Israel mortified after poll shows dwindling American liberal support
Israeli officials have expressed “sadness” after a new poll has found that support for Israel in US Democrat circles has decreased.
The opinion poll released on Tuesday showed US Republicans to be far more supportive of Israel than their Democratic counterparts. It also found Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a close ally of President Donald Trump, to be a divisive figure.
Analysts and Israeli officials say the findings by the Pew Research Center could be a cause for concern for Israel.
"I think it's a very concerning trend," said Sallai Meridor, who served as Israeli ambassador to the US a decade ago.
"For Israel, the bipartisan support of the American people is a strategic asset."
He said the poll is "concerning and saddening" because the countries have so much in common.
"There are many reasons for Democrats to see in Israel a mirror of their deep values and beliefs," he said.
The poll, however, found a far different sentiment. It showed that 79 percent of Republicans sympathise more with Israel than with Palestine, compared with just 27 percent of Democrats. It said the partisan divide was the widest it has been since 1978, the earliest year it provided for comparison.
Just 49 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats sympathised with Israel in 1978, Pew said.
Netanyahu’s reputation has dramatically tarnished among Democrats. Fifty-two percent of Republicans view him favourably, compared to just 18 percent of Democrats.
The survey did not analyse the reasons for the partisan divide, but Netanyahu's close ties with Trump, a polarising leader beloved by his supporters and reviled by his opponents, appears to be a factor. That friendship was on display during this week's warm reception for Vice President Mike Pence in Israel.
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The share of liberal Democrats who sympathise more with Israel than the Palestinians has plummeted from 33 percent to 19 percent since 2016 alone, the survey found.
Netanyahu's hard-line policies toward the Palestinians, characterized by his strong support for West Bank settlement construction and a four-year breakdown in negotiations, may also be alienating Democrats.
"America is terribly divided today and Israel is perceived to be very close to a president that the other part of America is very much against," Meridor said. "Over time I think it has its toll."
Meridor said Israel must be careful to reach out to all segments of American society. He also suggested a serious peace push with Palestine would help.
"I think it's very important that we always make an effort to reach accommodation and peace with our neighbours. It would help in maintaining more support among Democrats in America," he said, declining to discuss specific Israeli policies.
In another sign of trouble for Israel, the survey said young people are more divided in their sympathies, with 32 percent of people under 30 favouring Israel, and 23 percent sympathizing more with Palestine. Respondents ages 50-64, for instance, favoured Israel by a margin of 56 percent to 12 percent.
Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which sponsors educational trips for Israeli politicians to meet American Jews, said the results were not surprising given the deep divisions in American society.
He said that with most American Jews supporting the Democrats, Netanyahu's close alliance with Trump is risky.
"It's not playing well to the vast majority of Americans. I don't think it's playing well to the vast majority of the Jewish community," he said.
With Trump facing midterm elections later this year, Ruderman said Netanyahu should be hedging his bets.
"That short-term alliance with Trump could have devastating effects," he said. "Things could look very different at the end of this year."
Netanyahu was traveling on Tuesday and aides were not reachable for comment.
Marc Zell, chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel, said he too was concerned by the partisan divide in the US, but rejected the idea that Netanyahu was responsible. Instead, he claimed the Democratic Party has lost its way.
"Israel should be concerned about the fact that the Democratic Party has moved leftwards," he said, claiming being critical of Israel is a “radical position”.
The Pew survey questioned 1,503 people from January 10-15 and had a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.