Bill Clinton, the Jewish Forward reports, has criticized Jimmy Carter's book Peace Not Apartheid. In so doing, he has marked a key moment in the Democratic Party's move away from its historical pro-Israel position.
Clinton's statement must have come as stinging criticism to Carter. "If I were an Israeli I wouldn't like it, because it's not factually correct and it's not fair," Clinton told the United Jewish Federation of San Diego in response to a question about the book. Both the Democratic Party brass and the media, however, seem unconcerned about a public rift between both living men who have won presidential elections under the Democratic banner. This suggests that the Democratic Party has "grown" to the point it could, in theory, nominate a squarely anti-Israel candidate who shares Carter's views.
Israel will doubtless continue to have significant numbers of friends in the Democratic Party, but the party base's willingness to ignore the rift signals a sea change.
In the two-party system, after all, both parties hold a variety of important core tenants that politicians wishing to climb the ranks need to endorse. The national Republican Party has little patience for people who want to hike taxes and the Democrats try to beat out anyone who won't buy into their cultural agenda. Nearly all Republicans court small business support aggressively; nearly all Democrats go after unions. But, beyond that, both parties tolerate great differences. A once resolutely pro-life Republican Party, for example, now places a pro-choicer in the front of the pack for its nomination and thus has made it clear that it no longer considers a position on abortion a litmus test.
When prominent members of a party speak out against true core positions, however, it often spells the end of their careers. Former Senator Lincoln Chaffee, for example, lost the confidence of the Republican base and its major donors when he started agitating in favor of tax hikes.
Democrats, historically, have stood by Israel. Even Carter himself negotiated the Camp David accords that, while flawed, did improve the Jewish State's security. Things have changed. Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean himself has said that "it's not our position to take sides" in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. (Dean, in fairness, insists that the quote is taken out of context.)
So far, all of this, even the Clinton-Carter rift, adds up to very little for the current presidential cycle. Simply because all of the viable candidates have taken consistent pro-Israel positions, the 2008 Democratic candidate for President will doubtless run on a platform with pro-Israel language almost indistinguishable from the Republican Party's.
But the near silence (save one article in a small-circulation newspaper) that has greeted Clinton's comments on Carter likely does prove something: Israel no longer plays a key role in the Democratic agenda and differences on the issue will not enrage the party base. There's no doubt, after all, that both Carter and Clinton will offer their stalwart support to the Party's 2008 nominee despite their open and significant differences on Israel. Those differences just aren't significant enough to get in the way of party unity any longer.
It may take years for the Democratic Party to nominate an avowedly anti-Israel candidate for a major office. Such a candidate might well lose. Enormous numbers of Democrats will likely count themselves as friends of Israel no matter what. But the silence about a rift between America's two most prominent Democrats shows that the party no longer considers support for Israel a key position.
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