(February 8, 2018 / Makor Rishon/Exclusive to JNS) Following a recent Pew Research Center poll that revealed only 27 percent of Democrats sympathize with Israel more than with the Palestinians, while 79 percent of Republicans side with Israel, ominous headlines flooded Israeli and American media, describing an “unprecedented low point” in Democratic support for Israel and the Democrats “abandoning” the Jewish state.
But is the presumed partisan crisis on Israel as stark as the headlines suggest? Former American and Israeli ambassadors disagree on the extent of the problem, but agree that the issue should be addressed.
In a joint article for The Atlantic, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and Middle East policy expert Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution recently wrote, “Based on the findings, some Israeli pundits and politicians, and many on the American right, have been arguing that Israel and its supporters should give up on the Democratic Party and its elected representatives as supporters of Israel. Support for Israel is, in fact, becoming a politicized issue in the United States, and partisan divides on policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are indeed getting wider. But the wrong response risks making Israel’s real problems in American public opinion worse.”
Shapiro told Makor Rishon in a subsequent interview that he is “not in a panic” about the Democratic Party’s support for Israel.
“The Democrats have not been lost, the story is by no means over. From Israel’s side we are faced with a challenge, but it’s not too late to deal with it,” he said.
“American culture and the Democratic Party are undergoing historic changes, without regard to Israel,” said Israeli Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Michael Oren (Kulanu), a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. “The tendency towards ‘identity politics’ has become prevalent in the United States. Blacks, women, transgender and LGBT individuals—a Democratic candidate has to have an answer for each group. They’re not concerned with national identities like Israel’s situation, they’re interested in practical individual rights. That’s why you see movements like Black Lives Matter which connect to pro-Palestinian groups. In the Women’s March against [President Donald] Trump, I saw BDS posters with my own eyes.”
“On the other hand, in pro-Israel marches, you’ll never see Black Lives Matter placards,” Oren told Makor Rishon.
Oren said another problem for Israel is its image.
“Despite Israel being more liberal and more Democratic than the U.S. in many ways, there are things that occur here that will never happen there. People’s picture of Israel is as a non-liberal state,” he said. “This, too, has to be dealt with.”
Oren is worried about the changes taking place in the Democratic Party, especially among its younger members. He thinks the problem is worse than Shapiro and Cofman Wittes believe.
“I see many polls where we (Israelis) are below the red line,” he said. “We must fight back. One day the Democrats will return to power, and you have to assume that [President Barack] Obama will place on their map as a centrist, not a liberal extremist. The New York Times recently surveyed the six potential Democratic candidates for the presidency in 2020. Every one of them stand to the left of Bernie Sanders. Nonetheless, we have to make the effort. We’ve dedicated 130 million shekels ($37 million) to fight BDS, but BDS grows and flourishes in this anti-Israeli culture. This is a strategic issue and has to be fought separately.”
Israel has become a controversial issue
Shapiro and Cofman Wittes wrote in The Atlantic that Israel “is caught up in a process where it is entangled in controversy.”
“It is becoming more difficult to preserve broad support, and Israel must act with great caution,” Shapiro said in the followup interview.
Disagreements between Israel and the U.S. were prevalent during the Obama administration over Israeli settlement construction and the Iranian nuclear agreement. The Obama-era tension has made its way into more liberal American Jewish circles, which have vocally stated their opposition to many Israeli policies.
“We’ve reached a situation where even the recognition of Jerusalem, which should have been completely within the consensus of the Jewish community, was received with mixed reactions,” according to a senior Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Our working assumption is that there is no alternative to our partnership with the United States, and we must make every effort to preserve bipartisan support,” said the official, who maintains that an effort has been underway for years, from the lowest levels of the Israeli government up through the prime minister, to preserve Democratic support.
Repairing the relationship
According to Shapiro, Israel can take steps that will bring back support from Democrats and the liberal American Jewish community.
“There are things which it is able to do, first and foremost preserving the two-state vision, limiting construction in the settlements and improving conditions for the Palestinians, even when there isn’t yet a partner on the other side who is interested in ending the conflict. Without causing damage to the partnership with Trump, Israeli leaders also need to express sensitivity to the liberal side,” Shapiro said.
“Israel still enjoys bipartisan support, is nearly part of the [political] consensus, and benefits from strong [U.S.] support for Israel and her security,” Shapiro added. “It’s true that there are contrary voices within the Democratic Party, but they’re in the minority. Opposing them are people like me, who will continue to promote the partnership between Israel and the United States.”
Ariel Kahana is the diplomatic correspondent for Makor Rishon, where this article was originally published. The English translation of this article is available exclusively through JNS.