The Israel-Hamas War Will Reshape Western Politics

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By Ketrin Agustine

The Israel-Hamas War Will Reshape Western Politics

It’s been a long time since the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians occupied such a central place in Western political attention and debate — certainly not since the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2009, arguably not since the second intifada ended in 2005.

In that fairly distant past, the politics of Israel-Palestine broke down into alignments that were familiar and decades-old. On the pro-Israel side in the U.S. were three broad factions: Zionist Democrats, centrist and liberal; neoconservative hawks; and evangelical Christians. As you moved leftward, sympathy for the Palestinians increased, with American progressives and European conventional wisdom finding common ground in their critiques of the Israeli occupation. Finally there was also a rightward form of anti-Israel sentiment, held by Arabist realists and Pat Buchananite populists and European reactionaries — but in the aftermath of 9/11, with neoconservatism ascendant, this felt increasingly marginal.

These broad groupings still exist — evangelicals are still very pro-Israel, the Democratic president is a Zionist liberal, the progressive movement is pro-Palestinian — but in the current crisis you can see a more complex alignment taking shape, with implications that extend beyond the Israeli-Palestinian question alone. Here, very provisionally, are some ideological trends and tendencies worth watching.

The radicalization of progressivism. Nobody who has lived through the last decade’s Great Awokening should be surprised that Western progressivism now has a more radical line on Israel than it did 10 or 15 years ago, especially given Israel’s own rightward shift in that same time. But the extent to which the rhetoric of “decolonization” turns out to naturally extend — or, maybe, naturally circle back — from cultural and psychological projects to literal support for armed struggle and tacit apologia for antisemitic terror still feels like an important unveiling, a revelation of radicalization’s implications, a doorway into a future much more violently divided than our own.

The emergence of an “Arab street” inside the West. In the post-9/11 era, we were accustomed to think of popular discontent inside Arab and Muslim countries as an important geopolitical force in its own right. But 2023 may be remembered as the moment when Arab and Muslim discontent began to really matter inside Western countries as well.

The recent protests in European capitals, especially, are less an extension of a radicalized progressivism than a straightforward expression of ethnic and religious solidarity with the Palestinians on the part of Middle Eastern immigrants and their descendants. And the tacit alliance between this diaspora and a secular, feminist, gay-affirming Western progressivism — “Islamo-gauchisme” in the French phrase — raises big questions for both progressives and conservative Muslims about who is using whom, and how the Western left and Western Islam might ultimately co-evolve.

The unstable European relationship to Israel. In one sense, the mass movements protesting on Palestine’s behalf in European streets would seem likely to ratify the pre-existing anti-Israel tilt of many European leaders. But if Europe is moving rightward overall, becoming more doubtful about mass immigration, more fearful of Islamicization and terrorism and more protective of its native culture as it slides toward old age — well, then, you could easily imagine European sympathy for the Israeli position increasing, with fear of an Islamist enemy within driving identification with Israel abroad.

And indeed signs of this are visible already: The British writer Aris Roussinos recently observed that commentary in Britain now seems even a little more sympathetic to Israel than American commentary, while across the Channel, Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to rally a grand anti-Hamas coalition and his government’s ban on pro-Palestinian demonstrations belong to a very different landscape from the world of 2005.

The dilemmas of progressive Jews and Zionist Democrats. If the pressures on European elites come from multiple directions, the pressures on American Jews and Zionists inside the Democratic coalition push just one way: toward the right. Progressive Jews who thought of themselves as pro-peace, pro-Palestinian and anti-Likud are going to have a lot of trouble feeling at home inside a progressive movement that seems conflicted or paralyzed when it’s asked to condemn Hamas. Zionist liberals who are closer to the political center can take comfort that their worldview is still shared by most of the Democratic Party’s politicians, including the Democratic president. But the leftward ratchet in Democratic politics has been a powerful force, and generational turnover means that progressive activists may get a chance to reshape the party in their own image before long. At which point, where might Zionist Democrats go, if not toward actual conservatism?

A reconstituted neoconservatism, a resilient Christian Zionism. One thing that liberal supporters of Israel will find if they move rightward, indeed a thing that some are already helping to create, is a new variation on neoconservatism. This isn’t the George W. Bush-era version, with its world-bestriding confidence in American power and its hawkish grand strategy. Rather, it’s a more inchoate alliance against whatever progressivism is becoming. Many of its members still feel uncomfortable associating with a Trumpist G.O.P., but they’re too intensely alienated from progressivism to belong to the left-of-center coalition any more. This makes it a movement more like 1970s-era neoconservatism — a mugged-by-reality halfway house for intellectuals unhappy with their options but trending clearly to the right.

The other thing that rightward-moving Zionists will find is resilient evangelical support for Israel, which has persisted through all the disillusionments of the last two decades, all the anti-idealism of Trump-era foreign policy. This enduring affinity, embodied for instance in the pro-Israel statements of new speaker of the House, reflects not just dispensationalist expectations of the apocalypse (though those certainly exist) but a widespread, very American-Protestant sense of the links between the American Republic and the Chosen People, the New World and the Hebrew Bible, that go back to the foundations of our country.

It’s also a worldview that many American Jews, secular Jews especially, find peculiar or suspicious. The question is whether that suspicion will diminish if the Democratic Party no longer seems like a safe harbor for their Zionism.

The uncertain attitudes of the alienated right. One thing that’s kept many Jews from moving rightward till now, of course, is a fear of right-wing antisemitism, the kind of xenophobia that Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016 seemed to consciously stir to life. Trump’s actual presidency was pro-Israel, indeed often more pro-Israel than those of his G.O.P. predecessors, but along extremely transactional lines — witness Trump’s own initial reaction to the Hamas attacks, which was to gripe about the various ways that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had let him down. And an “America First” mentality, along with other forms of right-wing politics quite distinct from both neoconservatism and pro-Israel evangelicalism, clearly matters more to American conservatism today than 15 years ago.

Among my fellow conservative Catholics, for instance, there’s a longstanding anger at George W. Bush for invading Iraq and letting Middle Eastern Christianity be devastated by the ensuing wars, and a sense that Israel was that foolhardy project’s accomplice. Among the would-be vitalists and Nietzscheans of the post-Christian right, and certain other far-right influencers, there’s plenty of conspiracy theorizing and anti-Semitism. And then the Trump-era Republican coalition writ large includes a lot of nonreligious, disaffected, working-class Americans, for whom pro-Israel sentiments may come to feel, or feel already, like a luxury belief, a province of the elites whom they disdain.

My guess is that notwithstanding these specters on the right, over the long term you should bet on more rightward movement among American Jews, probably accelerated by the higher birthrates of the already more right-wing Orthodox. But mostly you should bet on unsettlement, on the right and left alike, as people come to terms with what the new debate about Israel and the Palestinians reveals about how much the Western world has changed already, and how much more change lies ahead.

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