by Yossi Mekelberg
A powerful source of support for Israel used to be its democratic character. But, in recent times, it has become at best a struggling democracy that occupies, blockades and oppresses nearly 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip
In the US, a tectonic shift of support for Israel, away from liberals and Democrats toward Republicans and evangelicals, is currently taking place.
In the short term, this might not worry Israel, as it has no immediate or threatening impact on relations between Washington and Tel Aviv. However, in the longer term, the nature of this shift contains the seeds of eradicating the moral, values-based and even sentimental commonalities in favor of passing short-term interests and an over-reliance on a dangerously distorted view held by Christian-evangelist Zionists, who support the Jewish state solely in the hope of fulfilling a biblical prophecy on how a “second coming” of Christ will be brought about.
There is a sense of complacency among Israel’s decision-makers, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his close circle, that Washington under the Donald Trump-Mike Pence stewardship has completely subscribed to their worldview. This, however, captures a particular moment in history and merely reflects a mishmash of nationalism, populism and messianism entwined with power politics. It is epitomized by a tendency to favor an ethnocentric, confrontational approach toward rivals and foes, and fewer attempts to understand their position and aim for workable compromises. However, last year’s mid-term congressional elections have already shown that the American public is fed up with, or at least skeptical about, this approach.
In this light, the findings of a Pew Research Center survey last month, showing that a majority of Americans have a favorable view of the Israeli people but a very unfavorable view of their present government, should be taken as a warning sign to the Israeli administration. More specifically, the survey reveals a striking division between Republicans and Democrats in the way they view Israel and Palestine. It found that, while 61 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Israel’s government, only 26 percent of Democrats view it favorably, against two-thirds with an unfavorable view.
Is this something Israel and its supporters should worry about? After all, it is supported by those who voted for the incumbent president, who might occupy the White House until 2024 — which might be perceived as an eternity in Israeli and Middle Eastern politics. Taking this approach to the decline in the Democrats’ support for Israel would be a gross misjudgment of the nature of relations between the two countries. The truth is that it should set alarm bells ringing in Tel Aviv. Reflecting on the roots of the deep and comprehensive support that the US has given to Israel, even when it was far from agreeing with it and against its better judgment, it is clear that the role of the Democrats has been crucial and invaluable.
In the years leading to Israel’s independence and in its immediate aftermath, there were Democratic presidents who supported the idea of a Jewish state, against the realpolitik-inclined advice of those, many of them Republicans, who saw it as endangering US interests in the region. On the day that Israel declared its independence, the US government under President Harry Truman, a Democrat, was the first to recognize the new state, with Truman declaring his wholehearted support.
In the 1960s, it was another Democratic president, John F. Kennedy, who was the first to supply Israel with weapons, which opened the gates to one of the closest alliances, albeit informal, between the US and another country. The basis of this alliance and Washington’s provision of military, economic and diplomatic support was a mix of ideology, a sense of moral obligation and guilt in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and a response to domestic political pressures. In the post-1967 era, Israel’s military might turned it into a reliable and stable ally in a region of great strategic and economic importance, albeit with pockets of instability and elements that were unfriendly to the US.
As time goes by, the moral obligation and sense of guilt over failing to stop the genocide of the Jews by Nazi Germany and not opening the gates to Jews escaping the European hell is fading away, especially as Israel is now behaving immorally.
A powerful source of support for Israel used to be its democratic character. But, in recent times, it has become at best a struggling democracy that occupies, blockades and oppresses nearly 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, depriving them of their right to self-determination while building exclusively Jewish settlements in contravention of international law.
Add to this the recent nation-state law, which enshrines the discrimination against Palestinians within Israel proper and makes them second-class citizens, and we begin to see more clearly why more liberal-minded Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to see Israel in a favorable light. The Democratic Party has always been considered a home for minorities and those less privileged in society — a defender of civil and human rights. Not surprisingly then, its supporters are shifting their sympathies toward the Palestinian people, even though, as the Pew survey shows, such sympathy does not extend to the Palestinian Authority and its leaders.
For now, those who expressed their reservations about the Israeli government still support the Israeli people. But for how long will they continue to differentiate between the two, before they send a message to Israel’s electorate that they also must be held accountable for the behavior of the very representatives they elect? It is also the case that the changing political scene and shifting demographics in the US are beginning to introduce politicians who are ready to publicly criticize Israel without fear of retribution.
Ultimately, the reason for the Democrats’ current skeptical view of Israel lies with the body blows that Netanyahu and his political partners are daily dealing to its democratic structures and to the prospect of peace with the Palestinians. This is a trend that is threatening the alliance between the two countries — a risk that Israel would be foolish not to avert.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg