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1. Are Democratic Voters Bailing on Israel?
The headline of Gallup’s recent report on American public opinions toward Israel and Palestine was enough to sound alarm bells among supporters of Israel. “Democrats’ Sympathies in Middle East Shift to Palestinians,” read the title, which was followed by an analysis of the research institute’s latest polling data, compared to previous years.
According to Gallup, Democratic voters’ sympathy toward Israel has plunged to an all-time low of 38 percent, while their sympathy toward Palestinians hit a record 49 percent. This, according to Gallup’s analysis, means a negative 11 percent sympathy toward Israel among Democrats. Republicans, on the other hand, register a net sympathy rate of plus 67 percent toward Israel, with 78 percent of them putting their support on the Israeli side and only 11 percent behind the Palestinians.
Now, numbers can be deceiving and polling questions can be tricky, but as polls go, the Gallup one is not only super-reliable, but also important, mainly because they’ve been asking Americans the exact same question for more than two decades. This provides a solid basis for comparison and for identifying trends. (One caveat: The term “sympathy” is somewhat elusive and indicates more of an emotional tendency than an expression of political support.)
The trends are clear as day.
Democrats’ sympathy toward Israel, while registering small ups and downs, is gradually declining, while their sympathetic views toward Palestinians are on the rise, with a very notable jump in the past three years. Republicans have been growing more sympathetic to Israel and have very little love for the other side.
The numbers also reveal that only 13 percent of Democrats and 11 percent of Republicans (and 19 percent of Independents) choose not to take sides on this issue. This is a surprisingly low figure, which indicates that a huge majority of Americans actually follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have chosen favorites. Try asking your neighbors where their sympathies lie regarding conflicts between China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan, or the civil unrest in Ethiopia.
2. Understanding the Figures
Democrats’ shift away from Israel has many roots and reasons. A great part of it is simply a generational shift. The Gallup study provides a very useful breakdown of views of all Americans: Baby boomers, born between 1946-1964, are the most sympathetic to Israel, which makes perfect sense for a generation raised reeling from the horrors of World War II and marveling over the creation of the new Jewish state from the ashes of the Holocaust. Older Americans (born before 1945) are pretty sympathetic, though their positions seem to fluctuate; Gen Xers (1965-1979) are somewhat supportive, and the biggest drop comes from millennials, born between 1980-2000. Millennials’ sympathy for Israel vs. Palestine is now net negative. These are younger Americans, born into a world in which Israel is defined by its occupation of the Palestinians, and for whom the miracle of the founding of the Jewish state is a distant memory.
This generational trend is more likely to impact Democrats, who tend to be more sensitive to human rights issues, and it coincides with the growing power of progressive worldviews among millennial Democrats.
The survey’s raw data can provide us with a broad-brush portrait of Americans who sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians: male, white, older than 55, high school educated, Republican and conservative.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has ever discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Americans not gathered in Jewish or pro-Israel settings.
3. Can this Shift Translate into a Policy Change?
More noteworthy than the decrease in Democratic sympathy for Israel is the increase in positive sentiments toward Palestinians. For decades, the Palestinian cause has been relegated to far-left progressive circles and to Arab-American advocacy groups.
Has that reality changed?
Not yet. While Democrats might increasingly view Palestinians more favorably than Israelis, there is still no real political force behind this shift. Going back to the Gallup survey, it is interesting to look at another question, one in which Americans were asked to grade foreign countries by their favorability. On this measure, Israel still maintains an extremely high showing, with 68 percent of participants in the poll expressing a favorable view of the Jewish state, while the Palestinian Authority gets a favorable rating from only 26 percent of Americans.
How can we reconcile this figure with the head-to-head sympathy question that puts Palestinians in advantage among Democrats? Let’s dive into the numbers.
Israel’s favorability crosses political boundaries, with 82 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Democrats viewing it favorably. Favorability of the Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, is low across the board: Only 36 percent of Democrats and a mere 9 percent of Republicans view it favorably.
Furthermore, the overall favorability of Palestinians, though slightly up compared to most years in the past two decades, is still at just 31 percent.
This all means that yes, views are changing, reflecting more of an anger at Israel than a sense of support for Palestinians. But this change is very slow and very limited. It is driven by one political side, the Democrats, and by one specific age group within this side. A pro-Palestinian political power has yet to amass.
4. Trickling Up
The Republican Jewish Coalition was quick to celebrate the new study, and rightly so.
“It’s long past time for Democratic leaders to admit they have a problem that must be addressed to restore the historic bipartisan support for Israel,” said RJC’s CEO Matt Brooks in a statement. Brooks pointed to the gap between Democrats’ rank and file, who have been losing sympathy for Israel, and elected officials, who “claim to be pro-Israel.”
The RJC may have won a political point here, but this gap between Democratic voters and their party’s elites is also what dulls the point of this issue in the political debate.
Democratic elites, including elected officials and establishment figures, seem immune to this slow-moving shift away from Israel. In Congress, the so-called Squad has been a great example of just how this dynamic plays out: An active and vocal tiny subgroup within the Democratic caucus has dared to stand up to the pro-Israel majority, and a similarly small group of progressive, non-Squad Democrats followed suit with a more moderate challenge to the mainstream (think, “even-handed approach to the Middle East conflict.”) Neither of these groups have been even close to impacting policy toward Israel.
If you’re a pro-Israel pessimist (or a pro-Palestinian optimist) you’d be right to worry about this trend trickling up to Democratic political elites. If you’re a realist, you’d probably be right to assume that with political change being so slow, and reality on the ground in Israel-Palestine changing so quickly, all bets on the long term are off.
5. But What About the Future?
The latest survey measuring the temperature of American sympathy toward Israel was based on interviews conducted between the 1st and 23rd of February. Since then, much has changed in Israel, with threats to the country’s democracy and separation of powers taking center stage, and with many—both in Israel and in the United States—warning of a downward spiral that could plunge the country into an undemocratic state in the very near future.
While the situation in Israel is volatile and it is hard to guess how the showdown between Netanyahu’s government and the protestors in the streets will end, it is safe to say that if the government’s proposed judicial overhaul becomes a reality, it will embolden rank-and-file Democrats who already have lost their sympathy toward Israel and will make others rethink which side they identify with in this conflict.