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The Israeli Left must address declining support among Democrats

Progressive Americans are angered and alienated by the policy choices and rhetoric of Israel’s right-wing government. This is why the Israeli Left should care.

By Daniela Tolchinsky

Jewish and Arab protesters march during a demonstration against the occupation, calling the Israeli government to resign, in central Tel Aviv, May 28, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Jewish and Arab protesters march during a demonstration against the occupation, calling the Israeli government to resign, in central Tel Aviv, May 28, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

A recent Pew Research Center study shows sinking support for Israel among Democrats, with only 27 percent indicating they support Israel more than the Palestinians. According to the same study, 79 percent of Republicans say they support Israel over the Palestinians.

The right wing in Israel will undoubtedly look to claim this erosion of Democratic support as an indication that it serves Israelis best to simply ally with Trump and his cronies, who appear to give Israelis the uncritical support they yearn for. Logically, they’ll say, Israel must hunker down and protect itself from a dangerous world that now includes unfriendly Democrats in the United States.

When the phenomenon of declining Democratic support for Israel is explained in this way, the right wing gets to claim that its worldview is correct  — thus helping it win over votes while staying in power. The Israeli left should reject this claim, while advancing its own arguments to shift the conversation. It should point out that this trend is largely the result of disastrous policies of the Netanyahu government and the settlement movement. It is yet another clear indication of the need for a change in Israeli leadership.

I work with American progressive students every day, and have seen the trend from Pew’s survey play out firsthand. Democratic voters and young liberals in the United States are increasingly sympathizing with the Palestinian people, feeling alienated by Israeli government policies, and growing concerned over the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and occupation. This trend is not slowing, and I have no doubt that, should Israeli policies of expansionism and creeping annexation in the West Bank continue unchecked, it will only accelerate.

It’s vital to make clear, however, that the decline in support for Israel by American progressives isn’t actually about any ideological opposition to this country in and of itself. Only a tiny minority of Americans oppose Israel’s right to exist or would even identify themselves as generally “anti-Israel,” and many are impressed by the country’s many cultural and technological accomplishments.  

Rather, progressive Americans are angered and alienated by the policy choices and rhetoric of Israel’s most right-wing government to date. Over the last several years, progressives in the U.S. have seen the actions of the Netanyahu government, including Likud’s unilateral support for annexing the West Bank, senseless demolitions of Palestinian communities, rejection of the two-state solution and, of course, Bibi’s cozying up to Trump. In short, they see little to relate to, admire or support.

These policies are generating concern and a desire for change in the Democratic party, both among its voter base as well some of its most prominent elected officials. In November, Senators Bernie Sanders and Dianne Feinstein, along with eight of their Senate colleagues, co-authored a public letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, urging him to halt the impending demolitions of Susya and Khan al-Ahmar, two Palestinian villages in Area C of the West Bank.

The Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, West Bank. (Faiz Abu-Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

The Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, West Bank. (Faiz Abu-Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

In their letter, they warned that “[Y]our government’s efforts to forcibly evict entire Palestinian communities and expand settlements throughout the West Bank not only directly imperil a two-state solution, but we believe also endanger Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy. We urge you to change course so that you do not foreclose the possibility of establishing two states for two peoples.”

It’s no surprise that progressives like Sanders and Feinstein oppose demolitions and fear for the future of the two-state solution. But publicly making that position clear in such a strong, critical message to an Israeli leader is a relatively new and important phenomenon. This gesture may be a sign of what’s to come. 

There are two ways Israelis could interpret the Pew survey and the broader trends within the Democratic Party. The first is to imagine that Democratic support for Israel is simply lost, and that Israelis must therefore hunker down and support right-wing governments who will stand up to Democrats and support Israeli government policy unconditionally, without regard for where they may lead.

Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at the J Street conference, Washington, D.C., February 27, 2017. (Daniel McGarrity Photography/CC 2.0)

Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at the J Street conference, Washington, D.C., February 27, 2017. (Daniel McGarrity Photography/CC 2.0)

Alternatively, Israelis could recognize that it is, and always has been, in Israel’s best interest to have bipartisan U.S. support. Government in the U.S. changes hands often, as do the political fortunes of different ideologies and movements, so it’s a dangerous game for Israeli national security to rely on the support of only one American political party.

Given that reality, centrist and center-left parties in Israel should make clear to the public that they face two paths: national security and a strong relationship with the U.S., or occupation, more settlements and increasingly strained ties with our closest ally. 

Just as I have witnessed countless American progressives dismayed at Israel’s occupation policies, I have seen just as many support the prospect of a staunchly progressive, pragmatic anti-occupation leadership in Israel, which responsibly pursues a two-state solution, defends democracy, and rejects the ideology of the settler movement. That kind of leadership is possible. If it were to come about, it could transform Israel’s future and its relationship with American progressives for the better.

Daniela Tolchinsky is the Senior Israel Organizer for J Street. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    1. Mikesailor

      Actually Eric, there is little to no difference between the ideology of Israel (Zionism) and either the left or right wings in Israeli politics. Both agree that Jewish superiority must me maintained and that the Arab population must be discriminated against. Equal protection of the laws and equal citizenship are anathema to Zionists, Where is the e difference?

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    2. Nathanael

      Bluntly, Jewish people in the US who are paying attention are *horrified* by the crimes of Israel’s government. Jewish people who were raised by the lessons of the rabbis want nothing to do with the tyrannical state based on the immorality and sins of the leaders of the Bar Kochba revolt.

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