By Jonathan S. Tobin
At this year’s AIPAC conference, a great deal of attention was given to organizational efforts to present Israel as an attractive cause for Democrats and liberals to continue to embrace. While perils are associated with any attempt to “rebrand” the Jewish state without addressing the core issues of the conflict, the group got generally good reviews for working hard to address major concerns for the pro-Israel community.
Fueling those worries was a recent Pew Research Center poll that highlighted the growing gap between how Republicans and Democrats view Israel. While the GOP seems to be leaning more pro-Israel, the Democrats seem to be heading in the opposite direction. Those numbers were easily explained by a Republican base dominated by Christian conservatives who are passionate about Israel, and a Democratic base whose activists are vulnerable to specious intersectional arguments that portray the Palestinians as the moral equivalent to blacks in the Jim Crow Deep South. The fact that the leadership of the Women’s March — the engine of the increasingly important anti-Trump “resistance” — is dominated by sympathizers of Louis Farrakhan, and Israel opponents like Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, has only highlighted this problem.
But for all of the fears of the growing polarization between the parties, the predictions of the death of the bipartisan consensus on Israel are, to paraphrase Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated. As a new Gallup poll shows, support for Israel in the United States hit record levels. Americans of every age, ethnicity, religious group and political stripe like Israel, and back it against the Palestinians. Those who question why U.S. foreign policy remains so pro-Israel need to reckon with the fact that most Americans just love the Jewish state.
The basic numbers are impressive. The percentage of Americans who favor Israel over the Palestinians scores 64 percent. That ties an all-time high that has only been reached twice before in 1991 and 2003.
What’s so fascinating about that number is that Israel should be so popular at this particular time. Those two previous years came in moments of crisis. In 1991, Israel was under attack from Iraqi SCUD missiles during the Persian Gulf War. In 2003, the second intifada was raging. It’s easy to understand why images of Israelis suffering missile attacks as a form of revenge against America’s effort to rescue Kuwait or being blown up in buses and cafes by Palestinian terrorists would engender sympathy. But Israel is not currently being attacked. The assumption has been that President Donald Trump’s tilt towards Israel would alienate both centrists and liberals who see anything associated with him in a negative light. The unpopularity of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also supposed to be a drag on Israel’s popularity, as is the mainstream media’s continued assertions that West Bank settlements, rather than Palestinian intransigence, remains the obstacle to peace in the Middle East.
But the numbers don’t back up those assumptions.
Gallup’s survey is useful because researchers have been asking these same questions of the public for decades. That makes the fact that Israel’s favorability ratings come in at an all-time high is something for both its friends and its critics to ponder. Indeed, in the last 12 months, which coincide with Trump’s first year in the White House, the already positive numbers increased again. In 2017, Israel was viewed positively by 71 percent of Americans and negatively by 27 percent. In 2018, the totals are 74 percent positive and only 23 percent negative — a net gain of nine points. To put that in perspective, there are no U.S. politicians and few foreign places or people viewed as positively by Americans as Israel’s net plus 51 percent favorability rating.
It’s true that a huge gap exists between the two parties. A staggering 87 percent of Republicans sympathize with Israel, as opposed to 49 percent of Democrats. That still means that fully half of the Democrats stand on the side of the Jewish state.
We’re also told that young people are rejecting Israel. It’s true that many college campuses have seen a rise in support for the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. But Gallup also tells us that 65 percent of Americans ages 18 to 34 back Israel. While that’s admittedly lower than the 80 percent of support Israel gets from those 55 and older, it still reflects a solid consensus.
Nor is there anything in the poll to encourage Israel’s foes. Only 27 percent of Democrats view the Palestinians favorably, as opposed to a mere 13 percent of Republicans.
What conclusions can we draw from this survey?
The most important one is that the idea that the pro-Israel consensus is fading is bunk. Israel is as popular as it has ever been in the history of American polling. While the shift of the Democratic Party to the left is troubling, the numbers also dictate that those competing for that party’s presidential nomination in 2020 must realize that smart politics will compel them to stay firmly in the pro-Israel camp.
There is also no evidence that Trump’s willingness to move the United States closer to Israel after President Obama’s eight years of seeking more “daylight” between the allies has discredited the pro-Israel cause. Nor is there any reason to think that Netanyahu or settlements has done so, or that the youth of America will eventually reject Israel once their elders die.
This shouldn’t breed complacency among advocates for Israel, and it must be understood that the situation elsewhere, especially in Europe, is very different. But hard as it may be for the Jewish state’s critics to accept, Americans care deeply for Israel. Support for it isn’t the result of a conspiracy or campaign fundraising. Americans love Israel, period. And Trump, Netanyahu, Israeli settlements — not even decades of Palestinian propaganda or anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism — can change that.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS, the Jewish News Syndicate.