Analysis

Support for Israel Has Become a Partisan Issue in the United States

Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to politicize American sympathies for Israel.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Republican House speaker John Boehner in Washington DC, March 3, 2015
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Republican House speaker John Boehner in Washington DC, March 3, 2015 (Caleb Smith)

I wasn’t expecting this to happen so soon.

Last month, I urged the Israeli right to stop hectoring President Barack Obama and the Democrats lest they politicize support for the Jewish state in America.

Turns out they already have.

The Pew Research Center finds that Democrats are now nearly as likely to sympathize with the Palestinians as they do with Israel.

74 percent of Republicans take Israel’s side. Only 33 percent of Democrats do, against 31 percent who say they sympathize more with the Palestinian people.

Republicans have for decades been more supportive of Israel, but until recently only one in five Democrats said they sympathized with the Palestinians.

Taking sides

Democratic attitudes started to shift during Obama’s second term, when he pushed for an accord with Iran to rein in that country’s nuclear ambitions; an accord Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, condemns.

Netanyahu did little to hide his support for Obama’s Republican challenger in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney.

When Obama won reelection, Netanyahu continued to appear on American television to voice his opposition to the president’s diplomacy with Iran.

In 2015, he went so far as to accept an invitation from Republicans to address Congress on the issue; an unprecedented intervention by a foreign leader in the domestic politics of the United States.

Center-left politicians and commentators of all stripes, in both Israel and the United States, warned Netanyahu against holding his speech. They pointed out that American support for Israel — diplomatic, economic and military — is disproportionate to Israel’s strategic worth to the United States. The alliance is based on affinity as much as it is on shared interests.

Netanyahu didn’t listen. By attacking the sitting president of one party and siding openly with the other, he squandered Democratic goodwill. He made support for Israel a partisan issue in the United States, with the help of Republicans.

Trump

Netanyahu and his supporters may not worry now. The incoming American president, Donald Trump, listens to Israeli hawks and has promised to be more pro-Israel than his predecessor.

But Republicans are not going to be in power indefinitely, and affiliating support for Israel with the crude nationalism of Trump can only accelerate the shift in Democratic attitudes.