Israel is losing a battle that it has been desperate to win. Attitudes matter to the Zionist state. They matter to Israel more than most, because since its creation in Palestine its hasbara — propaganda — has crafted an image of itself as a liberal democracy. However, according to a new survey of US public opinion towards the conflict in the Middle East, Israel is losing the battle for American hearts and minds.
Image is everything for Israel's ability to exercise soft power, especially in the West, where upholding the values and principals of liberal democracy is, in theory, central to winning sympathy and support. The survey carried out by the Pew Research Centre shows that this image has taken a massive blow.
A typical Israeli supporter in the US belongs to the Republican Party. Nearly eight in ten Republicans (79 per cent), the report found, sympathise more with Israel than they do with the Palestinians. In fact, support for Israel amongst Republicans — who in recent years have become increasingly reactionary and dangerously racist — has increased by 29 per cent to 79 per cent since 2001.
On the other hand, sympathy for Israel amongst the Democrats has declined to just 27 per cent. Unlike the Republicans, Democrats are divided deeply over Israel. While 25 per cent said that they sympathise more with the Palestinians, 23 per cent say that they sympathise with neither or both.
Worryingly for the pro-Israel camp, the shift within the Democrats, the party that Israel needs to woo most for its soft-power image, is declining. Only two years ago 43 per cent of Democrats said that they sympathised with Israel. Last year this figure dropped to 33 per cent, with the slide continuing this year to just over a quarter.
Dig deeper and the picture looks bleaker for the carefully-crafted image of the "only democracy in the Middle East". For Israel's image to be sustainable, the quality of support is equally if not more important than the quantity. The poll found that the share of liberal Democrats who sympathise more with Israel than the Palestinians has declined from 33 per cent to 19 per cent since 2016.
Liberals in America overwhelmingly back the Palestinians. The Pew Poll found that, "Currently, nearly twice as many liberal Democrats say they sympathise more with the Palestinians than with Israel (35 per cent vs. 19 per cent); 22 per cent of liberal Democrats said they sympathise with both sides or neither side and 24 per cent do not offer an opinion."
While "moderate" and "conservative" Democrats continue to sympathise more with Israel — at 35 per cent and 17 per cent respectively — a massive 81 per cent of liberal Democrats either sympathised with Palestinians or declined to support Israel.
Along the liberal-conservative spectrum within the Republican Party, the shift in attitude is minimal. Large majorities of conservative Republicans (81 per cent) as well as self-proclaimed liberal Republicans (70 per cent) hold a positive attitude towards Israel.
Religious belief is another reliably determinant for gauging attitudes towards Israel. The poll found that "white evangelical Protestants continued to overwhelmingly sympathise with Israel: 78 per cent say this, while just 5 per cent sympathise more with the Palestinians."
Results from the poll also provide a good indication as to what the battleground for American hearts and minds will look like in the future, as far as the Israel-Palestine conflict is concerned. Young people are said to be more divided than older adults over the issue, with the latter sympathising more with Israel than the former.
The shift in attitude identified by the poll will no doubt ring alarm bells with the many formal pro-Israel groups in the US. For years, those like AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) have campaigned to keep Israel as a bipartisan issue and for the most part they have succeeded. The future, however, is not promising for them, with Democrats, in particular liberal Democrats, abandoning the Israeli ship.
Concerned lobbyists see these figures as signs of cracks in the bipartisan support that Israel has long enjoyed. Writing in the Jewish Telegraph Agency, Dennis Ross, one of Israel's great champions in Washington, said, "The numbers are worrying for anyone like me that cares about the US-Israel relationship." The former American peace negotiator for US Presidents of both parties added: "Israel has been and must remain not a Democratic or Republican issue but an American issue. That is a challenge now, especially with the attitudes of the progressive side of the Democratic Party."
Ross went on to mourn the fact that Jewish-Americans, who are by and large liberal, are becoming more alienated from the Republican Party, especially since Trump's arrival on the political scene. Republicans and Democrats are set to grow further apart in their views of Israel.
Ideology seems to play a far greater role than partisan loyalties in all of this, as one of America's most famous critics of Israel has discovered. Grappling to explain the flight of American Jews from their historical position of uncritical support for Israel, Norman Finkelstein observed that liberal American Jews were choosing to discard their Zionism in favour of their liberalism.
Finkelstein believes that ideology is the most serious threat to US Jewish support for Israel. American Jews are generally aﬃliated with the liberal Democrats, thanks in part to their education and history of persecution, says Finkelstein. Unlike the Republicans, whose ideological sense derives from strands of nationalism, ethnic and religious exclusivism, Democrats generally have a universal, progressive, liberal outlook. He concludes that "Knowing Too Much" – the title of his book — about Israel, its crimes, its breaches of international law and its march towards ethno-religious illiberalism, has left American Jews with no option but to part company with the Zionist state in order to remain true to their liberal values and principles.
The Pew survey suggests that this trend has accelerated under Donald Trump, with increasing numbers of American liberals becoming disillusioned by an administration that has turned its back on the values and principals they hold dear. In this battle for the soul of America, attitudes towards Israel are hardening on both sides. Israel may not remain a bipartisan issue for long, but instead come to represent the dividing line between liberal democracy and ethno-religious fundamentalism and bigotry.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.