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Business as usual at the UN - but US public opinion on Israel is shifting

January 2, 2015 at 3:39 pm

Speaking to the Security Council on Tuesday shortly after voting against the doomed Palestinian-drafted resolution on statehood, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power referred three times to an “unsustainable status quo” between Israel and the Palestinians.

It is of course Washington itself that bears most responsibility for this status quo, through its diplomatic, military, and economic support for the occupier, and leadership of a decades-long ‘peace process’ that has given Israel the cover to de facto annex its way to a permanent occupation.

There is another ‘status quo’, however, that is already shifting: U.S. public opinion. In a poll conducted last November for the Brookings Institution, when asked about their preferred solution to the conflict, 34% of Americans said their government should push for one state with equal citizenship. That was up from 24% a year previously, a significant difference.

Among those who support two states, 66% of them said they would support one state if two states were not possible. In addition: “If a two-state solution is not possible, 71% of Americans (84% of Democrats, 60% of Republicans) favour a single democratic state with Arabs and Jews as equal over a one in which Israel’s Jewish majority is sustained and Palestinians will not have equal citizenship.”

Interestingly, given diplomatic events of the last week, only 27% of Americans polled by Brookings said that the U.S. should oppose a Palestinian request for UN endorsement of statehood, while 25% said the U.S. should vote in favour.

Reflecting on the poll’s findings, Brooking’s Shibley Telhami noted a “pervasive public discomfort with an Israel that favours its Jewishness over democracy, and a creeping openness to a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, regardless of how practical or possible that might be.”

Telhami also highlighted how “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a highly polarized conflict in American politics with significant differences between Republicans and Democrats in particular.”

This polarisation was on display last summer during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip, in what constituted a strong indicator of U.S. public opinion trends that are troubling from Israel’s point of view. For example, around two weeks into the bombardment, only 57% of Americans backed Israel’s actions in Gaza, despite the overwhelming support for Israel amongst U.S. politicians.

In a Gallup poll conducted a few days later, meanwhile, amongst those under the age of 30, more than twice as many Americans felt Israel’s aggression in Gaza was unjustified (51%) than felt it justified (25%). The same was true for people of colour (49% versus 25%).

A further, Pew Research Centre, poll corroborated the evidence of a “huge generational split” on the attack on Gaza: among 18 to 29-year olds, 29% blamed Israel more for the current wave of violence, while 21% blamed Hamas. A piece for The Washington Post described “resistance among young Americans to Israel’s actions” as “somewhat new”, compared to previous bouts of violence (e.g. 18-to-29-year olds blamed Hezbollah more than Israel by a 30-10 margin in 2006).

In addition to the poll evidence provided by Brookings and others, the continued growth of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign in 2014 is likely to continue in 2015. An article in Haaretz last week acknowledged that BDS is now “a central focus for the organized American Jewish community, which views it as a long-term threat.”

In the same piece, the director of propaganda initiative Israel Action Network pointed out that “there are reasons to be concerned about growing disaffection from Israel, concern that even if today we have support, 10 years down the road we will have a bigger problem.”

BDS-opponent and Israel apologist Cary Nelson, particularly active in fighting the academic boycott campaign, also reflected on developments at the end of 2014, and described pro-Palestine activism and the BDS campaign on campuses as unparalleled in the U.S. “since the Vietnam War.”

These changes at the level of public opinion have been taking place alongside subtler, but undeniable, cracks emerging in U.S.-Israeli relations at the political level. At a conference last month in Israel, former PM Ehud Barak told delegates that the relationship with the U.S. had been “damaged”, an observation shared by numerous other senior political figures and commentators.

To return briefly for a final time to the Brookings poll, asked what their highest concern is in the Arab-Israeli issue, 31% of Americans said human rights, 24% said U.S. interests, and 14% said that they are most concerned about Israeli interests.

An American public that prioritises human rights, divided along generational, party political, and racial lines, is a troubling prospect for Israel and its supporters. Palestinian solidarity campaigners, on the other hand, can build on these shifts at a time when Apartheid Israel’s most important ‘defensive shield – U.S. backing – is not as impregnable as some like to claim.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.