December 13, 2018

Partisan Divide over Israel

Pew Research Center reported on Jan. 23 the disturbing results of a poll on Israel. According to the poll, 46 percent of Americans support Israel over the Palestinians; just 16 percent support the Palestinians over the Israelis. Those results have been relatively consistent for years.

The disturbing part arises in the context of party identification. While 79 percent of Republicans say they sympathize with Israel, as do 42 percent of independents, just 27 percent of Democrats say they identify with Israel. Since 2001, Republican support for Israel has skyrocketed from 50 percent to 79 percent; in that same period, support from Democrats has declined from 38 percent to 27 percent.

Why the increasing divide?

The easiest answer would be President Donald Trump. A plurality of Americans — 42 percent — say that Trump is “striking the right balance” on the Middle East, while 30 percent say he unfairly favors Israel; 47 percent of Americans said President Barack Obama had struck a good balance, with 21 percent saying he favored the Palestinians too much. This obviously means that a solid number of Democrats were comfortable with Obama’s anti-Israel policies. Trump has reversed that polarity, driving down Israel’s numbers with Democrats.

The second easy answer would be Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had an icy relationship with Obama and has a warm relationship with Trump  This has consequences for public relations: 52 percent of Republicans have a favorable impression of Netanyahu, compared with 18 percent of Democrats.

Republicans live in a post-9/11 world; Democrats live in a pre-9/11 world.

But both these answers are too easy. The divide between Republicans and Democrats on Israel predated both Trump and Netanyahu — the gap began to grow with Sept. 11 and yawned wider with the Obama administration. I attended the 2012 Democratic National Convention at which the attendees loudly booed the reinstatement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the party platform. Some deeper element is driving this newfound division over Israel.

That deeper element is worldview, exposed by 9/11 and exacerbated over time by increasing partisan bickering over Islamic terrorism. From 1978 through the Oslo Accord, support for Israelis declined while support for the Palestinians stayed approximately even. About as many Americans said they supported “neither party” or “both” as said they supported the Israelis. That’s because the United States faced virtually no threat from Islamic radicalism. After Oslo, support for Israel jumped, particularly as Israel was hit by wave after wave of Palestinian terrorism.

Then, after 9/11, support for Israelis jumped among Republicans and never stopped growing. Conservative Americans, who had been more likely to draw a moral equation between Israel and her enemies, identified with the Israelis — they saw Israel as an outpost of Western civilization in a region rife with Islamic terrorism. They saw Palestinians handing out candies as the World Trade Center towers fell, and they knew that Israelis had been facing down the same threat. The real, meaningful conflict between Islamist barbarism and Western liberalism was thrown into sharp relief.

Democrats, too, initially responded to 9/11 with more support for Israel. But as the war on terror progressed, Democrats began to see Western civilization as the provocative agent. Too many on the left saw Islamic terrorism as a response to Western cruelty — cruelty to which Israel was supposedly a party. Nowhere was this clearer than in the media coverage of the Gaza War, which glorified Hamas at the expense of Israel, even as Israel tried to avoid civilian casualties and Hamas tried to inflict them. The Obama administration reflected that viewpoint, which is why it pursued Iranian regional growth with alacrity. The West, Obama and the Democrats thought, had to withdraw from the Middle East in order to empower dispossessed Islamists (hence State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf’s asinine suggestion that ISIS be given jobs to help them avoid terrorism).

Unfortunately, the gap yawns ever greater. Republicans live in a post-9/11 world; Democrats live in a pre-9/11 world. That has dramatic, unfortunate implications for Israel: In a polarized political environment, the historic bipartisan support for the Jewish state is quickly eroding. That’s not a bipartisan problem. That’s a specifically Democratic problem, and one that should encourage Jews to examine whether the Democratic Party ought to re-evaluate its moral worldview in the Middle East.


Ben Shapiro is a best-selling author and editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire.