These factors could explain the growing divide over Middle East conflict
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EditorialWhat the new Pew study says and how we got here

These factors could explain the growing divide over Middle East conflict

The stats imply that Israelis and Palestinians are playing a zero-sum game — where support for one means lack of support for the other. It shouldn't be so.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, with Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, left, and Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell after addressing Congress in 2015. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, with Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, left, and Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell after addressing Congress in 2015. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a new study that reveals growing political division on the subject of the Middle East. Titled “Republicans and Democrats grow even further apart in views of Israel, Palestinians,” the study finds the partisan divide is now wider than at any point since 1978.

Researchers found that 79 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, while only 27 percent of Democrats feel that way. Twenty-five percent of Democrats sympathized more with the Palestinians, while only 9 percent of Republicans did.

“The partisan divide has widened considerably, especially over the past two decades,” the researchers write. “The share of Republicans who sympathize with Israel has never been higher, dating back four decades. … Democrats are divided.”

How did we get here? There are a few factors that might explain the shift.

First, party coalitions have changed. Before the Reagan Revolution, the Republican coalition was deeply divided, with business interests and so-called foreign policy realists more interested in the populous, oil-rich Arab world than with tiny Israel. Then conservative Christians and neo-Conservatives — both solidly pro-Israel — remade the party.

Meanwhile, the Democratic coalition that included labor, liberals and Jews — all comfortably pro-Israel — further broadened its base. Moderate and conservative Democrats tend to be reliably pro-Israel. But the left wing of the party — which includes many social justice-oriented younger Americans — is hostile to Israel over what it sees as unjust treatment of Palestinians.

Some of this shift may be inevitable with the passage of time. Younger people don’t remember the first and second intifada, let alone the Six Day War. There are generations today whose entire perception of Israel is of an “occupier” with a firm hand rather than of a small nation beset by existential threats.

This growing criticism of Israel among Democrats has been accelerated in large part by the legacy of President Barack Obama’s and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dysfunctional personal relationship and their insensitive handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

As the leader of the Democrats, Obama’s rhetoric set the tone for his supporters. By blaming Israel consistently for lack of progress in the peace process while largely giving a free pass to the Palestinians, his administration changed the Democrats’ worldview.

And then there is Netanyahu — whom Pew calls “a deeply polarizing figure in the U.S.” — who has become a Republican darling, and is less attractive to many Democrats. With his end run around President Barack Obama to appeal directly to Congress against the Iran deal in 2015, Netanyahu angered many congressional Democrats and divided the Jewish community.

After eight years of the Barack and Bibi show, we can see several cracks in what had historically been a strong bipartisan commitment to Israel’s security.

Though the new Pew report has attracted a lot of attention, there is reason to question some of its conclusions.

That is because other research suggests that a vast majority of Americans still support Israel.

Thus, for example, according to a 2017 Gallup poll, 71 percent of Americans view Israel favorably —which is a number that has stayed relatively constant for the past 15 years. The different support levels reported in the Gallup poll among Republicans (81 percent), independents (70) and Democrats (61) aren’t as dramatic as the numbers in the Pew report.

Finally, the “sympathy statistics” in the Pew study imply that Israelis and Palestinians (and their supporters) are playing a zero-sum game — where support for one means a lack of support for the other. It shouldn’t be so.

Pro-Israel shouldn’t mean anti-Palestinian, and pro-Palestinian shouldn’t mean anti-Israel. And maybe that’s where we need to start, in order to rebuild the push toward a negotiated resolution that produces a win-win for both sides. PJC

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