Pressure on Democratic leaders to support Palestinians will grow
Pro-Israel groups recently spent millions of dollars on a Democratic primary race in Michigan, successfully defeating sitting Rep. Andy Levin. Levin is Jewish and has called himself a “lifelong Zionist.” He is also one of the few members of the House of Representatives who consistently speaks up for Palestinian rights. Despite Levin’s Jewish identity, pro-Israel groups poured money into the race to support his opponent, Rep. Haley Stevens.
Levin’s electoral defeat demonstrates the splits within the Democratic Party over the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. For decades, Israel enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Washington, rarely facing serious criticism from Republicans or Democrats. However, in recent years, unconditional Democratic support for Israel and its government has slipped significantly. To be clear, Democratic voters have not become anti-Israel, but rather have developed more balanced sentiments toward Israel and the Palestinians.
At the same time, Republicans have become even more devoted to supporting Israel, so the partisan gap between Republicans and Democrats has grown from small to notable. For example, Gallup polling from earlier this year found that 77 percent of Republicans said they sympathized more with Israel than the Palestinians, with only 13 percent sympathizing more with the Palestinians. By contrast, 40 percent of Democrats favor Israel, compared to 38 percent who lean toward the Palestinians. The polling analysis also noted that the gap among Democrats between favoring Israel over the Palestinians has shrunk from 35 points in 2013 to two points today.
Other polling has yielded similar results. Recent data from the Pew Research Center found that 78 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Israelis, while only 37 percent have a favorable view of Palestinians. Among Democrats, it was nearly equal, with 60 percent viewing Israelis favorably and 64 percent viewing Palestinians favorably.
While views among Democratic voters — especially younger Democrats — have shifted in recent years, that trend is not fully reflected in Washington. While there has been an increase in members of Congress who are willing to criticize Israel, their numbers remain relatively small. The Biden administration rolled back some of Donald Trump’s more blatantly anti-Palestinian policies but has left other Trump policies — such as moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and encouraging the Abraham Accords — in place. After Trump, the Biden team has returned to a more traditional form of pro-Israel US policy.
Recent polling from the University of Maryland provides some insight into how Democrats view President Joe Biden’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The poll asked respondents whether they believed that Biden’s policy leaned more toward Israel or the Palestinians compared to their own preferences. Among Democrats, 57 percent said they did not know. However, 26 percent of Democrats perceive Biden’s policies as favoring Israel more than they would prefer, while only 3 percent said that the president favors the Palestinians more than their own position. Among Democrats, 15 percent said that Biden’s policy matches their own position.
The University of Maryland poll and other data suggest that the Democratic constituency today is more likely than Democratic leaders to sympathize with the Palestinians. What does this mean for Democratic foreign policy?
Importantly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a top priority for the vast majority of Americans, including most Democrats. Foreign policy tends to be low among most voters’ priorities; but even among foreign policy issues, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a top concern for most Americans today. Also, in a race between Democratic and Republican candidates, most Democrats will vote for the Democrat regardless of his or her position toward Israel or the Palestinians. That is exactly why pro-Israel groups recently focused their efforts on primary elections between Democratic candidates, as it is one of only a few ways they can influence the Democratic Party today.
Sympathy with and support for the Palestinians is stronger among younger than older Democrats, reflecting a strong generational shift. However, the Democratic Party’s leadership draws primarily from older generations and it could be many years before younger people’s preferences significantly shape policy.
In just one example, few Democratic leaders support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; in a 2019 vote in the House, a strong majority of Democrats voted to condemn the movement. The University of Maryland poll found that, while many Democrats are unfamiliar with the movement, 33 percent support it, compared to only 10 percent of Democrats who expressed opposition. Other polls have produced similar results, though the exact numbers vary based partly on the wording of the question. Furthermore, the poll found that 82 percent of Democrats oppose laws that penalize people who boycott Israel.
The party’s constituency is now more likely to embrace Palestinian rights as part of a broader social justice agenda.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
The gap between the policies of Democratic Party leaders and the shifting views among Democratic voters on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is unlikely to change soon. However, Democratic leaders must face a constituency that is now more likely to embrace Palestinian rights as part of a broader social justice agenda. Democratic voters are also increasingly diverse and younger generations have more avenues to express their views than in the past.
Pressure for change on the Democratic leadership will be intermittent and limited, but it exists and is likely to increase. There will be setbacks in changing Democratic policy — Levin’s defeat is one example. However, without a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or a reversal in current opinion trends, Democratic political leaders will increasingly have to respond to a constituency that expresses concerns about Palestinian rights and questions the role that US funds and policy play in undermining those rights.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @KBAresearch