The chilly attitude shown toward Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during his United States visit, as well as the reluctance of the Biden administration and Jewish organizations in the US to meet the Israeli prime minister and his cabinet ministers, warrants careful examination. While it is true that Smotrich went overboard with his incredibly racist remarks and his support for the regime coup, the refusal to meet with him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not merely an upshot of recent events but the outcome of a years-long process in which Israel has turned from an all-American consensus to a topic of contention among political elites as well as the mass public.
This process may have a far-reaching impact on Israel’s security, its economy and even its global status.
For many years, Israel enjoyed broad support among political elites and the American public, across most demographics and, significantly, political parties. Both Democrats and Republicans among the elites and the mass public expressed sympathy toward Israel, supported military and economic aid to Israel (even though they opposed similar aid to most other countries), didn’t rule out military intervention to safeguard Israel’s security and even believed that the US should be at the forefront of diplomatic support for Israel in international forums.
In American politics, this is not a trivial matter. The bipartisan political system in the US encourages division and polarization and as the divisions expand, more issues take on partisan tones. This was evident with regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and it is evident with the war in Ukraine, as well as US relations with Eastern Asian countries.
As soon as one party takes a clear stance on a specific issue, the other party takes the opposite stance. This practice strengthens the political compliance of elected officials to the will of the people, highlights partisan differences and creates political rivalry during election campaigns.
Israel has managed, over the years, to maintain warm relationships with both US parties due to an understanding of the importance of keeping Israel a non-partisan issue. Contrary to the recent irresponsible statements by Knesset members and ministers with inadequate historical and global perceptions, Israel needs American support and needs it to be independent of the partisan affiliation of the US president or of the majority in the Senate or the House of Representatives.
Pro-Israel organizations in the US have also operated in accordance with this view and have taken care to maintain direct relationships with and donations to members of Congress on both sides of the political aisle.
Bipartisan US support for Israel erodes during Netanyahu's years in power
IN RECENT years, mainly during Netanyahu’s premiership, the commitment to this interest has been eroded. The prime minister expressed explicit support for Republican candidates.
He scorned US president Barack Obama when he came to pitch both houses of Congress against the nuclear treaty with Iran, the president’s flagship foreign policy. He hesitated to congratulate President Joe Biden for his election in 2020 when his friend, outgoing president Donald Trump, questioned the election results.
Moreover, in the last two decades, Israel has acted in ways that have undermined bipartisan support for Israel. Israel kept expanding settlements despite repeated calls by Democratic leaders to halt construction. Israel agreed to a request by the Trump administration to refuse entry into Israel of a Democratic member of Congress.
Israel has changed its democratic identity with the enactment of the Basic Law designating Israel as “the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” which relegated Israel’s Arab population to the status of second-grade citizens. Israel has repeatedly emphasized Jewish religious elements in the public sphere, thereby clearly violating the freedoms of faith, expression and movement. Measures such as these are antithetical to basic democratic values and make cooperation difficult.
How could a Democratic member of Congress, justify supporting Israel when its government seeks to separate men from women in public places? How can Democrats approve of a government that calls for the inspection of handbags upon entering hospitals to ensure they don’t contain hametz (leavened) foodstuffs during Passover or a government that seeks to annex the Occupied Territories and distinguish between citizens based on their ethnicity?
One of the foundations of the special relationship between Israel and the US is shared values. When the shared values are in doubt, the relationship will suffer.
However, while these issues may be fixable, there is a much more worrying process that cannot be easily rectified: the withdrawal of the Democratic public from its support and sympathy for Israel. Our research group, American Public Opinion toward Israel (APOI), at Reichman University, has tracked trends in the American public since the founding of Israel.
Our data clearly show that over the last 20 years, there has been a gradual shift in public opinion regarding Israel, from bipartisan support to decidedly partisan support. This trend is evident in polls conducted by Gallup, which consistently ask the American public which side they sympathize with more in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In 2001, around 50% of the American public sympathized with Israel, as opposed to less than 20% who sympathized with the Palestinians. The rest were either unsure or expressed similar sympathy or lack thereof toward both sides. In the last poll, conducted in February 2023, the share of respondents who expressed sympathy for Israel remained largely unchanged but some 30% expressed sympathy for the Palestinians and only 15% answered that they were unsure.
Obviously, this is a tricky question. People can express sympathy for the Palestinians due to a variety of reasons, without diminishing their support for Israel. The Palestinians lack independence, have no civil rights and exist in harsh economic and sanitary conditions. Nevertheless, a comparison of the data over time emphasizes the change in the American mindset.
HOWEVER, BEYOND the general shift in public opinion, the political distribution regarding this question is the biggest cause for concern. Whereas in 2001 there was no significant difference between Democrats and Republicans, today, half of Democrats express sympathy for the Palestinians while around 40% express sympathy for Israel.
On the other hand, nearly 80% of Republicans express sympathy for Israel while only 11% express sympathy for the Palestinians. The distribution of support among those without party affiliation is more balanced but resembles the pattern among Democrats.
This shift may have profound implications. David Mayhew, a congressional scholar from Yale University, delineated our understanding of the operation of the American political system more than 40 years ago that members of Congress base their actions on a single consideration, which is to get reelected.
The American political system underscores this consideration: frequent elections (every two years), district-based elections that necessitate direct contact with voters and a division into two parties that leads to accentuated differences.
The fact that Democrats and Republicans hold clear views with regard to Israel – the former sympathizes with the Palestinians and the latter with Israel – pressurizes members of Congress to act in accordance with public opinion. Under these circumstances, Democrat members of Congress will find it difficult to express support for Israel, while Republican members of Congress will do as much as they can to emphasize their support for Israel.
An election campaign that would highlight the differences between parties in their attitudes toward Israel would create considerable polarization, which would be hard to undo. Israeli leaders may be accepted in the US due to their official capacity; however, they should not expect favorable treatment from a Democratic administration.
Israelis should get used to American support for Israel being contingent on the political affiliation of the President and the Congress majority.
The writer is a senior lecturer of government, the head of the Institute for Liberty and Responsibility and the head of the American Public Opinion toward Israel (APOI) research lab at Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at Reichman University. His most recent book is American Public Opinion toward Israel: From Consensus to Divide.