M.J. Rosenberg just featured the latest Pew poll on American attitudes toward Israel and Palestine. He focussed on a decline among Democrats in those who say they favor Israel over the Palestinians. In the past 35 years, those who declare their sympathies lay more with Israel declined from 44% to 39%. While preferences among Republicans rose from 49% to 66%.
While I agree with M.J. that this is an important statistic, I don’t share his optimism that the Democratic Party will shed its knee-jerk pro-Israelism anytime soon. Nevertheless, I do think that numbers like this indicate a long-term shift in the making. As he notes, the Democrats have historically been far the most pro-Israel of political parties. Harry Truman recognized the new Israeli state. LBJ helped Israel win the 1967 war. Jimmy Carter negotiated Camp David with Menachem Begin. Bill Clinton made his own valiant Camp David effort, though it came up short.
Republicans have, in the past, been laggards in supporting Israel. Eisenhower ended the Sinai War by threatening Israel and its allies. Nixon and Kissinger urged Israel to accept a ceasefire by threatening to withhold further military aid. Remember Jim Baker’s foul-mouthed taunt of Yitzhak Shamir and George Bush’s aid freeze?
All that has changed of course in the past decade or so as wealthy Jewish corporate titans like Sheldon Adelson and a host of others have poured hundreds of millions into GOP coffers. As M.J. correctly notes, the Republicans are playing catch-up. Now, at least, there is a competition between the parties to see who can be the most slavishly pro-Israel. A perfect, and most unseemly example, is Barack Obama’s recent dog and pony show in Israel during which he hit all the high notes from the Israel-America hymnal.
But what if the two parties are gradually moving in quite different directions on this subject as the Pew poll indicates? What if the GOP becomes virtually a mirror image of the Likud in its Israel-related agenda, while the increasing alienation of the Democratic rank and file leads to challenging the accepted pro-Israel wisdom? What if it is no longer critical for Democratic candidates to ask “how high” when the Lobby tells them to jump?
Though American politics are always tough to predict, it appears the GOP has entered what could be an extended hiatus in which its influence wanes. Its ability to elect presidents appears curtailed, at least for now. It has lost much of the vote among Blacks, Latinos and Asians. It has found itself out of touch with the mainstream on issues regarding gay rights and gay marriage. What if, in becoming the most pro-Israel party, the GOP is only further cementing its isolation from the mainstream? What if the Democrats are in the midst of a long-term period of dominance in presidential politics that continues for some time to come?
I would predict that just as attitudes among youth serve as the leading edge among Americans as harbingers of change, this may be the case with Israel as well (only 36% of those 18-29 favor Israel over the Palestinians in the poll). The older generation, schooled in the folk myth of Israel’s founding in 1948 and its fight for survival among Arabs seeking its destruction, will eventually give way to a younger generation who sees nothing but stalemate and rejectionism on both sides. Unlike in the past, they will blame the Israelis at least as much as the Palestinians, perhaps more.
That could lead to a gradual divorce of the Democratic Party from robo-Zionism. While it will never lead to a full-fledged embrace of the Palestinian cause, it might allow the U.S. to play the role of a truly honest broker, pressuring both sides (but especially Israel) to make the compromises necessary for peace.
What this means is that while it remains critical for the Democrats to battle toe-to-toe with the GOP on issues like national security in order to preserve their electoral advantage, Israel may become an after-thought in U.S. politics. An onslaught from Aipac or the Republican Jewish Coalition accusing the Democrats of betraying Israel may no longer be answered with fusillades of pro-Israel campaign rhetoric. It may, instead, be answered with a shrug and a “who cares?”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that the GOP will be right in making such argument or that the Democrats will become anti-Zionists, as Sheldon Adelson would have you believe. We should keep in mind that this poll isn’t literally indicating a decline in support for Israel. Rather it’s indicating a decline in favoring Israel over Palestine regarding the conflict. The distinction is subtle, but important.
The frozen iceberg that has characterized pro-Israel politics in this country may begin melting and allow a change and a fluidity never before possible.