The partisan gap on Israel-Palestine is consistent with the broader values gap that has widened between Democrats and Republicans over the past two decades.

The so-called US-Israel “special relationship” isn’t as special as it once was. The bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in Washington is eroding. And Israel is emerging as a wedge issue separating Democratic and Republican voters — and elected officials.

Washington is not a neutral arbiter when it comes to the Israel-Palestine dispute and may never become one. But the Palestinian plight — and the question of apartheid — has entered mainstream progressive discourse and may fuel a drive to condition aid to Israel based on progress in a peace process with Palestinians.

Israel-Palestine, a partisan issue 

According to a YouGov survey conducted this month amid the latest crisis in Israel-Palestine, a plurality of Democrats say their sympathies for Israelis and Palestinians are just about equal. And more Democrats say they sympathise with Palestinians (23 percent) than they do with Israelis (16 percent). In contrast, a strong majority of Republicans — 61 percent of those surveyed — say they side with Israelis.

The partisan gap on Israel-Palestine is consistent with the broader values gap that has widened between Democrats and Republicans over the past two decades. 

Increasingly, Democrats — particularly Millennials and Zoomers — see the conflict not as an ancient religious feud, but as a social justice issue mirroring their domestic concerns about inequality, racial injustice, and state violence. And in this era of the celebrity influencer, the fight for Palestinian rights has been mainstreamed as it is being championed by the likes of Gigi Hadid and Dua Lipa, who hold sway over a young, female demographic in America.

Meanwhile, Republicans ­— especially the older and more church-going ones ­— remain firmly behind Israel as support for Tel Aviv has become not just part of the political orthodoxy of white American conservatism, but also enmeshed with the belief system of evangelical Christianity — with the state of Israel playing a central role in its End Times eschatology.

It wasn’t always this way. In 2001, 59 percent of Republicans said they sympathised more with Israelis than the Palestinians, according to a Gallup survey. That figure rose to 85 percent by 2010 and has remained in that range since then, according to Gallup.

Terrorism and the overall issue of security also remain top concerns for Republicans. And, as they do at home, Republicans are likely to favor curbing the liberties of others to enhance security for themselves or their favored groups. According to a survey conducted this February by Gallup, most Republicans oppose Palestinian statehood. In other words, they are content with indigenous Palestinians remaining second-class citizens or stateless in their homeland.

Republicans do not merely favour Israelis and oppose specific Palestinian groups. They have an overall negative disposition toward the Palestinian people. According to a 2019 survey by Pew, most Republicans — 62 percent of those surveyed — have an unfavourable view of the Palestinian people. By comparison, Democrats view Israelis and Palestinians with roughly equal favorability. 

The values gap between Democrats and Republicans is likely a factor here too. The more religious Republicans view the conflict as one between two peoples with opposing inherent characteristics: one “good” and the other “evil.” In contrast, the more secular Democrats adopt a neutral, humanist position.

Progressives rock the boat

Growing sympathy among Democrats for the Palestinians is not an overnight phenomenon. These changes have been taking place for years. What is truly surprising has been the shift in the US Congress, where support for Israel has been near-unanimous for decades.

Though they remain a minority, prominent Democrats in Congress are expressing support for putting restrictions on how Israel uses the billions of dollars in US aid against the Palestinians.

Eighteen members of the House of Representatives co-sponsored legislation that would bar Israel from using US taxpayer money in the occupied territories for the abuse of Palestinian human rights. Introduced by Betsey McCollum, a congresswoman from a predominantly white, progressive, upper-middle-class district in Minnesota, the bill is co-sponsored by several members of progressive “The Squad” and other black and brown left-leaning members of Congress. 

Importantly, the legislation is also endorsed by a diverse coalition including major mainline Protestant Christian churches, who — in contrast to evangelicals — have actively supported Palestinian rights for some time.

The discourse on Israel in Congress is also entering unchartered territory. In a tweet, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez inferred that Israel is an “apartheid” state. Black members of Congress, including Ayanna Pressley, have compared the struggle of Palestinians to those of black Americans

Jamal Bowman, who replaced the staunchly pro-Israel Eliot Engel in the suburban New York 16th congressional district, also referred to Palestinians as an “oppressed” people — language that is generally reserved by voices in Washington for those persecuted by America’s foes.

There are also discernable changes from Democratic party centrists. The powerful Greg Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, reportedly sought to delay the $735 million sale of precision-guided missiles to Israel this month, though he quickly reversed course

Another member of the New York Congressional delegation, Tom Suozzi, who comes from a traditionally pro-Israel suburban district, initially issued a very staunchly pro-Israel statement only to quickly endorse a ceasefire. Prominent Jewish members of Congress also signed a joint letter calling for de-escalation — something unseen in previous Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Critics of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians are no longer lone outliers in Congress. They constitute a bloc — albeit a small one — that is aligned on a host of other “progressive” issues. Importantly, being pro-Palestine has become intertwined with progressive politics. Progressives not only win elections in America. They are also agenda-setters in the Democratic Party.

Still pro-Israel, but Palestinians now have a voice

Progressives are beginning to have an impact on how the White House approaches Israel-Palestine. The word “equal” appears frequently in recent Biden administration statements on Israel-Palestine, indicating that it is attempting to be responsive to the domestic progressive discourse at home highlighting the disparity in civil and human rights between Israelis and Palestinians.

Of course, these are mere rhetorical concessions. For all the talk of “equality,” the United States feeds the military asymmetry between Israelis and Palestinians, not only funding and supplying Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, but also the offensive capabilities of the nuclear-armed country. And the United States wields its veto power at the United Nations Security Council to protect Israel from accountability. The US-Israeli intelligence and military relationship is quite close, despite the counterintelligence threat Tel Aviv poses to Washington.

Furthermore, pro-Israel sentiment remains dominant in Washington. Over 300 members of Congress, including some viewed as progressives, signed a letter opposing cutting or conditioning security assistance, arguing that it “would be detrimental to Israel’s ability to defend itself against all threats.” And even if the ranks of foreign policy progressives grow in Congress, the US House of Representatives is likely to swing back into Republican control in 2022, giving this firmly pro-Israel camp greater power over legislation, spending, and key committees.

But now, perhaps more than ever, Palestinians have a voice in the (virtual) room. Social media has empowered ordinary Palestinians to get past the mainstream media filters and tropes and humanise themselves to an American audience accustomed to viewing them simply as angry protestors or suicide bombers. 

Palestinians are sharing their fears during heavy Israeli bombardment, their sorrow after loved ones are slain, and their very normal aspirations for their own lives, which are often put on halt by the Israeli occupation. 

Producers and editors at major US news networks no longer exercise a monopoly over the power to shape how Americans view Palestinians. Palestinians can speak directly to Americans. And their voices are being amplified by political and celebrity influencers, which is having a demonstrable impact on how young progressives view the conflict.

But to achieve durable policy change, the Palestinians will have to overcome their major vulnerabilities: they are geographically and politically divided, and their political leadership is weak. Youth-led, coordinated protests across historic Palestine have breathed new life into the movement for Palestinian freedom. But as the Arab Spring shows, leaderless movements eventually are coopted, crushed, or supplanted by others if they fail to transform into an organised party.

A grassroots all-Palestine political organisation will take time to emerge. In the meantime, it remains vital for Palestinians to articulate to an American audience how Washington enables their suffering. This will help progressive legislators push to condition the billions of dollars in annual security assistance to Israel, tying it to progress in a peace process with Palestinians.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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