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Support for Israel ‘continues to drop’ among US liberals, youth

In February 2017, Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked expressed concern about “decreasing support for Israel in the Democratic party”, telling her Jewish American audience that the problem was “a strategic issue” for Israel.

“I couldn’t sleep after I saw a poll two weeks ago”, she added.

A new US poll on the same topic will not help Shaked rest easy. The results indicate that key trends identified in recent years show no signs of slowing; Israel’s reputation is deteriorating among demographics such as Democrats, younger voters, African Americans and Hispanic Americans.

The fact that the US public’s view towards Israel remains positive overall masks an increasingly partisan divide; the Economist/YouGov poll found that only 25 percent of Democrat-voters consider Israel an “ally” of the US, compared with 57 percent of Republicans.

As Israeli newspaper Haaretz observed, the poll “shows that support for Israel is directly co-related to gender, age, economic status and political outlook. It is strongest among older, well-to-do, conservative white men and weakest among young, liberal, minorities and women”.

But are such polls a genuine cause for anxiety among Israel’s supporters? “There certainly is a segment of the Jewish Israeli public that is concerned with the country’s declining reputation,” Edo Konrad, an Israeli journalist for +972 Magazine told Al Jazeera.

“But the majority of Israeli Jews have either grown apathetic to the political situation writ large, or support the Netanyahu government’s lurch towards hyper-nationalism,” Konrad said.

Partisan divide

This lurch is one of the drivers for a “partisan divide” towards Israel and the Palestinians that the Pew Research Centre declared in January to be “now wider than at any point since 1978” – a divide that is slowly changing the political landscape in the US.

Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic Party leadership was one example of a change in discourse about Israel – the polarised response to Donald Trump‘s nomination of David Friedman as ambassador to Israel was another.

These developments are the consequences of different factors, from years of grassroots activism on Palestine, to the legacy of Netanyahu‘s efforts to back Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race, and undermine Barack Obama’s Iran negotiations.

In addition, as Brookings Institution scholar Tamara Cofman Wittes and former US envoy Daniel Shapiro noted in January, “some Americans have come to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of human rights”.

“In recent years and months”, Zena Agha, a New York-based US Policy Fellow for Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think-tank, told Al Jazeera, “support for Israel has become a partisan issue with many liberals not only questioning Israeli actions in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem, but also interrogating blind support for Israel itself.

“It does represent a genuine problem for Israel, who has put all its eggs in one basket – a basket which dangles precariously on the arm of the far right,” Agha said.

This embrace of the far right is taking place both at the level of activism – for example, the invitation extended to former football hooligan and Islamophobic campaigner Tommy Robinson by US-based pro-Israel groups – as well as at state-level.

In recent years, Netanyahu has either visited or hosted Hungary’s ethnonationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, and the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte. Netanyahu warmly welcomed the election victory of Brazil’s far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro – who has vowed to visit Israel and relocate his country’s embassy to Jerusalem.

“It’s hard not to conclude that the [Israeli] government considers the far right in the United States and elsewhere a partner in the battle against extremist Islam and ‘infiltrators’,” stated an editorial in Haaretz on 30 October, “and sees its strengthening as a stamp of approval for continuing the occupation and deporting asylum seekers”.

According to Konrad, “Israeli politicians have made a conscious decision to turn away from American liberal Jewry in favour of far-right Jewish figures such as [Republican donor] billionaire Sheldon Adelson, as well as xenophobic nationalist leaders like Orban”.

The liberal-left estrangement and growing embrace of the far right are trends that are likely to continue, and even accelerate. Among Democrats, the grassroots shifts are now beginning to rise to the top – consider the new “cluster of activist Democrats” heading for election to the House, or the 10 letters and joint statements from legislators since June 2015 highlighting Palestinian rights.

“So long as Israel continues to commit atrocities against Palestinians and violate Palestinian rights, it will continue to lose progressives and liberals worldwide”, said Agha. “The only way I can see the trend being reversed is if Israel itself changes course”.

For now, however, there is precious little sign of such a shift. Such a trajectory is risky for Israel, including with respect to the effect on American Jews, a traditional pillar of support.

“American Jews, for the most part, are left-leaning Democrats who value civil liberties and minority rights, while at the same time maintaining support for the State of Israel,” said Konrad.

“But with the Israeli government building alliances with authoritarian and antisemitic leaders around the world, and continuing to maintain a military dictatorship over the Palestinians in the occupied territories, American Jewry is realising that its political interests and that of Israel do not necessarily align,” he added.

Writing last week on the government’s embrace of far-right leaders, Eyal Nadav, foreign news editor-in-chief on Israel’s Channel 10 news, cautioned that “foreign policy is not short-term based, but mainly relies on long-term relations”.

“What will happen the day after Orban, Duterte, US President Donald Trump and others leave office? Does Israel have friendly relations with these [future] leaders, or relations of public political support?”

There is also an opportunity for Palestinians, who, Agha believes, “can, should and are capitalising on these developments”, especially by “aligning Palestine with similar and shared struggles around the world, from indigenous rights in the Americas and Oceania, to black liberation and ending mass incarceration and police brutality in the States”.

Agha, like other Palestinian analysts, as well as activists, is cautious about the disparity between developments at the grassroots, which “have yet to filter up to the corridors of power”.

However, she told Al Jazeera, should Palestinians “work with progressive candidates and representatives”, then there is an opportunity “to make sure that support for Palestine is part and parcel of their vote and their expectations once elected”.

Published first by Al Jazeera English.

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