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Biden Middle East trip: Where national polarization meets party polarization

When Biden visits the Middle East this week on his first trip as US President, he will likely face a unique situation of not having a strong unified political base cheering him on and praising the trip as a success. Republican members of Congress will almost certainly downplay any policy or diplomatic achievements Biden will make, jumping at any and every opportunity to paint Biden as not supportive enough of Israel. Republicans will contrast Biden’s visit with that of his predecessor, Trump, who enjoyed wide approval in Israel. While previous Presidents at least enjoyed vocal and unified support from their own party on their trips to Israel, the current Democratic party is certainly vocal, but anything but unified when it comes to Israel. While in the Middle East, every location Biden visits, every speech he makes, every leader he meets with will be scrutinized and questioned by Democrats and Republicans alike. 

The backlash Biden will receive from members of his own Democratic party regarding his Israel visit will be compounded by the fact that it will be linked with his trip to Saudi Arabia, whose leaders Biden called a “pariah” during the 2019 Democratic debate. By promoting normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia and not isolating them as some in his party want, Biden will be seen by them as committing two wrongs without making a right.

A recent study conducted by the Jewish People Policy Institute on the politicization of Israel in Congress, which analyzed 2.5 million tweets by members of Congress over the past decade, including 12,098 tweets about Israel, provides a unique perspective on the political challenges Biden faces on Israel. The study shows the alarming extent to which bipartisan congressional support for Israel is eroding and being replaced by political barbs that use Israel a weapon to score political points. 

Although the majority of Democrats and Republicans in Congress are supportive of Israel, many Republicans are taking advantage of the fringe group of Democrats who are vocal in their criticism of Israel to cast the democratic party as anti-Israel. In 2021, Republicans mentioned the Democratic party more often in their tweets about Israel than in their tweets unrelated to Israel. Almost a quarter of Republicans in the current Congress attack Democrats in the majority of their tweets about Israel. Through Twitter, Republicans in Congress in 2021 were successful in spinning benign Democratic legislative maneuvers into sensational media headlines which overshadow the overwhelming bipartisan support that Israel still receives on actual votes. 

Members of Congress have the ability to shape and influence how Biden’s Israel trip will be perceived domestically. Even if Biden avoids any diplomatic blunders and expresses strong support for Israel, Republicans can turn attention to the few congressional Democrats who will be outspoken against Biden’s policies towards Israel to cast doubt on the trip. 

During the Obama and Trump administrations, Israel emerged as a wedge issue between Republicans and Democrats. Biden’s Middle East trip could reveal the extent to which Israel has become a wedge issue among Democrats. The approaching mid-term elections only raise the stakes of Biden’s visit. Inflation and the economy are challenging enough that Democratic candidates cannot afford to lose supporters over failed diplomatic ventures. For his trip to be deemed a success, Biden needs to find a way to keep members of his own party from acting as spoilers.

About the Author
Noah Slepkov is a Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and a managing partner at theMadad.com. Previously, he worked as a Foreign Policy advisor in the Knesset. He holds a master’s degree in diplomacy and conflict resolution from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
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