By Ramzy Baroud
Despite the massive sums of money spent to channel public opinion in the United States in favor of Israel, unmistakable trends in opinion polls are attesting to the changing dynamics of Israel’s support among ordinary Americans.
Not only is Israel losing its support and overall appeal among large sections of American society, but also among young American Jews — a particularity worrying phenomenon for the Israeli government. The trend promises to be a lasting one, since it has been in the making for years, starting some time after the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001. It was on that date that the affinity between Israel and the US purportedly grew to unprecedented levels, since both countries claimed to be fighting “Islamic terror.” In reality, the attacks, the ensuing media discourse, and subsequent wars all coagulated the support of Christian Evangelists behind Israel, as they saw the widening conflict in the Middle East as part of a long-awaited prophecy.
It was precisely then that the support for Israel from American liberals, especially those identifying with the Democratic Party, began to weaken. With time, supporting or not supporting Israel became a partisan issue, which is itself unprecedented.
While the Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exploits every opportunity to maximize support for Israel in order to achieve objectives deemed important by the Israeli right, ultra-right and religious parties, Netanyahu’s conceited and confrontational style has alienated many Americans, especially Democrats. Worse, Netanyahu’s policies of entrenching the occupation, blocking any peace efforts and expanding illegal Jewish settlements also began to shift the kind of support that Israel has historically taken for granted: That of American Jews.
A comprehensive Pew poll published in October 2013 indicated that a growing number of US Jews questioned the sincerity of the Israeli government in its alleged efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Palestine. Only 38 percent thought Tel Aviv was sincere, and only 17 percent agreed that the illegal Jewish settlements were conducive to Israel’s security, while 44 percent thought the opposite.
The Israeli government, aware of the generational gap within US Jewish communities, seemed more fixated on maximizing the unprecedented trend of support it was receiving from US Republicans and religious conservatives, especially Christian Evangelists.
Fast forward to January 2018, and Israel’s rating among American Jews has plummeted even further. According to a recent Brand Israel Group study, “support for Israel among Jewish college students in the United States has dropped 32 percent between 2010 and 2016,” reported the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The survey was accompanied by stern warnings from the CEO and director-general of the influential Jewish Agency, Alan Hoffman, who described the findings as “extremely worrisome.”
However, no contingency plan is likely to reverse these numbers any time soon, since they are consistent with the overall perception of Israel among the US population. The assumption that US Jews are an insulated group, which lends support to Israel irrespective of political trends in the country as a whole, no longer suffices.
US Jewish communities are changing, and so is the entire country: The number of Democrats identifying as “liberal” leapt from 27 percent to 41 percent between 2000 and 2015. This change has been accompanied by rising sympathy toward Palestinians by that same group, as indicated by a May 2016 Pew poll, which showed that more liberal Democrats said they sympathized with Palestinians than with Israel: 40 percent versus 33 percent.
At the time, it was prematurely concluded by various media analysts that the growing disenchantment with Israel had much to do with the feud between Netanyahu and then-US President Barack Obama. Netanyahu had repeatedly challenged — and often humiliated — popular Democrat Obama on various issues, notably the expansion of the illegal settlements and the Iran nuclear deal. However, the trend continued simply because, once an issue falls into the realm of Washington partisan politics, it immediately becomes a polarizing one.
For decades, Israel was considered the only issue that united all Americans regardless of their political and ideological affiliations. That is no longer valid, and Netanyahu has played a major role in this.
The trend among liberal Democrats was countered with another trend among Republicans, who have adopted the cause of Israel as their own. According to Pew, 79 percent of conservative Republicans support Israel, while 65 percent of liberal Republicans share that view.
While Christian Evangelists succeeded in making unconditional support for Israel the litmus test for any candidate who seeks their vote, the Israeli cause is no longer a rallying cry for Democrats. Pew concluded that “the share of liberal Democrats who side more with the Palestinians than with Israel has nearly doubled since 2014 (from 21 percent to 40 percent) and is higher than at any point dating back to 2001.”
More studies by Pew were conducted in January 2017 and January 2018, all confirming that the trend is a lasting one. Of all Democrats, only 33 percent sympathized with Israel, according to Pew’s January 2017 poll. It was the “first time ever” that the Democratic Party “was nearly equally split between support for Israel and support for the Palestinians.”
And, as support for Palestinians has grown among Democrats, so has the margin between the two major parties, as the most recent Pew research indicates. While support for Israel among Republicans has remained high, a whopping 79 percent, support for Israel among Democrats has sunk even further, to 27 percent.
True, Netanyahu’s strategy in courting US conservatives has proved a success. However, the price of that success is that the relationship between Israel and the American public has fundamentally changed. Netanyahu has shoved Israel into the heart of polarizing American politics and, although he has achieved his short-term goals (for example, obtaining US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel), he has irrevocably damaged the decades-long consensus on Israel among Americans, and in that there is a great source of hope.