Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro cautioned Israeli leaders to be wary of “burning bridges” with the Democratic Party and aligning themselves solely with the Republicans, amid a sharp uptick in partisan divides over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as reflected in the findings of a new Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday.
“Israeli leaders may find it difficult to resist the temptation to ride this wave, embracing one side in partisan US political battles — as when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arranged his speech in Congress against the Iran deal solely with the Republican congressional leadership,” Shapiro said in a new op-ed co-written with Tamara Cofman Wittes and published by the Atlantic. “But that approach comes at the cost of alienating even longtime allies across the aisle, and when the next crisis inevitably hits, Israel’s leaders may regret having burned those bridges.”
Israel’s leaders, he cautioned, should not allow “the perception to take hold that they are writing off whole chunks of the Democratic camp.”
According to the poll, Democrats are almost as likely to sympathize with the Palestinians as they are with Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian peace conflict, while support for the Jewish state among Republicans is nearly three times higher than Democrats.
Twenty-seven percent of Democrats told the Pew Research Center they sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians, compared to 25% who said their sympathies lie with the Palestinians.
Among Republicans, those numbers were 79% and 6%, respectively.
“Based on the findings, some Israeli pundits and politicians, and many on the American right, have been arguing that Israel and its supporters should give up on the Democratic Party and its elected representatives as supporters of Israel,” Shapiro wrote, pointing to a tweet by the Republican Jewish Coalition, which boasted that the “GOP is the pro-Israel Party.” Shapiro, however, warned that the poll was “a terrible foundation for such claims,” adding that the results did not necessarily imply that Democrats were anti-Israel.
“The poll question is faulty because sympathy for Palestinians should not imply hostility to Israel, nor should sympathy for Israel require disregard for the fate of Palestinians,” the ex-envoy wrote. “A solution to their conflict enshrining two states for two peoples is the outcome most preferred by Americans regardless of party, and administrations of both parties have sought to help both Israel and the Palestinians achieve their goals in a two-state solution.”
Shapiro acknowledged that “support for Israel is, in fact, becoming a politicized issue in the United States, and partisan divides on policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are indeed getting wider.” It would be a grave mistake, he warned, for Israeli leaders to throw in their lot with the Republican party alone.
“Looking at the underlying data from the survey responses, we see that 34 percent of this year’s sample identify as independents — more than identify as Republicans (26 percent) or Democrats (33 percent),” he continued. “The gap between independents and Republicans remains large and trending larger, but the independents’ trend tracks the Democratic trend — both moving toward less sympathy with Israel relative to the Palestinians in the conflict between them. That’s the pattern that should worry Israelis, because independents and Democrats together represent more than two-thirds of Americans.”
“Americans are far more divided on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than they are on Israel or the US-Israel relationship and so when Israel advocates and Israelis themselves use this poll question as a proxy for American support for Israel, they are not doing themselves any favors.”
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, with support among Democrats having fallen from 38% to 27% today, while among Republicans it has risen from 50% to 79%.
“In recent years, some Americans have come to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of human rights — and this is especially true for younger Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans,” Shapiro wrote. “This makes them sensitive to the hardships faced by Palestinian civilians, and to certain Israeli practices, like housing demolitions. These groups form a larger proportion of the voting public than they have in the past, and a growing proportion of the Democratic Party’s core constituency. And yes, there is some anti-Israel sentiment on the left end of the progressive political spectrum, just as there is some on the right end of the conservative camp.”
According to Shapiro, “the survey results point to how specific aspects of Israeli policy, such as the expansion of West Bank settlements that make a two-state solution more difficult, [and] affect the way Israel is viewed in the United States.”
In light of these trends, and due to the changing demography in America, Shapiro advised Israelis to consider what policies can contribute to the US-Israeli relationship, and which might erode its foundations.
“Israelis don’t have to take all the blame for the diplomatic stalemate. Palestinians bear plenty of their share, from failing to respond to negotiating proposals, to inciting and glorifying violence, to denying the historical Jewish connection to the land of Israel,” the former ambassador wrote. “But an Israeli government that does not seem committed at least to keeping the two-state solution alive and viable for the future will likely find there are some American supporters whose sympathy they will struggle to retain.”
“Israeli leaders would be wise not to allow the perception to take hold that they are writing off whole chunks of the Democratic camp, or disrespecting elected officials from the Democratic Party,” Shapiro continued. “And without weakening their own relationship with President Trump, Israeli leaders should find ways to demonstrate sensitivity to progressives’ concerns, especially when those concerns touch on issues core to the values Israel and the United States share.”