Palestinians gaining influence with the American left

Democratic member of the US House of Representatives Betty McCollum wrote on Twitter after Israel last month sentenced 17-year-old Ahed Tamimi: “An Israeli military court’s decision to sentence a girl to eight months in prison reminds us that American taxpayers should not subsidize the Israeli military’s detention of Palestinian children.”
For many observers of Middle Eastern issues in Washington, seeing a member of Congress so openly criticize Israel and defend Palestinian rights felt extraordinary. Last November, McCollum introduced the Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act, which would require the government to certify that US funds given to Israel are not used toward the military detention of Palestinian children. The bill has 21 cosponsors.
For decades, Palestinian representatives or anyone concerned about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians could gain no serious influence or mainstream allies in Washington. Israel had extensive, often unquestioning, support among Democrats and Republicans, who sympathized with Israel and feared the electoral or career consequences of publicly criticizing it. Support for Israel was a bipartisan issue — something many Israeli leaders worked hard to sustain, so that any shift in power between Republicans and Democrats would not damage Israel’s interests. 
That wall of absolute, bipartisan support for Israel is now showing cracks, as unconditional support for Israel becomes entwined with the hardening partisanship in the United States. Data released in January from the Pew Research Center found that, while overall Americans remain more likely to sympathize with Israel than the Palestinians, the partisan divide on this issue “is now wider than at any point since 1978.” Pew found that, since 2001, the percentage of Republicans who sympathize more with Israel has risen significantly, while the percentage of Democrats who say the same has declined.
While Republicans are overwhelmingly more favorable toward Israel, Democrats today are nearly evenly divided — an astonishing shift even from 2016 and certainly from 2001. The January poll found that 27 percent of Democrats sympathized more with Israel and 25 percent with the Palestinians. According to Pew data, liberal Democrats became more likely to sympathize with the Palestinians than with Israel a couple of years ago, and that trend has strengthened. Moderate and conservative Democrats are still more likely to sympathize with Israel, but that percentage is in decline. Other polling data, including from the Brookings Institution, shows that Democrats are more likely to believe that a two-state solution is possible and to support policies that are more balanced in terms of Israeli-Palestinian interests than Republicans, who are more likely to support Israel’s position. 

The wall of absolute, bipartisan support for Israel is now showing cracks, as unconditional backing of Tel Aviv becomes entwined with the hardening partisanship in the United States.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Several factors explain this shift. One is the increasing alignment of Israel with the American political right. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a hostile relationship with President Barack Obama, notably snubbing the White House with a 2015 speech to Congress. Netanyahu’s actions then and his far warmer relations with Donald Trump have publicly aligned Israel with the Republicans. The Trump administration has taken pro-Israel policy to a new level and, in a time of deepening partisanship, that alone is reason for many American liberals to question US support for Tel Aviv. 
Another trend is a generational shift in US politics. Pew data shows that Americans under 30 years old, though still more likely to favor Israel, are more likely than older generations to express sympathy with the Palestinians. Younger people are also more likely to be Democrats, so the youth is shaping the Democratic Party’s views more than Republicans. 
Historically, Israel had a strong leftist political tradition, as the Labour Party, the kibbutz movement and socialist tendencies easily created common ground with the political left in the US and Europe. In recent years, however, Israel’s domestic politics have shifted strongly toward the right, leaving some American liberals questioning whether they still share values such as tolerance and social justice with Israel.
Social media represents another change contributing to an opening for the Palestinian perspective in American politics. “In the modern era, where it’s no longer possible for media to be heavily filtered and restricted through the lens of a few primary news outlets, it has become impossible for Israel to control the narrative any longer,” said Josh Ruebner, Policy Director for the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. 
These trends mean that Palestinians have a new opportunity to express their views and gain political allies among the US Democratic party, as McCollum’s bill shows. Even if her bill does not become law, the alignment of Israel with Republicans and the Trump administration in particular  “has made it possible for Democrats to be more assertive in their criticism both of US policy on the issue and of Israel as well,” Ruebner noted. 
This is a small opening that might yield long-term changes in policy but will produce little, if any, significant short-term impact. Also, the Palestinians arguably face the same potential pitfall as Israel — developing support within only one side of the US political spectrum and thus losing out when the other side is in power. However, Israel has much to lose in shifting from deeply entrenched, bipartisan support to a close alliance with conservatives while alienating liberals. The Palestinians have nothing to lose. If they gain support among American liberals, they are shifting from a position in which they had few, if any, strong political allies in Washington to one in which they might have influence at least with one side. 

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risks. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch