American political debate around the issue of Israel and Palestine has often been a highly emotional one, constrained within very tight rhetorical parameters. Over the past decade, the terms of this debate have been shifting slowly, but steadily. Whereas in previous years, questioning America’s relationship with Israel was unthinkable for a U.S. presidential hopeful, this year’s campaign has witnessed a widening of the space in which candidates can debate U.S. policy toward Israel-Palestine.
The creation in 2008 of the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group J Street, as a more liberal counterweight to the conservative-leaning American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), was a major indicator of a shift in ‘acceptable’ political discussion on Israel. The very public tensions between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past few years further extended the parameters within which American politicians could question, and criticize, Israeli policies.
The ground shifted perceptibly during the 2015 debate over the P5+1-Iran nuclear agreement, particularly when Netanyahu surprised the White House with the announcement of a speech to Congress, agreed upon in secret with House Speaker John Boehner, against the deal. Coming as it did after Netanyahu’s stiff-arming of U.S. peace efforts, this clear breach of protocol, in an unprecedented effort to undermine the president’s foreign policy agenda in coordination with the president’s partisan critics, provoked a sharp reaction from numerous Democrats, many of whom refused to attend Netanyahu’s speech.
Moving into the 2016 primary season, polls had shown for some years that a growing divide on the issue of Israel-Palestine, with Democrats, particularly liberal Democrats, identifying less strongly with Israel, and more supportive of an even-handed U.S. approach to the conflict. A Gallup poll released in early 2015 showed less than half of Democrats professing support for Israel over the Palestinians, a 10-point drop from the previous year. A May 2016 Pew poll found that, while a majority of voters still favor Israel, liberal Democrats supported the Palestinians (40 percent) over Israelis (30 percent).http://www.mei.edu/content/article/presidential-race-shifts-discourse-israel-palestine