Israel is in danger of losing its most reliable bastion of support - opinion

Israel may be winning the war on the battlefield, but it is losing in the media. When it comes to Democrats in America, that matters.

 Rep. Rashida Tlaib (MI-12) addresses attendees as she takes part in a protest calling for a ceasefire in Gaza outside the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, U.S., October 18, 2023. (photo credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS)
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (MI-12) addresses attendees as she takes part in a protest calling for a ceasefire in Gaza outside the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, U.S., October 18, 2023.
(photo credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS)

Israel is in danger of losing its longest-lasting and most reliable bastion of support, the Democratic Party. The Israel-Hamas war is the latest in a growing list of stress points that mark the tenure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There is nothing sudden nor surprising about the erosion among Democrats and Jewish voters, who traditionally give the party about three-quarters of their votes.

The brutal October 7 pogrom by Hamas, which left more than 1,200 dead, thousands wounded, and some 240 taken hostage, brought a wave of sympathy for Israel. None more than from the US president, who immediately expressed his full support for Israel, ordered an emergency military resupply, dispatched two carrier task forces to the region, and flew to Tel Aviv to offer his sympathy and support. No other American president has ever done that.

Also, an estimated 300,000 people showed up in Washington last week to demonstrate their support for Israel, but by then the cracks were already appearing. Many were demanding total destruction of Hamas, others focused on the return of the hostages, and some called for a ceasefire and peace negotiations.

Israel may have been winning the war on the battlefield, but it was losing in the media, which was saturated with dramatic pictures of Israel’s devastating bombing campaign and the “collateral damage,” a growing Palestinian civilian casualty toll, particularly among children. The firsthand reports from Gaza initially came only from Hamas and its sympathizers, but that didn’t seem to temper the outrage.

Biden’s unprecedented support brought high praise in Israel and among most Jewish voters. But it didn’t quell criticism from many Democrats, particularly progressives. 

 US President Joe Biden embraces Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on October 18 (credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS)
US President Joe Biden embraces Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on October 18 (credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS)

Biden's support for Israel has hurt him among Democrats

An NBC News poll showed Biden’s support within his party has been harmed by his unwavering support for Israel’s handling of the Gaza war. As many as 70% of Democratic voters say they’re unhappy with his handling of the war, The Jerusalem Post reported. That breaks down along generational lines, with those under 35 showing increased sympathy for the Palestinian side, while those over 65 continue strong backing for Israel. Other polls show similar results.

This comes at a bad time for Biden, as early presidential polls show him trailing his likely Republican opponent but, more critically, bleeding support among Democratic voters. Some, particularly among Arab-American and Muslim voters, may defect to the Republicans. But those on the Left are more likely just to stay home on Election Day, which would have the same impact.

THIS EROSION among Democrats accelerated with the Gaza war filling television screens, social media, and newspapers around the clock, but it has been going on for several years, most notably in the Netanyahu era.

Netanyahu’s opposition to the 1993 Oslo Accords and the Clinton-era peace initiatives strained relations with Washington from the outset. At one point, he intentionally snubbed president Bill Clinton by breaking protocol to speak to a group of evangelical Christians before going to the White House. 

The prime minister, who once boasted to an interviewer “I speak Republican,” teamed up with the opposition to lead the GOP lobbying effort against president Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear agreement. Bilateral relations were deeply damaged. 

Under pressure from Obama, he endorsed the two-state approach to peace with the Palestinians with multiple caveats, but then beat a hasty retreat. Today he is an outspoken opponent of that policy. In 2023, that means rejecting Biden’s calls for putting the two-state option on the table as part of any negotiation to end the Palestinian conflict. Bibi has left no doubt he prefers a form of the Bantustan approach of apartheid South Africa that kept the black population powerless in their own “homelands.”

The rejection of Palestinian sovereignty is seen by many as forcing Israel to decide whether to be a Jewish state or a democracy. It can’t be both with five million disenfranchised Palestinians and another 2 million Israeli Arabs within the borders of a Greater Israel alongside 7 million Jews.

That one-state solution is being pushed by Netanyahu’s extremist coalition partners, who make no secret of their desire to drive out as many Palestinians as possible land to – for the Jewish supremacists in his government – replace the current democracy with a theocracy.

Netanyahu ranks evangelical support over standing with American Jews

Netanyahu has made it clear that he ranks evangelical Christian support above that of American Jews, who are far less numerous and more questioning. He’s called Christian supporters Israel’s best friends in the world. They are the largest voting bloc in the GOP, more in line with right-wing Israeli policies than the Jews, more supportive of settlement expansion on the West Bank, and more likely to oppose Palestinian sovereignty because it might delay their end-of-days prophecies, none of which end well for the world’s Jews.

Netanyahu’s active support for the proliferation of West Bank settlement, an intentional obstacle to Palestinian statehood, has long caused friction with most American presidents, and particularly among Democrats as well as with many Jewish supporters.

More recently the wave of settler violence against Palestinians on the West Bank threatens to provoke another intifada, yet Netanyahu does little to stop it. His coalition partners often instigate and justify the violence. Bibi is more scared of them than his critics, because they have the power to bring down his government, undermining his effort to stay out of prison (he is currently on trial for fraud, bribery, and corruption).

IF THAT were all, dayenu. It would be enough to explain the fracture in Democratic and Jewish support for Israel under the leadership of its longest-serving prime minister. But there’s more, and it’s accelerating the schism.

It began earlier this year with his move to end the independence of Israel’s Supreme Court and judiciary. He’s calling it reform, but it is really an anti-democratic coup furthering his autocratic ambitions.

Then came Hamas. Many observers in Israel believe that Netanyahu’s policies of focusing on the West Bank and settlements led to a blind eye toward Gaza, where it was assumed Hamas would quietly focus on governing and not war.

There have been calls from the Left by Senator Bernie Sanders and House “Squad” progressives, for Congress to condition or even withhold military aid to Israel. So far, they’ve been a fringe minority. But their concerns are spreading to the mainstream. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports “a growing shift in how Jewish Democrats” approach the war.

Axios estimates more than three dozen members of Congress are calling for a ceasefire. These include several Jewish Democrats such as Representatives Jamie Raskin, Sara Jacobs, Becca Balint, and Dean Phillips (who is running against Biden for the presidential nomination), and Senator Jon Ossoff of Georgia. More are calling for a humanitarian pause.

One Democratic lawmaker, Palestinian-American Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, has been a strident critic – that may be an understatement – of Israel. Her embrace of the genocidal Palestinian theme, “from the river to the sea,” which is considered a call to destroy the State of Israel and its Jewish inhabitants, led to her censure. Only 22 Democrats voted against her. 

The brutality on both sides is driving an unprecedented wave of Islamophobia and antisemitism across the country. It is being fed by social media, including X (formerly Twitter) whose owner, Elon Musk, last week endorsed an antisemitic tweet with “You have said the actual truth.”

GOP support for Israel is less complex. Just keep the evangelicals happy, ignore the Palestinians, and force the Democrats and Biden to look bad by forcing votes on divisive far-right issues like settlements and Palestinians.

When the Senate returns next week from one of its frequent recesses, it will have on its plate a House-passed $14.3 billion military aid package for Israel. It has a Republican poison pill – pay for it from funding from the Internal Revenue Service budget – that must be removed. It will give senators a chance to show where they stand. 

Reversing the erosion of Democratic support – and support among American Jews – will require a new leadership in Israel that can convince Americans – who are supplying critical political, diplomatic, and economic resources – that they are heard, and that the new government is serious about making peace. 

That’s not an intrusion on Israeli sovereignty. It is what bonds friendship. It is what cements the longstanding friendship between the two nations.

The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist, and former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.