Pales­tini­ans gain­ing in­flu­ence with the Amer­i­can left

Arab News - - OPINION - Kerry boyd aN­der­SoN | Spe­cial to arab NewS

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.

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 Is­raeliPales­tinian in­ter­ests than Repub­li­cans, who are more likely to sup­port Is­rael’s po­si­tion.

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 proIs­rael 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

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