After Pew poll shows dramatic fall in backing from Democrats

Michael Oren: Winning over Democrats must be a ‘strategic goal’ for Israel

Deputy minister calls for concerted effort to combat declining support among progressives, says budget needs to be as big as the one for fighting BDS

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Deputy Minister Michael Oren at the Knesset, June 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel)
Deputy Minister Michael Oren at the Knesset, June 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel)

Israel needs to make a well-funded, concerted effort to win back the support of progressives in the United States, Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren said Wednesday, responding to a dramatic survey published the day before that showed that Democrats are almost as likely to sympathize with the Palestinians as they are with Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian peace conflict.

“We have to make a decision to set us a strategic goal of bringing the Democratic party back on our side,” Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, told The Times of Israel. “This effort requires resources and personnel. You need a team of serious people with a serious budget to work on this in a very serious manner.”

Oren said an office comparable in size to the Strategic Affairs Ministry was required to adequately tackle the problem. Headed by Gilad Erdan, that ministry is tasked with combating the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement.

BDS is the cough, but this the flu

Earlier this month, the government approved a plan setting aside $75 million to fight BDS.

Declining support for Israel among Democrats and other American progressives is a strategic threat to the Jewish state equal to if not bigger than BDS, Oren argued. “BDS thrives in this environment; this is what enables BDS. You cannot fight BDS effectively unless you address this problem. BDS is the cough, but this the flu.”

According to Tuesday’s poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center, 27 percent of Democrats sympathize with Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, compared to 25% who say their sympathies lie with the Palestinians.

Among Republicans, those numbers are 79% and 6%, respectively.

The survey said the partisan divide in support for Israel was its greatest in 40 years, when 49% of Republicans and 44% of Democrats sympathized with Israel over the Palestinians.

Although the percentage gap in support for Israel remained fairly steady between the parties in the two decades after 1978, the parties’ views on Israel began to diverge in 2001, when support among Democrats fell from 38% to 27% today, while among Republicans it rose from 50% to 79%.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in recent months often cited a Gallup poll showing American support for the Palestinians remaining relatively low, while support for Israel continues to increase.

The American people’s backing for the Jewish state continued to strengthen even during the presidency of Barack Obama, which saw numerous disputes between Jerusalem and Washington, especially over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iran nuclear deal.

US president Barack Obama (right) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, November 9, 2015. (AFP/Saul Loeb)

Some Israelis are now troubled by Netanyahu’s close alignment with the polarizing administration of US President Donald Trump, saying that Israel must not become a partisan issue.

“There are two schools of thoughts on this,” Oren said. “The first says that the loss of Democratic support for Israel is a strategic problem and we have to devote resources and personnel to addressing it. The second says that it’s too late — it’s done, and any money we throw at this is going down the tube, and we should direct these resources to strengthening our base.”

Most people in the Israeli government belong to the second camp, Oren said, though he is not Jerusalem’s only former envoy to Washington to worry about Israel losing support among left-leaning Americans.

“I think it’s a very concerning trend,” said Sallai Meridor, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the US a decade ago. “For Israel, the bipartisan support of the American people is a strategic asset.”

He said the poll is “concerning and saddening” because the countries have so much in common. “There are many reasons for Democrats to see in Israel a mirror of their deep values and beliefs,” he said, pointing to his country’s commitment to free speech, its universal health care system and its support for gay rights.

The partisan gap in support for Israel was also seen in respondents’ views of its prime minister.

While 52% of Republicans said they have a favorable view of Netanyahu, only 18% of Democrats said likewise, while 39% of Democrats said they have an unfavorable view of Israel’s premier.

Other notable trends highlighted in the poll were younger Americans being less likely than older Americans to sympathize with Israel; support for Israel being likely to drop as one earns more academic degrees; and more men sympathizing with Israel than women, at 50% and 42%, respectively.

Ultra-Orthodox men hold placards supporting then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at an event held by Republicans Overseas Israel in Jerusalem, October 26, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which sponsors educational trips for Israeli politicians to meet American Jews, said the results were not surprising given the deep divisions in American society.

He said that with most American Jews supporting the Democrats, Netanyahu’s close alliance with Trump was risky.

“It’s not playing well to the vast majority of Americans. I don’t think it’s playing well to the vast majority of the Jewish community,” he said.

Marc Zell, chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel, said he too was concerned by the partisan divide in the US, but rejected the idea that Netanyahu was responsible. Instead, he claimed the Democratic Party had lost its way.

“Israel should be concerned about the fact that the Democratic Party has moved leftwards and is now adopting a lot of radical positions,” he said.

The survey, which was made up of 1,503 respondents, was conducted between January 10 and 15.

Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.

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