The Pew Research Center regularly asks Americans this question: “In the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, which side do you sympathize with more, Israel or the Palestinians?” Last year, Pew recorded a dramatic decline in support for Israel among Democrats. In 2016, 43 percent chose Israel, and 29 percent chose the Palestinians. In 2017, those numbers were 33 percent and 31 percent. The remainder chose “both,” “neither,” or “don’t know.”
“Pew’s 2017 numbers may be a blip,” I wrote last year. If so, it’s a long blip.
Pew’s 2018 numbers are in, and among Democrats, 27 percent chose Israel, 25 percent went with the Palestinians. Fully 48 percent chose “both,” “neither,” or “don’t know.” So the Democrats now appear divided and uncertain about Israel. But if the party moves further left, who knows? In 2018, liberal Democrats, remarkably, favored the Palestinians by 35 percent to 19 percent. As recently as July 2014, those numbers were nearly reversed, with liberals choosing Israel 39 percent to 21 percent.
Reflecting on the emerging trend in 2016 for the New York Times, Shmuel Rosner said, “once, Democratic legislators had to worry about appearing unsupportive of Israel; today some of them—especially those who need to be re-elected by liberal voters—seem to have the opposite concern: They do not want to be seen as too supportive.”
In contrast, Republican support for Israel is off the charts. 79 percent sympathize more with Israel, and only 6 percent sympathize more with the Palestinians. Consequently, although support for Israel is slightly down compared to recent years, it wins this year’s American sympathy contest with 46 percent to just 16 percent.
In short, Israel maintains enviable support among Americans, but “the partisan divide in Middle East sympathies, for Israel or the Palestinians, is now wider than at any point since 1978.”
There is probably not much to be done in the near term about liberal Democrats, who demand concessions from Israel in the absence of any well-founded hope, much less a guarantee, further concessions will bring peace. Yet, as we may well learn if the Democrats are in control come 2021, there are dangers in having one’s future tied to a party whose ascendancy may prove to be very brief.
Conservative and moderate Democrats still sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians by a 2-to-1 margin, but that support has fallen sharply since 2016. The usual caveats about over-reading a single poll apply, but it is nonetheless striking that what was a 53 percent to 19 percent margin is now 35 percent to 17 percent. Like the movement of the party overall, the change reflects movement into the “both,” “neither,” and “don’t know” columns, rather than a definite anti-Israel trend. There is no decisive reason to believe that these people cannot be won back or that some semblance of the long-enduring bipartisan consensus on Israel cannot be restored.
Of course, those who love Israel should not be shy about welcoming many aspects of President Trump’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But one should be wary of hugging him or the present incarnation of the Republican Party too hard.