Israel losing Democrats, or Democrats losing Israel?

July 6, 2015

Earlier this week, another poll proved that Israel is “losing Democrats”. David Horovitz of the Times of Israel published it, and Frank Luntz, a well-known pollster, gathered the evidence. A pile of evidence such as:

Asked whether Israel is a racist country, 47% of Democrats agreed it is, as opposed to 13% of Republicans. Another 21% of Democrats didnt know or were neutral (as opposed to 12% of Republicans), and only 32% of Democrats disagreed when asked if Israel is a racist country, as opposed to 76% of Republicans. (Overall 32% of those polled said Israel is a racist country.)


Asked whether the US should support Israel or the Palestinians, a vast 90% of Republicans and a far lower 51% of Democrats said Israel. Another 8% of Republicans and 31% of Democrats were neutral. And 18% of Democrats said the Palestinians, compared to 2% of Republicans.

The poll is not really a poll of Democratic voters. It is a poll of “highly educated, high income, publicly active US Democrats”. Hardcore Democrats. The fact that Israel has a problem with them is hardly new. Polls of American voters show time and again a great gap between Democratic and Republican voters (see here, for just one example).

Is Israel “losing” them?

That is one way to put it. Another way would be to say that they are losing Israel.

In other words: That Israel should strive to get the support of all those Democratic voters is obvious. But whether Israel could gain them back by doing something that is actually durable and relevant to its realities is an entirely different question. If, for example, to gain the support of all Democratic voters all Israel has to do is be less publicly dismissive of the policies of the Obama administration – that is one thing, a reasonable sacrifice to make for such worthy goal. If, on the other hand, in order to regain the support of all Democratic voters Israel needs to cease its opposition to Obama’s agreement with Iran – that’s another thing. The support of Democratic voters is important for Israel, but a nuclear Iran is a threat that Israel cannot ignore.

There’s even a question whether any policy that Israel can pursue is likely to make a certain segment of the American Democratic population more supportive of it. Most of the 47% of elite American Democrats who say that Israel is “racist” have not truly investigated Israel’s policies and cannot really back their claim with facts and figures (they cannot, among other things, because Israel is not racist – surely no more than most other countries). So why are they saying Israel is racist? Mostly because of a certain zeitgeist among their peer group that makes it fashionable to see Israel as this or that.

This is not the first time that Israel finds itself in a position of having to live with an American constituency that does not see Middle Eastern realities with the same eyes. In the early Seventies, when the Democratic Party was led by George McGovern, Israel’s Washington ambassador at that time, Yitzhak Rabin, publicly backed the Presidential candidacy of Richard Nixon. Surely, this was not about Democratic voters – it was about the Democratic leadership at that time. But one could safely assume that McGovern was not alone in feeling distant from Israel.

Surely, McGovern is not quite relevant to current trends within the Democratic Party and among American voters. What is relevant is to remember that Israel – with all its might and effectiveness – does not always have the ability to resist overwhelming trends that make American voters for or against it. Of course, policies matter. Attitudes of the Israeli government matter. But there’s little to justify a great erosion in American Democratic support for Israel in recent years. In fact, looking at the Middle East and digesting the rapid changes, the great perils, the looming dangers that Israel has to cope with – one would assume that more support for Israel is due. Israel is, after all, the sole democratic nation in the region and a country that provides relative stability and relative prosperity to those living under its jurisdiction.

So yes, some Democratic voters are less sympathetic to Israel because it has a hawkish government, because it does not show great enthusiasm for the two state solution, and because it keeps resisting the policies of President Obama. But take a look at the numbers (example here): the partisan gap on Israel is nothing new. It was there when Israel had governments that withdrew from Gaza (Ariel Sharon) and pursued negotiations with Palestinian President Abbas (Ehud Olmert). It was there when the US had an administration (Bush) with which Israel had little problem getting along. Is it getting wider? Surely it is. Because Israel is changing, and because the US is changing, and because the Middle East is changing – and, yes, because the Democratic Party is changing. Israel only has a measure of limited control over the first of these four items.

Short conclusion: Israel can do much better – but Democratic voters have issues with Israel that the policies of Israel alone cannot explain. The trend will reverse itself (hopefully) not when Israel changes – it will reverse itself when the Democratic Party changes (For a different view, I encourage you to read my exchange with Jonathan Rynhold

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