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Jun 21, 2024, 12:45pm EDT
politicsNorth America

The new anti-Israel right’s failure to launch

Ronda Churchill/REUTERS
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The Scene

In four days, Democratic voters will settle the most expensive House primary in American history, capping off a long season of brutal fights over Israel. Most of the money — $14.5 million and counting — has flowed from the pro-Israel group AIPAC, which has spent across the country against Democratic critics of the war in Gaza.

The group has spent less than $400,000 against Republicans, all of it targeting Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, a longtime opponent of foreign aid. “The reason they’re mad at me,” Massie told Semafor, “is that Mike Johnson keeps bringing votes on Israel to the floor to try to catch the Democrats in what I call sticky traps.” His own votes stood out, he said, because no other Republican was applying the party’s Trump-era skepticism of foreign entanglements and spending to Israel.

Nine months after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, support for the war has been slipping. But calls for ceasefires and conditions on US aid have been concentrated among Democrats. Republicans, and the most powerful conservative groups, have largely spoken with one voice while shoving a relatively small minority of dissenting voices to the side with little incident.

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“The vast majority of Republicans are resolutely pro-Israel,” said Turning Point Action founder Charlie Kirk, in an interview at the group’s “people’s convention” in Detroit last week.

Nick Fuentes, an antisemitic influencer, was turned away from the conference, dubbing it “Israel-occupied territory.” Kirk had already been confronted by young anti-Israel activists on the right for years, and surmised that they were getting no traction in his party.

“The only objections you might hear on the right is about the amount of money being spent, or whether there should be strings attached,” Kirk said. “You do not hear anywhere in the conservative base that we should not support Israel in their war against Hamas. We will disagree on how that support should look, but not on who is in the right.”

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Republican presidents were tougher on Israel in the past; even George W. Bush’s administration clashed with its leaders at times over its push for a two-state solution. But since 9/11 and the Second Intifada, the conservative consensus has consistently moved in one direction — toward strong, full-throated support for Israel as its standard position.

One Israel critic who did make it into the conference, wearing a T-shirt that read “from the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free,” kept stopping to have conversations with conservative activists about how this was the true America First position. Every time I saw him, he was outnumbered, firmly being told that Palestinians had no right to the land God granted to the Jews.

Commentators on the right with more critical views, like Massie’s, have found little pick-up in the broader movement. The post-Fox Tucker Carlson has accused some Israel-focused conservatives of being “focused on a conflict in a foreign country as their own country becomes dangerously unstable.” That has not become the popular view on the right.

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“Israel is like abortion for the left: A unifying issue that has major fundraising potential for the right while also simultaneously splitting opponents,” said Saagar Enjeti, the right-leaning co-host of the Breaking Points podcast, who got blowback for the comments Carlson made in their interview. “Even those who may not agree with Israel 100% stay silent because watching opponents tear each other apart is more politically advantageous.”

Donald Trump, who has immense power to shape the Republican conversation, has largely stayed out of this one. He criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for being taken by surprise on Oct. 7, but never detailed what he’d do now. On an episode of the All-In podcast this week, when asked about “the right path” to end the war, Trump said “it would have never happened” on his watch, insisting that his pressure on Iran would have starved Hamas of resources.

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David’s view

On paper, there’s room for Israel critics to make inroads with the Republican Party. Twenty years ago, “neocon” was a slur used by liberals with dark connotations that Republicans defended their party against; in the Trump GOP, it’s a name for the war hawks who MAGA kicked out of the party. Some of Trump’s more populist supporters like to argue that he’ll keep the US at arms length from foreign conflicts.

The party also includes plenty of rank-and-file voters who want to stop funding Israel’s war — one in three Republicans, according to a Fox News poll this week. It’s a fair subject for the newer media (podcasts, Twitter, TikTok) that are popular with the younger, skeptical, anti-politics members of the Trump coalition who are more receptive to anti-war pitches that sometimes overlap with the anti-Biden left.

But the movement has gotten no serious traction inside the GOP. One reason: Good, old-fashioned negative polarization. The Israel question divides Democrats, not Republicans, and the sort of pro-Israel resolutions regularly passed by the GOP House — like defining “antisemitism” as anti-Zionism — have become renewable sources of left/liberal infighting.

There hasn’t been perfect unity: Some Republicans opposed a bill to expand the definition of antisemitism on campus, arguing it was too broadly worded; some conservatives also waged an unsuccessful fight to offset Israel aid with domestic cuts elsewhere. But none of these debates have really cut to the question of whether Israel’s war is just, whether the US should play hardball to end it, or the status of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. When Netanyahu comes to Washington next month, he’s expected to receive an extremely warm welcome from Republican members — and protests and snubs from many Democrats.

The anti-war movement is overwhelmingly organized by left-wing activists that Republicans already dislike, especially on campus. Trump’s spoken in far more detail about the protests (“raging lunatics and Hamas sympathizers”) than he has about an end to the war; Kirk said that the situation on campus was “a volcano waiting to erupt,” exposing all of the beliefs about “settler colonialism” that he already knew about, and voters would be repulsed by.

“Israel is our ally, she needs to be defended,” Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford told activists at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s annual conference in D.C., on Friday. It needed to be defended, in particular, from “activists [who] scream ‘from the river to the sea’ and call for the annihilation of the Jewish people.”

That disgust has strengthened the already-robust Republican support for Israel, which has long united both religious conservatives and national security hawks. The anti-Jewish activists who tried to talk their way into Kirk’s convention were immediately booted; no one inside the event could hear Fuentes as he accused Miriam Adelson, a major Trump donor, of buying off the GOP and making it put Israel first.

Candace Owens and Alex Jones, who have both criticized Israel on their usual media platforms, said nothing about it at the conference. In March, Owens left a prominent perch at The Daily Wire amid an ugly public fight with co-founder Ben Shapiro over Israel. Shapiro had earlier called Owen’s commentary, which had veered into remarks that were widely condemned as antisemitic while discussing Israel, “disgraceful.”

The Owens affair points to a related issue: To the extent there’s been a debate over Israel within the right, it overlaps significantly with a separate internal fight over whether to purge fringe activists who have expressed antisemitic or white nationalist views. A study of voter opinion by political scientist Michael Tesler found opposition to Israel aid within the GOP was heavily concentrated among voters who also view Jewish people unfavorably. This isn’t to say opposition to Israel policy on the right is inherently antisemitic or confined to antisemites, but people who buck the overwhelming default position among conservative activists tend to have a strong reason for disagreeing.

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The View From THE REPUBLICAN JEWISH COALITION

“A few years ago, any candidate — Republican or Democrat — could get on stage and say, ‘I stand with Israel’, and it was an automatic applause line,” said Sam Markstein, Republican Jewish Coalition national political director. “These days, if you did that as a Democrat, you’d be booed.” Markstein predicted that his party wouldn’t budge: “Republicans know Israel must be given the time, space, and support it needs to win this war of good versus evil — Democrats, unfortunately, have totally lost the plot.”

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Notable

  • In the Forward, Jacob Kornbluh sketches out the questions that CNN’s moderators should ask the candidates about Israel, like “What measures would a Trump administration undertake to bring this war to an end?”
  • In the Washington Free Beacon, Adam Kredo reports on Republican efforts to speed up military aid to Israel: “You’re playing politics with the nation’s honor and our ally’s security,” Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton wrote in a letter to the administration.
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