More Americans disagree about Israel, but elite consensus holds together

Republicans support Israeli policies, and Democrats oppose them. So why do Democratic leaders stand with the GOP?

Published March 30, 2010 1:31PM (EDT)

Today is Passover, and at seders everywhere (including the White House) last night, hungry Jews finished the ceremony and started eating with the traditional invocation, "Next year in Jerusalem."

But -- at least for the people at my seder -- just mentioning the word "Jerusalem" is enough right now to evoke groans and despair, given recent events. The intensification of settlement in East Jerusalem by the Israeli government and the accompanying chill in Israeli-American relations have made the ever-grim situation seem even worse. When the president seemed to snub Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House last week, he was speaking for American progressives who’ve had it with Israeli intransigence and are especially aggravated by the current ruling right-wing coalition in that country.

A recent poll bears this out: according to the Zogby survey, commissioned for the Arab American Institute, the partisan divide about Israel is intensifying among Americans. Since last year, Israel’s overall favorable rating has dropped from 71 percent to 65 percent, and its unfavorable rating has climbed from 21 percent to 29. This drop is largely attributable to changing opinions among Democrats, only 42 percent of whom now rate Israel favorably; 49 percent have an unfavorable opinion.

On various specific policy matters related to Israel and Palestine, the parties now split so that about two-thirds of Democrats oppose many Israeli actions, and about two-third of Republicans support them.

(And lest you think the poll is biased, note that it shows a drop in the favorable rating for Palestinians as well, which from an abysmal 25 to 21, with the unfavorable rating climbing from 66 to 73.)

In this light it seems odd to have a political class -- and especially, a Democratic Party -- that is largely uninterested in bringing any real pressure on Israel to adjust its policies. When Netanyahu was in Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed to make a point of posing for a photo op with him, announcing, "In Congress we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel."

Some of this obviously has to do with the historical relationship between Jews, Zionism, and the American political left and right. At the time of Israel’s founding, the Republican Party remained the comfortable home of old-school isolationist, anti-semitic cranks. Although this tendency still exists in some outer provinces of the right wing, conservatives generally shed their isolationism and anti-semitism in order to pursue the Cold War. Fighting world communism meant being willing to jump into bed with all kinds of allies around the world -- Israel among them.

This way of thinking about Israel has continued among conservatives even after the Cold War’s end. For all that sensationalists in the media love to talk about how evangelical conservatives love Israel because of biblical prophecies about the role of the Jews in the End Times, there’s a much simpler version of the story: conservatives of all stripes understand Israel as a comrade-in-arms in the civilization-wide struggle against Islam. For those on the right who foresee, essentially, a race war between the West and the Islamic world, Israel is an invaluable ally.

This is how we ended up with so many conservatives casually accusing Barack Obama of anti-semitism, grounded in no evidence. As prominent blogger Glenn Reynolds writes, "Possibly Obama just hates Israel and hates Jews. That’s plausible -- certainly nothing in his actions suggests otherwise, really." Over at Big Journalism, Pamela Geller suggests that in his childhood in Indonesia, Obama was "wet-nursed on Jew-hatred." It’s an idea that only starts to make sense if you try to get inside the head of someone who thinks that, at some level, we're still fighting the Crusades. You have to think there is a race war, with two irreconcilable sides, for the idea to make any sense that Obama is working for the other side.

So, that's the basic origin of affection for Israel on the modern right: hostility to Muslims. But what about liberals? Why does two-thirds disagreement with Israeli policies among Democrats around the country fail to yield much any action at elite levels of the Democratic Party?

This is much more of a puzzle. This hole in our understanding of what’s going on is where the now-infamous "Israel lobby" argument came in: it’s one thing if you support Israel out of some racial or religious fanaticism, but why do basically sensible people, who don't think that the U.S. and Christendom have identical interests, fail to act on the issue? Even American Jews seem to be getting more sour on Israeli policies. Pelosi can’t just be in hock to the Jewish vote and Jewish donors.

It does seem that there's a historical lag on these things. We now forget that, just like right-wingers were initially hostile to Israel, much of the left was friendly at the outset. Israel was founded as an explicitly socialist, secular project. For years, even after the occupations of neighboring territories during the 1967 Six Day War, Americans liberals failed to grasp just how extensive the human costs of a Jewish settler state could be. Young, dynamic Israel seemed unambiguously heroic.

Most of the leaders of the Democratic Party -- people like Pelosi -- are veterans of a time when it wasn’t obvious that the occupation crisis was going to continue endlessly. It didn't used to seem to liberals like Israel would always be such a problem. Maybe, for the partisan gap that’s emerged in the public to be matched by one among political elites, we just need to wait for generational turnover. Certainly, the difference between Obama and Pelosi suggests that the next generation won't be quite so interested in preserving the consensus in Washington. Because, despite the saying about politics stopping at the water's edge, it's rarely a good thing when both parties take the same line on an issue.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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Barack Obama Israel Middle East Nancy Pelosi D-calif.