A new survey shows that support for Israel is continuing to erode among Democrats, a fact that is already reflected in the rhetoric of 2020 presidential hopefuls.
“Among the public overall, larger shares have favorable opinions of both the Israeli people (64 percent very or somewhat favorable) and the Israeli government (41 percent) than of the Palestinian people (46 percent) and the Palestinian government (19 percent),” the Pew Research Center states.
But its new survey of more than 10,000 people, highlights a growing partisan divide over Israel: 53 percent of Democrats and Democrat leaners say they have unfavorable views of both the Israeli and Palestinian governments, while just 14 percent say they have a favorable view of both governments.
Another 12 percent of Democrats are favorable to the Israeli government while unfavorable towards the Palestinian government. A similar number – 13 percent – express favor towards the Palestinian government, while holding an unfavorable view of Israel’s leadership.
By contrast, 51 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners told the pollsters that they hold a favorable view of Israel’s government, while viewing the Palestinian government unfavorably. Just 9 percent of Republicans view both favorably.
Pew also separately asked respondents about their views towards the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, as opposed to their governments. Across the board, even among Republicans, views were more favorable, even towards Palestinians.
Overall, 39 percent say they have a favorable view of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, a figure that rises to 46 percent among Democrats and drops to a still notable 30 percent among Republicans.
Yet 46 percent of Republicans polled hold an unfavorable view of the Palestinian people, while viewing the Israeli people favorably, a figure that drops to 10 percent among Democrats.
This indicates that hardline anti-Palestinian views are in a small minority among Democratic voters.
Pew argues that separating questions about attitudes towards governments as opposed to peoples allows a more nuanced understanding of public opinion.
Yet revealing as this may be, it is arguably still deeply misleading since the questions place Palestinians and Israelis on a par, concealing the reality that the former live under military occupation, internationally illegal settler-colonization and a system of apartheid imposed by the latter.
The survey did not ask Americans about their views on any of those realities.
Democrats take swipes at Netanyahu
Yet the partisan divide, especially the unfavorable views of the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is already playing out as the race for the 2020 presidential nomination heats up in the Democratic Party.
Making sharp attacks on the Netanyahu government, while professing support for Israel itself, is now seen as a safe way to address grassroots demands for more outspoken support for Palestinian rights.
In a CNN town hall meeting on Monday, Senator Bernie Sanders said that the goal of US policy towards Israelis and Palestinians “must be to try to bring people together and not just support one country, which is now run by a right-wing – dare I say – racist government.”
Watch a video of his statement above.
Sanders, the de facto leader of the progressive wing of the Democrats and a frontrunner for the party’s nomination, has in recent years become more vocal in criticizing Israel.
His characterization of the Netanyahu government as racist drew a rebuke from the powerful Israel lobby group AIPAC, which tweeted that “Name-calling by political leaders against the democratically elected government of Israel is counterproductive to maintaining close ties and advancing peace.”
Yet even on CNN, Sanders reaffirmed his view that “Israel has every right in the world to exist, and to exist in peace and security and not be subjected to terrorist attacks.”
Sanders is not the only Democratic presidential hopeful feeling pressure to show more backbone when it comes to criticizing Israel.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, the other big-name progressive in the race, also directly attacked Netanyahu in February for “embracing right-wing extremism” and for his alleged corruption.
Centrists who are vying for progressive credentials have also got in on the game.
Former congressman Beto O’Rourke, a staunch supporter of Israel, recently drew Israel lobby ire for calling Netanyahu “racist,” while in practically the same breath asserting that “the US-Israel relationship is one of the most important relationships that we have on the planet.”
Even Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana mayor who is positioning himself to the right of Sanders, took a swipe at Netanyahu’s plans to annex West Bank settlements.
Days before this month’s Israeli election, Buttigieg called the Israeli prime minister’s announcement a “provocation,” adding that “Supporting Israel does not have to mean agreeing with Netanyahu‘s politics.”
Old guard stands by Israel
In contrast, by taking a completely uncritical pro-Israel stance, Senator Kamala Harris, another centrist, is now seen as the outlier, breaking with the pack.
“Many of Harris’ 2020 rivals have been much more outspoken in their criticism of an increasingly right-wing Israeli government, amid polling that shows Democrats are less sympathetic toward Israeli policy on the Palestinians than at any other time in over 40 years,” The Chicago Tribune noted this month.
Harris can, however, expect that fellow old-guard centrists who have launched presidential bids, including senators Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, and former Vice-President Joe Biden, will be equally pro-Israel.
Biden, who just formally entered the race, has more than once asserted that “were there no Israel, America would have to invent one.”
As vice-president to Barack Obama, Biden was a member of one of the most pro-Israel administrations in history, which during eight years did nothing to rein in Israeli occupation, military attacks on Palestinian civilians and colonization, and went out the door granting Israel the biggest military aid package in history.
But centrists too are feeling the pressure: many stayed away from the recent AIPAC conference, even while top elected Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, gave a speech implicitly attacking members of her own party and disparaging the nonviolent boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.
The Democrats who criticize Netanyahu while reaffirming support for Israel are still ducking the central issue of how Israel itself is a racist state, and how that racism underpins all its violent policies towards Palestinians.
Yet given Netanyahu’s dominance of Israeli politics, particularly after the convincing election victory of his right-wing alliance, the Israeli prime minister is for now a proxy for Israel itself in American political discourse.
Limited though this discourse is, it does potentially open the way to a real debate about the US-Israel relationship.
But she went a little further, stating that cuts to US military and economic aid should be “on the table.”
These continued shifts have long had the Israel lobby deeply worried about the loss of progressive support for Israel, and Israel’s partisans are not taking it lying down.
As the 2020 campaign progresses, their counterattack is certain to include more false and defamatory charges of anti-Semitism, such as those leveled against Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and deployed for years across the Atlantic in the right-wing effort to oust UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
- 2020 US presidential election
- Democratic Party
- Pew Research Center
- Republican Party
- Bernie Sanders
- Elizabeth Warren
- Beto O'Rourke
- Peter Buttigieg
- Kamala Harris
- Cory Booker
- Amy Klobuchar
- Joe Biden
- Barack Obama
- US aid to Israel
- Nancy Pelosi
- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
- Labour witch hunt
- Ilhan Omar
- Jeremy Corbyn