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Could a Shift in U.S. Public Opinion Erode Israel Support in Washington?

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GAZA HAMAS
Reuters

Public support for Israel is becoming partisan. In a way, that's not a surprise. Everything is becoming partisan these days.

What makes Israel different is that you don't see any partisan split in Washington. Last week, the Senate voted unanimously in favor of an emergency spending measure for Israel's missile defense system. The House vote was nearly unanimous -- 395 to 8 in favor. Even the negative votes were bipartisan (four House Democrats and four Republicans opposed the measure).

Typically, grass-roots partisans get their cues from party leaders in Washington. On this issue, however, the division is happening among voters. It has not yet hit the political class, where support for Israel has remained steadfast and bipartisan.

On the surface, not much appears to be changing. The percentage of Americans who say they sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians -- 51 percent in a Pew poll last month -- has held fairly steady since the last Gaza fighting broke out in 2006. Only 14 percent of Americans sympathize with the Palestinians, a figure that has also held fairly steady. As in the past, more than a third say they sympathize with neither side (15 percent), both sides (3 percent) or "don't know" (18 percent).

Under the surface, however, partisans have been moving apart. Republican sympathy for Israel, at 73 percent, is five points higher than it was in April. Democratic sympathy for Israel is considerably lower -- now 44 percent, down two points. It's not that Democrats sympathize with the Palestinians or support Hamas. They do not. What we are seeing is growing anger on the left over Israel's war policies.

You see it most clearly in the responses to a Gallup poll question last month that asked Americans whether they felt "Israeli actions in the current conflict with the Palestinian group Hamas" have been mostly justified or not. The public was closely divided; 42 percent said Israeli actions were justified, 39 percent said they were not. Republicans felt they were justified, 65 percent to 21 percent Democrats said they were not, 47 percent to 31 percent.

The groups most critical of Israel were the core constituencies that make up the New America coalition that elected and re-elected President Obama: women, racial minorities and especially young people. A majority of Americans under age 30 were critical of Israel, calling Israel's actions unjustified by two to one (51 percent to 25 percent).

Why are young people so critical? Possibly because they are heavy users of social media. Palestinian sympathizers have been adept at circulating images of war casualties and devastation. Cell phone cameras have become a crucial instrument of war policy. And Hamas has not been above the cynical manipulation of civilians -- including children -- as a way to intensify international criticism of Israel.

For the first 20 years of its existence as a state, Israel was seen as a country of the left. It was governed by a party of the left (the Israeli Labor Party) and had a thriving social democratic culture (the kibbutz movement). The 1967 war changed everything. When Israel conquered and subsequently occupied territory that had previously been under Arab control, Israel became a hero to the international right. Including the United States, the leader of the international right in the Cold War. Israel began to face criticism from the left as an essentially Western power occupying Third World territory.

American public support for Israel became stronger after the 1967 war. Which suggests that what drove it was not so much pity for the persecuted Jews after the Holocaust but admiration for Israel's military prowess and success. Americans admire winners.

In the U.S., the New America won a revolution in 2008 and survived a counterrevolution in 2012. Like all revolutions, the New America aims to export itself. Obama boasted in 2012, "My Administration stood with [the protesters in Tunisia] earlier than just about any other country. In Egypt we stood on the side of democracy. In Libya we stood on the side of the people." And in Syria, "We are mobilizing humanitarian support and support for the opposition."

Human rights is a core value of the New America's foreign policy. After all, the coalition came out of the civil rights movement. President Obama declared in 2012, "Israel is our true friend. It is our greatest ally in the region. And if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel." That is no doubt true, but Israel is not admired by some elements of the New America coalition. They see Israel's occupation and settlement policies as violations of human rights. And they are outraged by Israeli actions that kill civilians, especially children, in Gaza.

The fact that Congress is holding firm behind Israel is important. Because without Congress, there would be no Israel. Every President -- Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama -- has moments of exasperation with Israel. Congress has always come to Israel's rescue.

But Congress is highly attentive to shifts in public opinion. (Most Americans don't believe that, but it's true.) If criticism of Israel is rising among Democrats, party leaders will not be able to ignore it indefinitely. We've seen what happens when party division intensifies over issues like immigration or climate change. Government is unable to act. We get gridlock. That could be extremely costly for Israel.