Cornel West speaks at a rally for Bernie Sanders.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WITH THE American presidential election less than four months away, it’s natural for supporters of Israel to ponder how US-Israel relations will be affected by the outcome. Yet, too often, we focus on the relationship on the micro level ‒ in this instance, the posture toward Israel likely to be taken by a Clinton or Trump administration ‒ when we should be focusing more on the macro level: the current state of support for Israel in the US and the very real prospect of diminishing support in the not too distant future.
Not surprisingly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has emerged as a significant point of contention on the presidential campaign trail, making it easy for the pro-Israel community to get caught up in the moment.
This was manifested most strikingly in May, when US Senator Bernie Sanders, who eventually lost out to Hillary Clinton for the nomination of the Democratic Party, named three outspoken critics of Israel to the party’s platform-drafting committee: Cornel West, a philosopher and professor emeritus at Princeton University; James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute; and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison. Both West and Zogby back the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; Ellison has been openly critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
The Republicans, including Jewish conservatives, were quick to pounce, claiming that their opponents were falling under the sway of “radical” individuals whose positions are hostile to Israel. In late June, the Republican Jewish Coalition released three Internet video ads targeting each of the Sanders appointees and attacking the Democratic Party. In turn, the Democrats ‒ and progressive Jewish groups ‒ accused the Republicans of, once again, using Israel as a “political football.”
The issue here isn’t what ended up as the settled-upon text of the Democratic platform, which, in any event, is largely symbolic.
Although the drafting committee incorporated language for the first time ever recognizing Palestinian aspirations for statehood, it rightly rejected Zogby-proposed one-sided language calling for “an end to occupation and illegal settlements.” It also declared its opposition to “any effort to delegitimize Israel, including at the United Nations or through the [BDS] movement.”
That being said, the concern that should keep Israel advocates up at night is what this episode portends in terms of continued bipartisan support for the Jewish state and the future of US-Israel ties. The split over Israel within the drafting committee didn’t preclude the Democrats from taking a pro-Israel stance this time, but how much longer will the party be able to forestall the influence of a growing chorus of unfavorable voices? The most recent Pew Research Center study may help answer this question, and should set off alarm bells within the pro-Israel community and in Israel itself. As has been the case for the past four decades, the May 2016 Pew survey shows that the American public sympathizes more with Israel than with the Palestinians (54 percent to 19 percent, respectively), yet, notably, the partisan gap continues to widen.
Whereas three-quarters of Republicans say they sympathize more with Israel (just 7 percent sympathize more with the Palestinians), only 43 percent of Democrats do compared to 29 percent who sympathize more with the Palestinians. The news gets worse with Democrats self-identifying as “liberal”: More of them (40 percent) sympathize with the Palestinians than with Israel (33 percent). Sympathy for the Palestinians among this group is now higher than it has been at any point in the last 15 years.
The American public, moreover, is trending Democratic, with the number of voters who identify as Republican shrinking. Although the number of independent voters is rising rapidly, more of them lean Democratic than Republican. Thus, whereas overall support for the Jewish state seems to be holding steady for the time being, Israel could become an increasingly partisan issue for the US electorate in the years ahead.
Can anything be done to narrow the partisan gap? Certainly the pro-Israel establishment should redouble its outreach efforts to groups that are core constituencies within the Democratic Party ‒ Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans. However, let’s face it: our effectiveness depends greatly on Israeli actions.
An Israeli commitment to a settlement policy that is consistent with a two-state solution ‒ building only inside the major settlement blocs that even Palestinian leaders have privately acknowledged will remain under Israeli sovereignty if an agreement is ever reached ‒ would go a long way toward improving Israel’s standing among mainstream liberals.
And if that keeps one of the two major American political parties from abandoning Israel, isn’t it a concession worth making? ■Robert Horenstein is Community Relations Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, Oregon