Is Israel losing the Democratic Party?

Is Israel losing the Democratic Party?

With Pence set to speak at upcoming AIPAC conference, a test of bipartisanship in the Trump era


That’s the mantra and mandate of Israel’s supporters in Jerusalem and Washington since the Jewish state was founded almost 70 years ago, a recognition that its ability to garner major financial and political backing in the U.S. depends on engaging Democrats and Republicans alike. 

But as AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, prepares for its annual national policy conference in Washington next month, there is deep concern among the faithful that bipartisanship is becoming more slogan than reality across the country, a trend that has intensified in the age of Trump.

The latest findings of the Pew Research Center, released last month, indicate that the divide between the two parties on Israel is the widest it has been in four decades. Seventy-nine percent of Republicans say they sympathize more with Israel than with Palestinians, compared to 27 percent for Democrats (down from 43 percent two years ago).

Seventy-three percent of Republicans say President Donald Trump is “striking the right balance” in dealing with the Middle East while only 21 percent of Democrats agree. Almost half of Democrats (46 percent) say the president favors Israel too much.

What’s particularly concerning is that Israel is losing the support of liberal/progressive Democrats, a segment of the party markedly on the rise. After the defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016 and the popularity among younger Democrats of senators like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, it’s sobering to note that, according to Pew, “nearly twice as many liberal Democrats say they sympathize more with the Palestinians than with Israel (35 percent vs. 19 percent); 22 percent of liberal Democrats sympathize with both sides or neither side; and 24 percent do not offer an opinion.”

Some experts argue that the Pew findings are misleading because while support for Israel and views on the Israel-Palestinian conflict are indeed becoming more politicized in America, participants in the poll were given only a binary choice favoring Israel or the Palestinians. “The poll question is faulty because sympathy for Palestinians should not imply hostility to Israel, nor should sympathy for Israel require disregard for the fate of the Palestinians,” noted Mideast expert Tamara Cofman Wittes and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, in an article they co-wrote in The Atlantic. Identifying themselves as Democrats, they caution Israeli politicians not to adopt a shortsighted view by writing off “whole chunks of the Democratic camp” and focusing on Republican support. To do so would ignore the fact that “the pendulum of American politics swings both ways…and Israel never benefits from being used as a partisan political football.”

Still, it’s not hard to see why so many Jews here and in Israel are enthusiastic about a White House that has made good on promises to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; taken steps to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; put the diplomatic and financial squeeze on a Palestinian Authority that has long resisted even minimal signs of compromise; and, perhaps most importantly, moved to strengthen or end the nuclear deal with Iran that has a built-in time limit.

Off-the-record conversations with pro-Israel lobbyists confirm that they are deeply worried about the steep decline in bipartisanship on Israel among the electorate. They note that while older white males are the sweet spot for Israel, especially among Evangelicals, one of the fastest-growing segments in America — young people and minorities like African-Americans and Latinos who will soon represent the core of an increasingly progressive Democratic Party — are less inclined to favor Israel and increasingly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Minorities and millennials view the issue as primarily about human rights, and they see the Palestinians as the underdogs. Younger Americans, including Jews, are more likely to blame Israel for the Mideast peace stalemate. They are critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians living in the West Bank, and sympathetic to the BDS movement that promotes boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.

“We are in for the fight of our lives,” said one veteran pro-Israel insider who, on learning that Vice President Mike Pence will be speaking at the upcoming national AIPAC conference, speculated that the decision must have been difficult for the lobby. On the one hand, Pence is an outspoken supporter of Israel who gave a rousing speech at the Knesset last month. Yet giving him such a prominent platform was not going to help convince liberal Democrats that AIPAC remains fully bipartisan.

Pro-Israel political observers worry that Democratic leaders, responding to the surge among progressives, are tilting further left. They note that New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is seen as a possible presidential candidate in 2020, withdrew her support for anti-BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) legislation last summer after facing criticism at town hall meetings. She said she still opposes BDS but is seeking better language to satisfy those concerned about infringements on civil liberties. Her move could be seen as positioning herself more favorably among progressives.

Another presidential hopeful who is being closely watched is Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator who for years has been among the most popular speakers and fund-raisers on the Jewish circuit (and perhaps the member of Congress most knowledgeable about Judaism). Will he, too, tilt left to reflect the political climate within the party? Booker’s vote in favor of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 was a blow to some of his biggest pro-Israel supporters.

As pro-Israel groups reach out to young progressives, Almog Elijis may well be the face of Israel’s response to a generation of young American Jews distancing themselves from the Jewish state.

Elijis, 29, and only four months into her post heading up the media department at the Consulate General of Israel in New York City, is seeking to engage millennials who identify as progressive in their politics. She recently attended the national conference of the Young Democrats of America and spoke with a small group about the Mideast.

The message of the newest diplomat at the consulate reflects a more realistic and modest Israeli approach in describing the state and its challenges than in years past.

“My goal is not to show them that Israel is a perfect society. I tell them I’m not here to convince anyone,” Elijis told me. “They like to keep an open mind and do their own research. My role is to point out context and complexities that reflect the Israeli government and public opinion.”

She spoke to the young Democrats about Jerusalem and the embassy, BDS and the Iran threat, informing or reminding them of Israel’s rejected efforts to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians and Iran’s pledge to wipe out the Jewish state. Elijis said no one in the room knew that transgender people can serve in the Israeli army or that the IDF conducts Operation Good Neighbor, assisting refugees of the Syrian war, bringing them to Israeli hospitals for medical treatment, and expediting their return. 

“I see the gap, and we know we have to change our approach,” Elijis told me, but “our message doesn’t always reach them.” 

She said social media is “a great tool” and that every department of the Israeli consulate here is reaching out to liberal groups in person and online. She is building relations with Vibe, BuzzFeed, and other media sources that reach the young, calling the effort “algorithmic diplomacy.”

All of that and more will be needed to reverse the tide in an ongoing battle that needs strong support for Israel from both red and blue voters.

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