The growing gap between Republicans and Democrats in the latest Pew Research Center poll about attitudes toward Israel is less about progressives abandoning the Jewish state than a feeling that Israel is abandoning them.
Both parties sympathize more with Israel in its conflict than with the Palestinians, but they diverge markedly on their views of the current Israeli government.
Part of gap reflects the hyper-partisanship gridlocking American government, and how Israel has become a partisan wedge issue in American politics.
But even more importantly, there is a yawning and rapidly expanding gap between Israel and American Jews, who feel shut out by an increasingly extremist government in Jerusalem and whose image of a secular, democratic Israel striving for peace with its neighbors is being systematically dismantled by the current government.
Since most Jews vote Democratic, that is clearly reflected in the Pew data.
Much of the credit for the gap at the leadership level – or blame, depending on where you stand – goes to three men: Benjamin Netanyahu, Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump.
The GOP’s influential core constituency of Evangelical Christians is as comfortable as progressives are uncomfortable with the right-wing Netanyahu government’s approach to peace, treatment of Palestinians, settlement construction and the religion-state relationship, as well as its close alliance with Trump.
Netanyahu has played a pivotal role in driving that wedge. As the opposition leader in the early 1990s he formed an alliance with his American counterpart, Republican minority leader Newt Gingrich (Georgia), to block the peace policies of their countries’ leaders, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and president Bill Clinton.
Jews then as now voted 70% to 80% Democrat, and Gingrich, who became Speaker of the House in 1995, knew he couldn’t change that because his party’s conservative domestic policies went against so much of what most Jews and progressives stood for, but he felt being more stridently pro-Israel might sway some voters and, most important, raise Jewish money.
Netanyahu’s proclivity for siding with Republicans over the years and meddling in American partisan politics soured his relations with many Democrats and damaged Israel’s standing.
His virtual endorsements of Republican presidential nominees Mitt Romney and Trump when Jews were voting three-to-one for their Democratic opponents further widened the rift.
But arguably nothing did more damage than Netanyahu’s secret arrangement with GOP House leadership to address Congress and lead the Republican lobbying campaign against president Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear policies.
It backfired. A foreign leader, even if it is the Israeli prime minister, going after an American president convinced many Jewish and Democratic lawmakers to get off the fence and support the agreement. Netanyahu’s standing with Democrats never really recovered.
The rift widened with the election of Trump. He shared Netanyahu’s antipathy toward Obama and his policies, and anti-Muslim attitudes.
Netanyahu knew Trump’s voracious appetite for flattery and even opened his own Twitter account to lavish praise on his new best friend. The prime minister’s praise of Trump when they met in Davos made him sound like a clone of Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump has done much to shape the Democratic Party’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by driving out of the GOP Muslim- and Arab-American voters and other minorities offended by his bigotry and xenophobia. They are certain to influence the Democrats’ Middle East policies in coming years.
As the Israeli government goes farther to the Right than any before, it is moving away from the Diaspora, especially in America. Trump’s support for Israel is more about keeping Evangelical Christians in his camp; their importance to him is many magnitudes greater than that of Jewish voters.
Feelings of close ties between many Diaspora Jews and the Jewish state are unraveling. Israel is no longer the fragile nation struggling for survival surrounded by hostile enemies who want to drive it into the sea. Today’s Israel is a nuclear-armed regional super-power that likes to throw its weight around. The region’s sole democracy is moving farther to the Right and looking a lot less democratic, driven by hardline nationalists and religious extremists, in the opposite direction of American Jews.
That may please Evangelicals and other conservatives, Jewish and Christian supporters, but not the overwhelming majority of Jews and progressives. Influential elements of the two political parties hold increasingly divergent views of Israel, which accounts for much of the gap reported by the Pew study.
Most Jews and progressives envision a liberal democracy actively striving for peace with its neighbors, two states for two people living side by side in harmony. Many Evangelicals oppose Palestinian statehood because, like many religious and nationalist Israelis and like-minded Americans, they believe God promised all the land between the sea and the river to the Jews. Moreover, Evangelicals see the two-state solution as an impediment to their end-of-days theology and the Second Coming, or even as a prophesied “last days” trick by Satan.
Netanyahu’s Israel is viewed increasingly more interested in building settlements and entrenching its power than in making peace with the Palestinians. Some progressives see it becoming an apartheid state.
For Diaspora Jews it is a hardline government under the influence of a powerful ultra-Orthodox religious establishment which doesn’t consider Reform and Conservative Jews real Jews.
Eric Yoffie, former president of Union for Reform Judaism, said, “Everyone knows by now that Benjamin Netanyahu has made an utter mess of relations between American Jews and the State of Israel.” He said Netanyahu is “hostile” to the Diaspora, which he sees as “more of a burden than an asset.”
Netanyahu, like Trump, considers Evangelical Christian support more important than that of Reform, Conservative and secular American Jews.
Netanyahu has “given up” on American Jewry, which he thinks “will vanish within a generation due to high rates of intermarriage and assimilation,” writes Israeli analyst Ben Caspit. Accordingly, the self-anointed leader of world Jewry feels “Israel does not need to invest efforts trying to foster ties with them.”
For now, the message to the Diaspora is “shut up and send more money.”