The Growing U.S. Partisanship on Israel
In 1948, United States President Harry. S Truman recognized the existence of the State of Israel as the Jewish State following Israel’s declaration of independence. Truman’s decision set a precedent for American support for Israel, positioning Israel to become the United States’ greatest ally in the Middle East. However, the significant and enduring relationship between the U.S and Israel is entering a new phase in the face of controversial politics and policies surrounding the Israeli government, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Recent events and trends, including the Iran nuclear deal, President Donald Trump and his administration’s hardline pro-Israel stance, and the U.S. generational gap in relation to Israeli support, has undermined what once was close and supportive bipartisan support for Israel in American governmental affairs. As the American political left-wing has become less pro-Israel and the right-wing has assumed a stronger pro-Israel stance, views toward the Jewish State in the United States have transformed into a polarizing issue, one that has the potential for considerable global repercussions.
The Rightward Israeli Political Shift
The change in American political attitudes towards Israel directly coincides with the transfer of power from a left-wing to a right-wing Israeli party (For more background on the Israeli political process, please refer to this resource, and for more information on Israeli political parties, please refer to this resource). This shift in political ideology in Israel’s democracy began on November 4, 1995 with the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, a right-wing Israeli extremist. Since then, the right-wing factions of Israel, dissatisfied with Rabin for his “land-for-peace” stance towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rose to prominence in the Knesset, the Israeli government. Israeli public opinion has also swayed from Rabin’s ideology because of several key events.
From 2000-2005, the Second Intifada, which consisted of intensified violence between Israelis and Palestinians, especially the former’s military intervention and the latter’s many suicide bombings targeting Israeli citizens, reinforced the Israeli right’s protectionist beliefs, and the 2007 takeover of Gaza by the terrorist organization Hamas following Israel’s withdrawal from the territory two years prior was viewed similarly. Continued failed peace conversations, including the Camp David Summit in 2000, the Taba Summit in 2001, and the 2010 and 2013-2014 U.S.-sponsored direct talks also energized the political right in Israel. More recently, the Middle East’s ongoing instability, marked by the Arab Spring, Syrian Civil War, and the rise of ISIS, and the divided Palestinian leadership, which features the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian Leadership Organization, and Hamas, have strengthened the political stature of the Israeli right.
These events, all of which occurred during a time in which there was no bona fide leader to fill Rabin’s place on the Israeli left, have spurned a political environment that has enabled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud Party to rise to power, serve three consecutive terms, and follow through with a conservative political agenda, headlined by the expansion of settlements into territories internationally recognized as Palestinian. Global liberal leaders, especially former U.S. President Barack Obama, have been angered by the Likud Party’s policies.
The Iran Nuclear Deal
In the face of a strong Israeli right, the build-up to the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, marks another crucial occurrence that sharply divided U.S. political parties and the American pro-Israel populace. On March 3, 2015, Netanyahu, the International leader to most staunchly oppose the Iran nuclear deal, caused an uproar in American Jewish communities when he addressed a joint session of U.S. Congress, during which he claimed to speak for the global Jewish population as he chastised the proposed deal with Iran. Furthermore, Netanyahu’s visit was not orchestrated by the Obama administration, the entity responsible for engineering the Iran nuclear deal. In response, many elected Democratic officials boycotted the Israeli Prime Minister’s address, drawing more partisan lines between America’s two dominant political parties.
Following Netanyahu’s address, a Gallup poll showed Netanyahu’s favorability rating among all Americans dropped while those who disapproved of him increased. This trend was mostly buoyed by registered Democrats or left-leaning Americans, whose favorable views towards Netanyahu plummeted while unfavorable views featured an increase. Registered Republicans and right-leaning Americans’ attitudes toward Netanyahu mostly remained stable, with a slight increase in favorability and a slight decrease in animosity towards the Israeli Prime Minister.
American pro-Israel advocacy groups, particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and J Street, also expressed differences in opinion over the deal. AIPAC stood with Netanyahu who was joined by the American right-wing in opposition the agreement; lobbyists for AIPAC frequently met with representatives and staffers from congressional offices--400 times in the span of one week, in fact--and spent tens of millions of dollars to create a campaign called Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, which launched attack ads against the deal. Contrarily, J Street firmly supported the deal, which was lauded by the American left-wing. J Street lobbying efforts were targeted atdifferent congressional offices 125 times and they spent $5 million towards advertising promoting the deal. Although J Street’s efforts paled in comparison to those of AIPAC’s, J Street and the American left-wing emerged victorious. Congress approved the JCPOA and the deal was adopted on October 18, 2015 and implemented on January 16, 2016 after an historic political battle. Currently, the agreement and the hostilities that arose from it continue to generate condemnation and create political partisanship, both of which have only been amplified since the election ofRepublican U.S. President Donald Trump.
Donald Trump and his Administration
Netanyahu and former President Obama experienced a turbulent relationship during the entirety of their terms, a key reason for Obama’s Democratic Party’s disinclination with Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s strained relationship with Obama, which has been replaced with a seemingly cordial one with Trump, has only added fuel to the partisan fire. Trump has praised Netanyahu’s premiership, has vowed to rip the Iran Nuclear deal to shreds, and has sharply criticized his predecessor for “disdain” and “disrespect” towards the United States’ greatest ally in the Middle East. Also, Trump’s appointment of David Friedman, an outspoken hardline Israel supporter, as his administration’s Ambassador to Israel has split the American pro-Israel community into political factions.
Who supports whom?
Analyzing the results of Gallup Poll taken in the weeks before Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech to Congress in which he pleaded with the United States Congress not to ratify the Iran nuclear deal and a Pew Research Report conducted in April 2016, during the recent divisive U.S. presidential election season, the partisan gap could not be more apparent. The data shows that the more right-leaning you are, the more likely you are to support Israel, and vice-versa. An overwhelming percentage of Republicans and conservative or moderate Democrats sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians. Liberal Democrats have increased their support of Palestinians during the sustained decline in their support of Israel, a considerable change in attitude since the turn of the century.
Moreover, a post-U.S. presidential election Pew Research Poll depicts a majority of Republicans siding more with Israel while modern day Democrats have sympathized less with Israel and more with the Palestinians. Each of these polls showcase how partisan differences have arisen regarding support of Israel since 2000. Both polls also assert that white evangelical Republicans maintain the highest likelihood to stand with Israel. This sounds counter-intuitive when considering that Israel was created to the be the Jewish State, but the sizable, left-leaning Millennial populace, a part of which a great amount young American Jews make up, has steadily sympathized less with Israel and more with the Palestinians since the turn of the century for a variety of reasons.
The Consequences of Partisanship
The growing American political partisan gap in attitudes towards Israel has the potential to alter or even undermine the strong U.S.-Israel relationship grounded in history. As demonstrated by the Trump Administration’s alliance and outspoken accordance with Netanyahu and his Likud Party, the overwhelming American right-wing support of Israel reigns supreme, and unless the Israeli left can produce a Rabin doppelganger in opposition to the current Israeli government, Netanyahu’s premiership and his right-wing policies may be secure. However, the increase of Millennial sympathies with the Palestinians and their decrease of support towards Israel exhibits a trend that the Administration of the 45th President will only augment with its hardline stance towards the United States’ greatest ally in the Middle East, not to mention a democratic state.
If the trend continues, then there may be significant global consequences in the future. The U.S.-Israel relationship notably includes billions of dollars in military aid and economic support. This alliance has spurned Israel’s high scientific and technological achievements, for which Israel received a top-10 ranking in the 2017 Bloomberg Innovation Index of the world’s most innovative economies. However, Israel’s settlements controversy has angered much of the international community, particularly in the United Nations, though the U.N. treatment of Israel maintains a controversy of its own.
If a hard-line Trump presidency continues to endorse, albeit tacitly, the current Israeli Knesset’s right-wing policies, then the relationship may weaken once the 45th President leaves office. Trump’s historically low approval ratings and Netanyahu’s unyielding conservative positions continue to polarize the American public, and if the Democratic Party continues shifting its preference towards far-left candidates such as Bernie Sanders, who broke historical precedent towards Israel during his campaign, then the next Democratic President, possibly Trump’s successor, and even the next Democratic controlled Congress, which could come as early as 2018, may assume an alternative stance that distances the U.S. from the Jewish State. This is a stance that could grow steadily over time because of decreasing American Millennial sympathies towards Israel.
The future of the U.S.-Israel relationship remains an important issue on the ever changing global political landscape and only time will dictate what ultimately happens. However, with delegitimization efforts against the State of Israel and world leaders, organizations, and countries that wish to destroy it, Israel needs the United States’ loyalty and backing to protect itself. The U.S. has all the leverage in its alliance with Israel because of the latter’s heavy dependence on American aid. Thus, when American Millennials, who are supporting Israel less and less, begin serving as U.S. lawmakers and shaping the U.S. political agenda, the Israeli Knesset may be forced to shift to the left and change its policies in order to save its country’s coalition with America. Even though that circumstance has yet to occur, the growing U.S. partisanship regarding Israel has set the stage for an impending situation that may very likely test the U.S.-Israel relationship and alter the modern world.