There has been a “strong” shift in Democratic voters’ attitudes regarding Israel in the last two years, with fully 60 percent now supporting economic sanctions or more serious action against the Jewish state in reaction to its continued settlement expansion — up from 49 percent just a year ago.
The shift, according to pollster Shibley Telhami, “happened more rapidly than I expected,” he told The Jewish Week. “You normally do not see huge shifts in a year — they are usually incremental. This is in good part due to an intense election year that increased sharp public polarization on many issues, including the Middle East.”
Peter Beinart, a liberal political commentator and columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, said he too has noticed the divide and agreed that it “has been growing.” But he said the divide is not just over the State of Israel.
“The Democrats are moving to the left in general,” he told The Jewish Week. “From criminal justice to gay rights and issues about business regulations, the current trend is away from the Clinton new Democratic ideology and is more left leaning.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, energized much of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party — particularly millennials — when he challenged former Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“Bernie Sanders and the emergence of [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren [D-Mass.] — all the momentum is on the left, and it is further left than it was,” Beinart observed. “It’s a response to income inequality and the Iraq war – there are a number of factors producing this shift to the left.”
Not only did the election galvanize millennials, but the election of Republican Donald Trump as president has also increased support among Democrats to seek punitive measures against Israel for settlement expansion. Telhami said his poll found that support for such action increased from 56 percent two weeks before the election to 60 percent after it.
The survey of 1,528 Americans was conducted Oct. 5-14 by the Nielsen Scarborough polling organization. The margin of error is 2.5 percent. A similar survey of 1,042 Americans was conducted Nov. 18-23; the margin of error for the November poll is 3 percent.
Although a growing number of Republican voters also favor sanctions, the numbers are not as dramatic. The increase is from 26 percent in November 2015 to 31 percent after the election.
Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, speculated that Democrats’ support for sanctions “intensified” even more after the election. He cited the possibility that “a lot of people who wanted an equitable solution in the Middle East became fearful that a Trump presidency might make that impossible.”
As a result, an increasing number of Democrats now wish to see Obama outline his Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal at the United Nations before he leaves office. Israel opposes such a move, insisting that the conflict be resolved directly between the two parties.
Republican voters, on the other hand, are more supportive of Israel, Telhami found, with only 22 percent of Republicans believing Obama should present his proposal at the United Nations, compared to a whopping 70 percent of Democrats.
“There is a tremendous divide between Democrats and Republicans,” Telhami said. “In a way, we have two countries.”
Exacerbating that divide was the appearance last year of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before Congress to criticize the proposed Iran nuclear agreement that had been hammered out by the Obama administration. Netanyahu urged rejection of the deal, forcing Democratic lawmakers to choose between their Democratic president and the Israeli prime minister.
Obama and Netanyahu have had a strained relationship throughout Obama’s tenure in the White House. It began with Obama’s Middle East trip to Cairo — but pointedly not Israel — soon after he took office, and a U.S.-imposed freeze on settlement construction. It became even more difficult when Israel announced plans for new settlement construction — which the Obama administration views as an impediment to achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement — during a 2010 visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden.
Regarding American Jews — 70 percent of whom voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton and who have voted for the Democratic presidential candidate since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt — Telhami agreed that the party’s shift might cause some Jews to move to the Republican Party.
“But American Jews are divided on the question of Israel as well,” he observed, “and the younger Jews are to the left of the [Democratic] establishment.”
In addition, Telhami said, “Jews are not a one-issue constituency. Israel is not ranked as a top issue, and they may agree or not on Israel. Most American Jews vote on such issues as civil rights and the economy. And there is also a new fear of a rise of fascism and a disruption of our social fabric. Those are issues where Jewish positions are more important, especially if Israel’s security is not seen to be seriously threatened. Unless there is someone [seeking office] who is on the extreme end of the spectrum, it is hard to see Israel being a single factor that is going to affect the vast majority of the Jewish population.”
Beinart agreed that for most Jews, Israel is but one of a variety of issues they care about.
“We know that Jewish voters generally vote on domestic issues,” he said. “Jews are tied to the Democratic Party because of things like abortion, gay rights and gun control.”
Asked if he could foresee Jews abandoning the Democratic Party because of its shift on Israel, Beinart said: “It all depends on the character of the nominee. … I think you would have to have an unprecedented amount of hostility from the nominee.”
He added that “millennial Jews if anything are more attached to the left-wing agenda than the older [Jews].”
Jews and the Democratic Party were for decades intertwined, noted Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant, who said “being a Democrat was part of the secular Jewish religion.” And despite the party’s shift to the left, he predicted the vast majority of Jews would remain loyal Democrats.
“Jews who are less observant, intermarried and assimilated are going to keep voting Democratic, and the others will not,” he said. “Only one in four Jewish homes in the U.S. have Jewish parents. They tend to be Democrats and liberals because that fits their idea of what Judaism is.”
On the other hand, he said, “non-assimilated Jews tend to become observant and are much less likely to promote anti-Israel activities and support groups that do.”
Perhaps the first test of Jewish support for the Democratic Party will come early next year with the election of a new party chairman. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, whose voting record and past statements on Israel have divided the Jewish community in terms of supporting his candidacy.
“There is no question that some will be alienated,” Telhami said. “Ideological shifts take place every once in awhile, but I don’t see it happening on a mass scale.”
In analyzing the year’s election, Telhami said it was marked by the mobilization of grassroots Americans and that there was an “intensity of campaigning that polarized America. What is interesting is that after the primaries the issue of Israel wasn’t a central issue any longer. When Americans were asked about their priorities, they mentioned ISIS and trade and immigration. Israel was down on the list. But in the Republican primary it became an issue for the evangelicals, so every candidate had a position that was pro-Israel.”
Israel played a role in the Democratic primary as well. Telhami said “there was a sense that the grassroots were frustrated with Israel, and the Democratic candidate [Clinton] seemed to be mainstream.”
He noted that Sanders thought it was to his advantage to say that his opponent was not that sympathetic to the Palestinians.
“It was the first time in my memory that a major party leader said that, and it was useful for him because it energized a segment of the party, particularly young people.”
Telhami said the issue resonated with many young Democrats who wanted to see a “fair solution” to the conflict.
“It is the cosmopolitan nature of young people for the Democratic Party to be more egalitarian and to say they are citizens of the world as opposed to Americans first,” he said. “Young ones — particularly millennials — rank international law and human rights as a priority and see settlements to be at odds with their world view. In the worldview, the international community opposes settlements. Settlement expansion has not stopped and they see the continued occupation as unjust and something that has to be ended. While they believe Palestinians are partly at fault, they are not sure if the Israeli government really wants a solution.”