the US Embassy to move to Jerusalem. This call has been made several times in the past, but has never been implemented by presidents from both parties. The platform also presents a strong commitment to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge over any and all adversaries.”

The Democratic nominee: Hillary Clinton and the Republican nominee Donald Trump. Credits: Flickr (Clinton); Michael Vadon / Wikimedia (Trump).

The Democratic nominee: Hillary Clinton and the Republican nominee Donald Trump. Credits: Flickr (Clinton); Michael Vadon / Wikimedia (Trump).

On Israeli-Palestinian issues, it departs from the traditional Republican support for the two-state solution: “We reject the false notion that Israel is an occupier. Specifically recognize that the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement (BDS) is anti-Semitic in nature and seeks to destroy Israel.” The statement calls for effective legislation against this movement.

“Party platforms aren’t binding, but they clarify fundamental positions for voters”

The platform also calls for a “comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East,” but opposes any measures to “impose an agreement or to dictate borders or other terms.” It ends with another general statement: “Our party is proud to stand with Israel now and always.”

Supporters of the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton conducted hard negotiations on the party platform with the supporters of her defeated rival Bernie Sanders. Sanders, a radical left-wing American Jew, has been very critical of Israel. He appointed as his representatives to the discussions a longtime opponent of Israel, James Zogby, an American-Lebanese and the head of the Arab-American Institute, and Cornel West, a radical left-wing academic who has advocated for the BDS movement.  Zogby and West pushed for language that would call for “an end to occupation and illegal settlements,” and strip out condemnation of the BDS. They were only partially successful.

The democrats rejected the references to “occupation” and “settlements,” and like the Republicans, “opposed any effort to delegitimize Israel, including at the UN or through the BDS movement.”  For the first time, however, they spoke of a Palestinian self-determination, calling for a solution that provides the Palestinians with “independence, sovereignty, and dignity.”

The Democrats strongly criticized the Republican platform on Israel, and the Republicans answered in the same way.  For decades, Israel has enjoyed bi-partisanship support in Washington. Polls reveal that in recent years, Republicans have supported Israel much more than the Democrats.

The Democrats, especially under President Barack Obama, have moved to the left, and this can be easily seen in the support Sanders gained in the primaries. The growing polarization between the parties, the poisonous relations between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and especially the battle over the Iran nuclear deal in the Congress, have also contributed to the deterioration in the relations between the Democrats and Israel.

The elected president may provide an opportunity to renew the traditional bi-partisanship approach to Israel.

Prof. Eytan Gilboa has held senior academic positions at Bar-Ilan University, and is currently Chair and Academic Director of the IPD Forum.