Judicial overhaul debate won't win Israel, as global opinion sees impact - analysis

The rhetoric about creeping fascism and the warnings that Israel's democratic values are eroding is bound to have an impact on public opinion around the world toward the country. 

 LISTEN TO the voice of the people. Pictured: Protesting judicial reform. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
LISTEN TO the voice of the people. Pictured: Protesting judicial reform.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

It is not as if hundreds of thousands of people can take to the streets for nearly three months straight and no one will notice. It is not as if reservists will declare that they are no longer willing to serve the country and this stays in-house. It’s not as if senior politicians, past and present, will speak of an imminent dictatorship and that dirty laundry will only be aired inside.

The world is watching. Israel’s friends and enemies are taking note and drawing conclusions. Already last month, for instance, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah said Israel’s current situation was unprecedented and predicted the Zionist “entity”  would not live out its 80th year.

The developments here -- the rhetoric about creeping fascism, the warnings that Israel's democratic values are eroding  -- are also bound to have an impact on public opinion around the world toward the country. 

United States support for Israel

Nowhere is that public opinion toward Israel more important than in the United States. There, Israel continues to enjoy widespread bi-partisan support in Congress, though it is not as widespread nor as bipartisan as it once was. Israel can rely on solid support from congressional representatives and senators -- even from states where there is no significant Jewish vote to speak of -- because the elected officials believe this is what their constituents want.  

If elected officials perceive that the vast majority of the public -- of their constituencies -- support Israel, then they will support Israel. If they feel that their constituents favor Israel over the Palestinians, then when it comes to that particular issue, they will support  Israel over the Palestinians.   But if that perception changes, if they feel there is more support for the Palestinians than for Israel, or their constituents do not look favorably on Israel, their positions and voting patterns may also change.

Flags of the United States and Israel (credit: REUTERS)Flags of the United States and Israel (credit: REUTERS)

This is why the recent Gallup poll tracing America's positions toward Israel needs to be looked at carefully. 

Gallup’s annual poll of American public opinion on Israel measures two metrics: whether people are more sympathetic to Israel or the Palestinians, and what is their overall opinion -- favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable or very unfavorable -- of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

And the two metrics are different. 

One has to do with whom people sympathize more in a one-on-one contest, the other is an overall feeling for the country. The first measures sympathy for Israel in competition with the Palestinians, and the second measures the opinion of Israel standing alone.

This year, Israel is down on both measures.  

The most significant drop is in the sympathy metric. The poll showed that while the American public overall sympathizes more with Israel than the Palestinians by a 54-31 percent margin, this is the narrowest gap -- 23% -- recorded since 1996, falling from a 52% gap just a decade ago, and six points from a year ago.  

The poll also showed that, for the first time, there is more sympathy among Democrats for the Palestinians than for Israel (38% sympathize more with Israel as opposed to 49% with the Palestinians) and that this -11% gap represents a 13% decline over the last year.  

Moreover, the well-documented and much-discussed gap between Republican and Democratic support for Israel is only widening. Net support in this poll is the difference between support for Israelis as opposed to support for the Palestinians. Among Republicans, 67% more people support Israel than the Palestinians, while among Democrats, 11% more support the Palestinians over the Israelis, rendering a net gap of 78% -- the largest number ever recorded. In 1988, for example, when Democratic support for Israel was nearly as high as that of Republicans, that net gap was a mere 4%.

Many are the reasons given for the decline in sympathy for Israel both among Americans in general and Democrats in particular: changing demographics in the US (the white population sympathizes with Israel 13% more than the non-white population, and there is 14% more sympathy among non-whites for Palestinians than among whites);  significantly less support for Israel among Millenials (those born from 1980-2000) than any other age group; and also a waning religiosity, since -- as Gallup pointed out -- sympathy for Israel has historically been highly correlated with religion.

It should be noted, however, that just because people say they are sympathetic to the Palestinians does not make them hostile to Israel. The poll shows that sympathy for the Palestinians among Democrats has not translated into hostility among Democrats toward Israel. 

According to the poll, 68% of Americans view Israel favorably, an undeniably high number, though it is at its lowest point in a decade and down 7% from two years ago. Even among Democrats, 57% view it favorably -- down 6 points from last year and 10 points from two years ago  -- while that number among Republicans is 82%.

That a majority of Democrats still view Israel favorably, even though more sympathized with the Palestinians than with Israel, is interesting and indicates that sympathy for the Palestinians among Democrats has not bled into hostility toward Israel. That suggests that the line that “Israel is an apartheid state” has not taken firm hold even among liberal Democrats. If they believed that Israel was an apartheid state, they would not be viewing it favorably.

Israeli policymakers, as well as pro-Israel supporters in the US, have for years been closely following these trends, talking about the problem Israel has among the progressives, minority populations and on college campuses, and trying to find a formula to reverse the trajectory-- so far, if this poll is any indication, without much resounding success. 

The current battle over judicial reform in Israel, and the accompanying warnings being sounded far and wide that the country is lurching toward fascism, will not help. Even if some compromise is ultimately hammered out over the judicial overhaul, the exaggerated rhetoric being used by Israelis themselves to characterize the country is bound to have a residual impact on how others view the state, and this residual impact is likely to be reflected in less sympathy for Israelis over the Palestinians, and a less favorable view of the country, in next year’s poll.  

Gallup’s  telephone poll was taken among a random sample of 1008 people from February 1-23 and had a ±4 percentage margin of error. It was taken at a time when both the judicial reform debate and violence in the West Bank featured prominently in the news.