Israel is losing the support of US Democrats

Israel is losing the support of US Democrats

Israel has a tendency to take the friendship and support of the US for granted and ignore geopolitical changes (File/AFP)
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It seems almost futile to try to convince the vast majority of Israelis that ignoring the Palestinian issue will not make it go away. Whether it is a result of a wishful thinking or despair at the failure to reach an amicable agreement acceptable to both peoples, many Israelis simply refuse to internalize that their country’s open-ended occupation, which deprives another nation of its right to self-determination, is unsustainable and immoral and, in the process, erodes Israel’s democracy.

Nevertheless, if these insights do not filter through, there are reminders, though probably not enough, that not only is the democratic system suffering as a result of the occupation of Palestinian land and people, but that it is also leading to an erosion in public support outside the country — support to which Israel attaches great importance.

Those who either sweep the Palestinian issue under the carpet because they do not believe there is a solution or would like to expand the settlements and eventually annex parts or all of the West Bank are also relying on the dwindling interest in the issue shown by the international community. The world may not endorse, and may even condemn, Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but it is showing very few signs of being prepared to do anything that might change this sorry state of affairs. Geopolitical changes in the Middle East and North Africa, together with the changing priorities of the US and Europe, are a source of complacency among Israelis, who feel that they can do as they wish when it comes to Palestinians and their land.

Hence, a new and most revealing survey by Gallup on views among Americans concerning Israelis and Palestinians should dent this complacency, as it shows there is a gradual shift in public opinion, especially among Democrats, toward supporting the Palestinian people. For the first time, this survey found that Democrats are more likely to show more sympathy for the Palestinians than for Israelis, despite holding a favorable view of Israel.

In reply to the question, “In the Middle East situation, are your sympathies more with the Israelis or more with the Palestinians?” 49 percent of Democrats sympathized more with the Palestinians and 38 percent sympathized more with the Israelis. This is a significant gap that might be the beginning of a change in the dynamic of the relationship between the two countries, especially while the Democrats are in power, and with even more significance when they control both the White House and Capitol Hill.

Supporting Israel come hell or high water is compromising both US integrity and the cause of global justice and human rights

Yossi Mekelberg

If there is any surprise in these results, it is that it has taken 56 years of occupation and decades of failed peace processes to reach the point where US public opinion, especially among the young, is starting to shift to the weaker side in the conflict. This is not necessarily support for the Palestinian leadership, which hardly enjoys the support of its own people, and it is not in support of militancy, but it is a very humane reaction to the never-ending suffering of other people.

It is still the case that, overall, Republicans still overwhelmingly support Israel, although the jury is out on whether their views may change in light of the assault on the judiciary by the current Israeli government. Politicians taking control of the judiciary might resonate with some of the more Trumpian elements of the Republican Party, but not with the more moderate factions.

The Gallup survey reinforced a similar poll carried out this year by the Pew Research Center, which also found that American voters’ feelings have warmed toward the Palestinian people. This does not mean that the US public has any clear view regarding the best possible solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, but roughly a third of them support some version of a two-state solution. Worryingly for many Israelis, 27 percent of Americans would prefer a single state to emerge, run jointly by Israelis and Palestinians. This might be a naive approach, but it is nevertheless the reflection of a desire to see people enjoy equal rights.

There is a continuing trend among the more progressive elements of the Democratic Party of questioning Washington’s uncritical support of Israel, as it becomes apparent that the latter is not adhering to both countries’ shared values, either by its assault on the democratic system or in its relations with the Palestinians. Furthermore, the continuing occupation of Palestinian land also harms US interests in the region and beyond. For a country that has put itself on a pedestal as a champion of human rights, on some occasions more justifiably so than on others, supporting Israel come hell or high water is compromising both US integrity and the cause of global justice and human rights.

Changes in public perception do not take place overnight and neither has the erosion of Israel’s democracy, but they reach a point where the balance tips and politicians can no longer ignore them. Driving the change in America are the youths of a more progressive persuasion, many of whom have been exposed to a liberal arts education and with it the human rights discourse, which makes it impossible for them to remain apathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, whether in the West Bank or Gaza, or of the refugees across the Middle East. There is also a growing number of politicians who are ready to challenge the cozy and credulous approach to Israel at a time when what is desperately needed is a frank exchange between two allies, especially as one of them is gradually going off the rails when it comes to its liberal democratic values and institutions, and is destroying any chance of future coexistence with the Palestinians.

There is a tendency in Israel to take the friendship and support of the US for granted and to ignore geopolitical changes. The younger generation in the US is less aware of, or sees as less relevant, the historical underpinnings of this relationship. Young Americans are less connected to what is perceived in the country as the heroic times of the founding of the state of Israel against the odds 75 years ago. What is relevant to them right now is watching an Israeli government on a march to destroy both its own democracy and the right of another people not only to self-determination, but to lead a normal life with dignity. American politicians might lag behind in their response to these changes, but the question is for how long?

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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