Democratic Disenchantment with Israel Goes Beyond Netanyahu
Netanyahu is no longer the sole reason for Israel's unpopularity with Democrats, even if he's a prime hastener.
Today’s Gallup poll showing that Democrats are more sympathetic to Palestinians than Israelis should not be a surprise to anyone who’s paid attention. The trend has been clear for some time, even if a dramatic 11-point swing over a single year raises questions about methodology that I’m not the best equipped to answer.
What is most interesting about this survey is that it was conducted entirely in February 2023. This is notable because Benjamin Netanyahu only returned to office in December 2022, after more than a year’s absence. Yet Netanyahu is still cited as the main reason for this decline in support among Democrats. This column by Hayes Brown of MSNBC is one example:
According to a poll released Thursday by Gallup, for the first time in its history of polling American attitudes toward Israelis and Palestinians, Democrats are more sympathetic to Palestinians than to Israelis. While a number of factors could explain the shift, the most likely reason should be obvious: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The right-wing Israeli leader has opted to burn his bridges with Democrats and openly root for the Republican Party in general and former President Donald Trump in particular. His partisan attitude, combined with the increasing violence Jewish settlers are perpetrating against Palestinians, helps explain why what was once solidly bipartisan support for Israel is becoming more fractured and nuanced.
The Netanyahu factor is important, but I would argue it’s increasingly a historical one. The damage Netanyahu’s clashes with President Barack Obama and his open embrace of Donald Trump did to bipartisan support for Israel has already been absorbed. Clearly the government of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, in power from June 2021 until December of last year, did not improve Israel’s image in the party. Distressing events like the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli soldiers in Jenin, which was directly preceded by a tense standoff in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, are thus a more likely proximate cause for this decline.
What is missed in reducing the cause here to Netanyahu is that Palestinians and their supporters are increasingly vocal and present in Democratic politics. It’s not just Rep. Rashida Tlaib and the Squad, either. Democrats more moderate than they are confronting a political landscape where it’s not just pro-Israel activists and organizations insisting that candidates take what they see as appropriate positions on Israel/Palestine. When Democratic politicians now seek endorsements from progressive groups or clubs, it is basically a certainty they will be asked about Israel/Palestine. In such situations the old script of supporting an eventual negotiated two-state solution, while in the meantime unconditionally providing Israel with military aid, doesn’t cut it anymore. A growing number of Democrats are demanding that candidates and elected officials commit to taking concrete steps to either pressure Israel to end the occupation or at least end U.S. complicity in it.
Even if most Democratic elected officials are not wholly adopting the positions of Palestine activists—the party is a big tent after all—they are nevertheless forced to contend with their concerns. The logical compromise for many elected Democrats is not far from what J Street has promoted for years, which in turn has induced the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to start directly attacking the pro-Israel, anti-occupation group. One way in which AIPAC has done this is quite telling: running ads attacking “anti-Israel” candidates in Democratic primaries on issues other than Israel.
Can Netanyahu make things even worse for Israel in the Democratic Party? Of course, but he is no longer the primary driver of Democratic discontent with Israel. Today, the Palestinian narrative of resisting occupation or demanding equal rights is extremely compelling to progressive audiences. There is, to be sure, a considerable “traditional” pro-Israel contingent among moderates in the Democratic Party. The current Democratic administration reflects such sensibilities, but they are now a minority in the party as a whole. A single political figure, however distinctly toxic he may be, cannot sufficiently explain this shift.
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