As Democrats’ Support for Israel Drops, Political Scientists Debate the Causes

On Nov. 10, 2016, two days after the U.S. presidential election, President Barack Obama (left) meets with then President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office. Credit: White House/Pete Souza.
Rafael Medoff

Dr. Richard Cravatts, an author on various political subjects and president emeritus of the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East nonprofit, told JNS that the deterioration in pro-Israel sentiment among Democrats “started not with the election of Donald Trump but as early as 2008, with [President Barack] Obama’s election and his visible shift away from unqualified U.S. support for Israel.”
A new poll has revealed a continued erosion of support for Israel among rank-and-file Democrats. The question political scientists are debating is: Why?

The new survey, conducted earlier this month by the Pew Research Center, found that 79 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, while only 27 percent of Democrats share that sentiment.

Dr. Michael Koplow, policy director of the dovish Israel Policy Forum, argued in The Forward Jan. 23 that “the drop in Democratic sympathy has occurred almost entirely in the past two years,” citing the 16-point decrease from 43 percent in an April 2016 poll, to 27 percent in the new survey. Therefore, in his view, the decline must be connected to the rise of President Donald Trump.

According to Koplow, many Democrats “are not viewing Israel primarily through the lens of its own actions,” but rather are “conflating their feelings about Israel with their feelings about Trump, associating Israel with the American president…Democrats watch the love affair between Trump and Israel, and immediately decide that their sympathy for Israel must be misplaced.”

Some earlier polls, however, indicated an even steeper decline than the 16 percent cited by Koplow for 2015-2016. A Gallup poll in February 2011 found 57 percent of Democrats sympathizing with Israel; that number dropped to 39 percent in a December 2012 Pew survey.

A number of political scientists take issue with Koplow’s thesis.

Dr. Richard Cravatts, an author on various political subjects and president emeritus of the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East nonprofit, told JNS that the deterioration in pro-Israel sentiment among Democrats “started not with the election of Donald Trump but as early as 2008, with [President Barack] Obama’s election and his visible shift away from unqualified U.S. support for Israel.”

Cravatts said the Obama administration’s frequent criticism of Israel and “the creation of J Street by Democrats” were “clear signals to the Democrat base that Israel’s policies and behavior should be critiqued and condemned, and the Palestinians would receive, for all intents and purposes, a pass.”

Some experts believe the trend began even earlier. Dr. Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum think tank, told JNS that “the Democrat-Republican divide was already apparent in early 2000, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and it has steadily widened through his three successors.”

In Pipes’s view, the cause for the divide “lies not in the specific actions of presidents but the trajectories of the two parties.” Democrats, he said, “increasingly see Palestinians as underdogs deserving their support while Republicans increasingly see Israelis as a unique moral, religious, intellectual, commercial and strategic partner.”

Dr. Miriam Elman, associate professor of political science at Syracuse University, agrees that the trend is older than the election of Trump. The reality is that liberal Democrats have been sympathizing less and less with Israel for well over 15 years,” Elman told JNS.

“A major reason for these shifting attitudes,” she said, “is the virulent anti-Israel messaging that young people are being exposed to on many U.S. college campuses and in America’s mainline churches—where far-left, liberal faculty and clergy dominate and are constantly casting Israel and Zionism in a negative light.”

Elman also connects the recent Pew findings to what she calls “the Democratic Party veering closer and closer toward the far left” in recent years. “It’s not surprising to find dropping sympathy for Israel as this happens, because for the far left, identity politics dominates as an overarching world view, in which both Israel and America are cast as white supremacist, colonialist, and capitalist oppressors of minority rights and liberties.”

Dr. Mitchell Bard, executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise nonprofit, believes the Democrats’ level of support for Israel in the past was never as high as is widely assumed. He examined 24 Gallup polls since 1975 and found that the average support for Israel among Democrats was 46 percent.

“Democratic sympathy for Israel was never overwhelming and in the last Gallup poll [in February 2017], it was exactly the same as it was in 1975,” Bard told JNS.

The Pew polls have tended to find lower levels than Gallup of Democratic support for Israel.

“I stick with Gallup because of its reliability and longer trend data,” Bard said. He believes that the next Gallup survey on the subject likewise will produce higher numbers on Democratic support for the Jewish state than the recent Pew poll.

“What has changed—and Pew got this right—is that support among Republicans has skyrocketed,” Bard added, pointing to the fact that the gap between Republicans and Democrats on Israel in last year’s Gallup poll was 35 points.

“Critics are quick to blame Israel’s policies today for the gap,” he said, “but then how do they explain why support among Democrats was so low before the failure of Oslo, the growth of settlements, the Gaza blockade and all the other issues typically used to explain the party’s current dissatisfaction with Israel?”

By: Rafael Medoff
(JNS.org)

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