Jonathan Rynhold relates that while Democrats overwhelmingly hold a favourable view of Israel, the special relationship increasingly rests on Israel’s identity as a liberal democracy. He argues that there is an urgent need for an Israeli Prime Minister to shore up bipartisanship regarding Israel, although the hyper-partisan atmosphere in America – which is not about Israel – makes this increasingly difficult. In this context, Israel must seek to divorce itself from American party politics and must also consistently demonstrate a willingness, in principle, to support a two-state solution which will involve extensive territorial concessions, in exchange for peace and security.
In 2018 Ilan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women representatives in Congress. Both are Democrats and both support BDS against Israel. Tlaib also opposes a two-state solution, while Omar has had to apologise twice for antisemitic comments related to Israel. Another member of “The Squad”, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, came out against BDS, although she did compare the shooting of African-American demonstrators in Ferguson by the police to Israel’s firing at Hamas on the Gaza border. While Beto O’Rourke, one of the candidates for the Democratic Party nomination for President, voted against providing Israel with aid for spare parts for the Iron Dome missile defence system during the 2014 Gaza conflict. President Trump has sought to take advantage of this situation by painting the Democratic Party as a whole as anti-Israel.
These incidents have received wide media coverage and have led pundits and politicians alike to debate whether the Democratic Party has turned against the Jewish state or whether these incidents have been blown out of all proportion by Republicans on the one hand, and BDS activists on the other. This question is examined below.
The What: Trends in Democrats’ attitudes towards the Israel-Palestinian Conflict
A Favourable view of Israel and the Two-State Solution
Over the last twenty years a large majority of self-identified Democrats have held a favourable view of Israel. In 2019, 62 percent of Democrats had a favourable view of Israel, 36 percent an unfavourable view. In a mirror image, only 27 percent had a favourable view of the Palestinian Authority, while 65 percent held an unfavourable view.[i]
As for BDS, according to a June 2019 poll, when presented with the following statement, “The BDS movement is a movement to boycott, divest and sanction products and businesses in Israel in order to weaken and destroy Israel,” about half of Democrats agreed that support for the BDS movement is anti-Semitic, about a fifth disagreed. At the same time, just under half agreed that it is in America’s interest to have Israel as its closest ally in the Middle East, again 20 percent disagreed.[ii] These figures indicate that only a minority of Democrats have a negative view of Israel.
Despite favouring Israel on a personal basis, a majority of Democrats prefer that the United States government adopt an even-handed approach to the peace process. About sixty percent consistently favour the establishment of a Palestinian state[iii] while three-quarters oppose Israel expanding settlements in the West Bank.[iv] These preferences contributed towards negative attitudes to Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition government in the 2015-19 timeframe.[v]
Despite this, when it comes to support for the two state solution, Israeli public opinion has actually been considerably closer to the stance of Democrats than Republicans – who overwhelmingly oppose Palestinian statehood – a fact which is greatly under-appreciated on both sides of the Atlantic.[vi] The key difference between the Israeli public and Democrats is less about the end-goal and more about the likelihood of getting there in the near future. While a majority of Democrats consistently optimistic about this possibility,[vii] in light of their experiences since the collapse of the Oslo process in 2000, Israelis have become deeply sceptical that this vision has any hope of realisation in the foreseeable future.
A Negative View of Israeli Military Operations
These contrasting perceptions about the likelihood of peace, find a parallel in attitudes to Israel’s use of force against Hamas and Hezbollah. Here, Democrats attitudes diverge even from left-wing Israelis (see figure 1 below). Virtually all Americans opposed the use of force by Hamas and Hezbollah. But while a large majority of Republicans approved of Israel’s military operations against those groups and considered Israel to have used an appropriate level of military force, a plurality of Democrats disapproved and were increasingly divided on whether Israel had used the appropriate level of force.[viii]
Figure 1: Public Opinion of Israelis and Americans: Operation Protective Edge vs Hamas 2014[ix]
Sympathy for Israel over the Palestinians: Sharp Decline 2015-19
Despite these differences over policy, Democrats remained firmly in Israel’s corner. Between 2001 and 2014, they consistently sympathised with Israel over the Palestinians by a margin of more than 2:1[x]. Republican sympathy with Israel surged to around 10:1, but the pro-Israel margin also went up a little among Democrats. This was remarkable when compared to Europe. In both Europe and the United States, the Right was more supportive of Israel than the Left; however, while the European Left tilted towards the Palestinians, liberal Democrats were actually more sympathetic to Israel than the European Right.[xi]
However, in the last five years the pro-Israel margin among Democrats has dropped by a whopping 25 percentage points (figure 2). Such a sharp deterioration is unprecedented.
Figure 2: Democrats: Margin of sympathy for Israel over the Palestinians
The Why: Explaining differences over Policy and the Sharp Decline in Sympathy
Differences over Policy
Democrats’ attitudes regarding policy towards Israel derive from their underlying dovish attitudes to American foreign policy in general. In the new Millennium Democrats have become increasingly sceptical about the utility of military force and increasingly hopeful about the promise of diplomacy. About two-thirds of Democrats agree that ‘relying too much on military force to defeat terrorism creates hatred that leads to more terrorism’.[xii] Underlying this dovish trend is a deeper ideological shift, with younger generations of Democrats being more liberal and secular than their elders. When Al Gore ran for the presidency in 2000, almost half of all Democrats identified themselves as ‘moderates’ and there were almost as many Democrats who identified as conservatives as identified as liberal. Today, a majority of Democrats define themselves as liberal, almost four times more than the number who define themselves as conservative.[xiii] For many years, liberals have been the ideological cohort least supportive of Israel.[xiv]
The Sharp Decline in Democrats’ Sympathy for Israel
Growing dovishness, liberalism and secularization generate a more challenging environment for supporting Israel in an era when the Israeli body politic has become more hawkish, conservative and religious. Yet these trends cannot explain the virtual wiping out of Israel’s advantage over the Palestinians in the sympathies of Democrats. The general shift in the character of the Democratic Party has been a gradual process spread over decades. In contrast, the decline in the pro-Israel margin of sympathy has been sharp, occurring only over the last 5 years. Previously, between 2006 and 2014 Democrats not only became more liberal, dovish and secular, but also more sympathetic to Israel. This, despite the three military campaigns Israel fought in this period and despite the fact that the government was led by the hawkish, conservative Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu for most of this period. The question then is what changed in the 2015-19 timeframe?
In 2015 Netanyahu took two fateful steps. First, he turned to the Right; second he acted publicly in ways that made it appear to Democrats that he, and thus Israel, was siding with the Republicans in the American political arena. He had built close relations with the Republicans over many years, yet only in 2015 did this break into the mass political consciousness in America.
In March 2015, Netanyahu won the Israeli elections and formed the most right-wing and Orthodox coalition since 1990. From 2009 until 2015 Netanyahu’s coalition had always contained elements associated with support for the peace process; Ehud Barak and Labour and later Zippi Livni and the centrist Hatuna party. In addition, Netanyahu himself committed to a 10-month settlement freeze, negotiated final status issues with the Palestinians with intensive American mediation and publicly endorsed the two state solution. In contrast, during the 2015 campaign Netanyahu appeared to retract that endorsement, and in any case the overwhelming majority of his coalition opposed the idea. Nor were there any peace negotiations to soften the government’s image. All of this damaged Israel’s standing since, according to a 2010 survey by The Israel Project, the most positive thing about Israel for Democrats was that it, ‘supports a two-state solution where both Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace’.[xv]
Also in March 2015, just prior to the Israeli elections, Netanyahu got himself invited to address Congress by the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, in an effort to get the legislative branch to veto President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. While the standing ovations he received there helped his cause in the Israeli election, in an unprecedented move, more than 50 Democrats boycotted the event which they saw as an unacceptable intervention in American domestic politics. Subsequently, Netanyahu’s standing among Democrats fell from a dead heat of 32 percent favourable and unfavourable in February 2015 to 46 percent unfavourable and 17 percent favourable post speech, in March 2015, which is where it has remained since then.[xvi]
Netanyahu’s strategy backfired. To block the deal, he needed the support of a quarter of Senate Democrats. Not only did he fail to achieve this, he actually made it far more difficult to gain their support by allowing Obama to make the issue one of loyalty to ‘our’ Democratic President verses ‘their’ Republican-supporting foreign leader. As a high ranking AIPAC official explained, ‘Netanyahu’s speech in Congress made the Iranian issue a partisan one… [It] was perceived as a Republican maneuver against the President, we lost a significant part of the Democratic Party, without which it was impossible to block the agreement.’ [xvii]
Despite this, Netanyahu continued with his Republican strategy by cultivating a close relationship with Donald Trump. As a consequence, in the minds of many Democrats, support for Israel — traditionally a bipartisan issue – has become increasingly associated with the Republican Party. Indeed, among Democrats, the sharp decline in the margin of favourable opinion of the Prime Minister in this period correlates with the decline in the margin of sympathy for Israel (figure 3).
Figure 3: Netanyahu’s favourability and Sympathy for Israel/Palestinians among Democrats[xviii]
In the past, the fact that Israel was close to Republican Presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did not impact much on Democrats’ attitudes towards Israel. However, since the late 1990s, there has been an unprecedented increase in negative affective partisanship — distrust and dislike of people from the other party.[xix] This inclines partisans to reject positions put forward by the other Party, regardless of any assessment of the merits of the issue itself.[xx]
The impact of negative affective partisanship on sympathy for Israel is demonstrated in figure 4 below. It compares the level of sympathy for Israel felt by different ideological cohorts in both parties. Between 2009 and 2014, all four groups move more or less in parallel. The underlying differential between each cohort’s level of sympathy towards Israel remained relatively stable. However, after 2014, Republicans sympathy for Israel increased in parallel, while Democrats’ sympathy for Israel decreased in parallel – irrespective of ideological distinctions. This pattern was not replicated regarding sympathy for the Palestinians which indicates that between 2016 and 2018 Israel became bound up with affective partisanship independently of developments in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Figure 4: Sympathy for Israel: Ideology and Party (Pew Research Centre)
The special relationship between the United States and Israel rests on both shared strategic interests and on Israel’s special cultural resonance for Americans. That cultural resonance has played a vital role in sustaining the relationship through many crises. It has been grounded on shared democratic values, a shared pioneering ethos, a commitment to Israeli security in the wake of the Holocaust, as well as the special role that the Hebrew Bible has played in American Protestantism and American political culture more generally. As the Holocaust and the pioneering era pass from living memory into history, their resonance declines. The religious foundations of the relationship remain very strong among Republicans, but Democrats are becoming increasingly secular. Americans of ‘no religion’ have become the largest ‘religious’ group among Democrats and of all major ethnic and ‘religious’ groups their support for Israel has been the lowest.[xxi] This means that for Democrats the special relationship increasingly rests on Israel’s identity as a liberal-democracy. Against this background, Netanyahu’s banning the entry into Israel of Omar and Tlaib, to appease Donald Trump, was another own goal, which, in a highly unusual move, was criticized publicly by AIPAC.
It is not difficult to understand why Netanyahu tilted towards the Republicans; their attitudes towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are much more comfortable for the Israeli Right. Moreover, beyond the Israeli Right, Republicans tend to be much more supportive of Israel on security issues that are part of the Israeli consensus and are backed, increasingly openly, by America’s Arab allies; a fact that Democrats would do well to digest.
Nonetheless, in stark contrast to the European Left, Democrats overwhelmingly have a favourable view of Israel and they continue to view it as a critical ally. It is not for nothing that bipartisanship is one of AIPAC’s core principles. The political logic of this position is obvious since no party wins every election and both parties have a long track record of being overwhelmingly sympathetic to Israel.
Any attempt to shore up bipartisanship on Israel will be challenging. The hyper-partisan atmosphere in America is not about Israel and it will continue to contaminate politics in Washington, independent of anything Israel says or does. Still, negative affective partisanship has been pervasive for over twenty years. The Israeli government was close with the George W. Bush administration that was reviled by many Democrats and there was great tension in Netanyahu’s relationship with the Obama Administration, yet between 2001 and 2014, Israel succeeded in maintaining a large margin of sympathy over the Palestinians among Democrats regardless of the hostile partisan atmosphere.
The key to shoring up Democratic support for Israel is twofold. First, Israel must consistently demonstrate a willingness, in principle, to support a two-state solution which will involve extensive territorial concessions, in exchange for peace and security. In practical terms, it must, at a minimum, hold open the possibility of such a solution, by severely constraining settlement expansion. Second, Israel must return to a bipartisan strategy. It must seek to divorce itself from American party politics. It is wise for an Israeli leader to seek to befriend any President, including one as controversial as Donald Trump. Yet there is no fundamental reason that this relationship has to automatically be to the detriment of relations with the other side of the political aisle.
As of now, a new Israeli Prime Minister would have an opportunity to begin to reverse the decline of the last five years, precisely because that decline is closely associated with Netanyahu. However, if left unattended, negative attitudes could harden and become more widespread.
Given the contrasting perceptions of the Middle East, a future Israeli government working with a future Democratic Administration could have vociferous disagreements and political battles on issue of vital interest to Israel, namely, Iran and the Palestinians. But so long as Israel adopts the recommendations referred to above, Democratic support for the special relationship is likely to survive. After all, arguments and crises are nothing new, they have been omnipresent even with very pro-Israel Presidents, such as Truman, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton. What makes the US-Israeli relationship special, is its ability to return to high levels of support and cooperation once the crisis has passed. The challenge now is to shore up the foundations of that special relationship among Democrats.
[i] ‘Americans’ Views on the Middle East (Trends)’ Gallup
[ii] ‘National Survey: Anti-Semitism in America’, The Hudson Institute June 2019 https://www.hudson.org/research/15079-new-poll-is-america-experiencing-europe-s-growing-anti-semitism
[iii] Jim Norman, ‘Half of American Public Favors Independent Palestinian State,’ Gallup 22 March 2019
[iv] Jonathan Rynhold, The Arab-Israeli Conflict in American Political Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2015) Chapter 3.
[v] RJ Reinhart, ‘Americans’ Views of Benjamin Netanyahu Little Changed’ Gallup 24 May 2019; U.S. Public Has Favorable View of Israel’s People, but Is Less Positive Toward Its Government’ Pew Research Center 24 April 2019
[vi] For Republicans and Democrats see Gallup polls. For Israeli public opinion, see the annual reports of the INSS think tank, The Israeli Democracy Institute’s ‘Peace Index’ and JMCC polls which cover both Israeli and Palestinian opinion.
[vii] ‘Public Divided over Whether Israel, Independent Palestinian State Can Coexist’, Pew Research Center 29 April 2014 http://www.people-press.org/2014/04/29/public-divided-over-whether-israel-independent-palestinian-state-can-coexist/; ‘Republicans and Democrats Grow Even Further Apart in Views of Israel, Palestinians’. 23 January 2018 http://www.people-press.org/2018/01/23/republicans-and-democrats-grow-even-further-apart-in-views-of-israel-palestinians/
[ix] Peace Index, August 2014 http://peaceindex.org/indexMonthEng.aspx?num=283#.XYTrCSgzZPY
[x] See the annual polls conducted by the most respected pollsters, Gallup and Pew.
[xi] Jonathan Rynhold, The Arab-Israeli Conflict in American Political Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2015) Chapters 1-3.
[xii] ‘Public Uncertain, Divided Over America’s Place in the World’. Pew Research Center 5 May 2016 http://www.people-press.org/2016/05/05/5-views-of-israel-and-palestinians/
[xiii] Lydia Saad, ‘Conservative Lead in U.S. Ideology Is Down to Single Digits’ Gallup 11 January 2018.
[xiv] Rynhold, The Arab-Israeli Conflict in American Political Culture Chapter 3.
[xvi] Reinhart, ‘Americans’ Views of Benjamin Netanyahu’
[xvii] ‘AIPAC official: PM’s Congress speech hurt Iran deal opposition’ Times of Israel 3 September 2015
[xviii] Data for 2014 and 2015 taken from survey conducted by Prof. Shibley Telhami for the Brookings Institute’s Middle East Center and by the Pew Research Center 2015-2018.
[xix] Shanto Iyengar, and Masha Krupenkin. The Strengthening of Partisan Affect Advances in Political Psychology, 39 (1): 2018: 201-218
[xx] Ken Schultz, ‘Perils of Polarization for US Foreign Policy’ Washington Quarterly 40 (4) 2017: 7-28
[xxi] Rynhold, The Arab-Israeli Conflict in American Political Culture, Chapter 3, Conclusion.