Will Netanyahu’s Political Demise Shift U.S. Sympathies Toward Israel or the Palestinians?

Pollsters tell Haaretz that while American support for the Palestinian cause has clearly grown over the past decade, it’s too early to know how the latest flare-up in Gaza will affect support for either side

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Protesters at a pro-Palestinian rally in Queens last month. One handwritten placard states "Abolish Israel."
Protesters at a pro-Palestinian rally in Queens last month. Credit: STEPHANIE KEITH - AFP

Donald Trump has been gone from the White House for more than four months, and Benjamin Netanyahu is as close as ever to losing power in Israel. Could the change in leadership in the two countries help reverse Israel’s sinking image in American public opinion?

Israel has consistently elicited more sympathy than the Palestinians in polling over the last two decades, but Israel’s edge with the American public has been narrowing over the last few years. Meanwhile, sympathy for Palestinians has doubled since 2013 – mostly because the share of respondents saying they have no opinion or sympathize equally with both sides has shrunk.

But the aggregate polling numbers tell only half the story, says Lydia Saad, director of U.S. social research at the polling company Gallup.

“The stability on the surface is masking polarization in the United States, with Republicans growing much more favorable toward Israel, and Democrats moving away from that position,” she told Haaretz. “Democrats still view Israel favorably, but in terms of sympathies in the conflict, Democrats have moved from being pro-Israel on balance to being evenly split.”

Gallup’s last poll on the issue, taken in February before the latest eruption of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, found that 58 percent of Americans sympathized with Israel, compared with 25 percent favoring Palestinians. The difference of 33 percentage points is close to what it was 20 years ago, but was far smaller than the 55 points in 2013.

More importantly, among Democrats – the party that now controls the White House and both houses of Congress – sympathy for Israel has declined to the point where it is close to matching that of Palestinians, according to the latest Gallup surveys.

Indeed, for a brief time in 2020, more Americans who identified as Democratic or leaning toward the party said they sympathized with the Palestinians more than with Israel.

The decline in Democratic support has been offset by growing sympathy for Israel among Republicans, though there has been some pullback among people identifying themselves as conservative Republicans: from 86 percent in 2017 saying their sympathies lay with Israel, to 72 percent in 2021, according to Gallup.

Pollsters and other experts agree that a key reason for the partisan divide was the Netanyahu-Trump bromance. That helped make an uncompromising pro-Israel stance a core issue for Republicans alongside gun rights and tax cuts. Among Democrats, loathing of Trump tended to result in knee-jerk opposition to anything the president stood for. For many, especially on the party’s liberal wing, that came to include Israel.

GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene at a Republican press conference in support of Israel, on Capitol Hill last month. Credit: Kevin Dietsch - AFP

Netanyahu’s all-but-overt partisanship favoring Republicans over Democrats – most notably, his support of 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama – began the process of Israel’s losing Democratic support.

But the pivotal moment was the nuclear accord Obama reached with Iran in 2015: Netanyahu vociferously opposed the deal and went so far as to address a joint session of Congress on the matter, in defiance of the White House.

For many Democrats, it was an unforgivable slap in the face and unwarranted interference in domestic politics. “That’s when we started seeing Democratic views changing quickly,” says Saad, who adds that party affiliation affects people’s views more than demographic factors such as age, education and gender.

Trump has exited, and with Netanyahu appearing to cede the post as Israeli prime minister for the first time in 12 years, at least some of that partisan divide may now dissipate. For many Americans, Netanyahu had been around for so long and had such a high media profile that he was virtually indistinguishable from the State of Israel.

“It will be a test, now that he’s [almost] gone, to the extent [Netanyahu] had an impact on Democratic attitudes,” Shibley Telhami, professor in the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland, told Haaretz. A longtime pollster, Telhami directs the university’s Critical Issues Poll, which includes foreign policy questions, especially relating to the Middle East.

Changing perceptions

Last month’s war between Israel and Hamas – the fourth in just over a decade – brought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back into the headlines and spurred large and often angry pro-Palestinian rallies around the world.

In the past, polls failed to detect any appreciable long-term effect on public opinion from these wars, perhaps because they were too brief. Craig Kafura, assistant director for public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, says he is skeptical about any lasting impact from the last round of fighting either.

He says the raucous protests in U.S. cities mostly favoring the Palestinians may say more about changes in America’s political culture than about changing attitudes toward Israel and the Palestinians.

An anti-Israel protest in Louisville, Kentucky, last month. Credit: Jon Cherry - AFP

“Hard to know without the data, but I would suspect it won’t have any long-term impact,” Kafura said by email. “More, or larger, pro-Palestinian demonstrations could reflect in part the generational differences ... given that young people are generally more likely to engage in protests. It’s also possible that the last year of Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. has helped habituate some Americans to protest as a normal political activity. But without data, it’s hard to be sure.”

One thing the last war did highlight was changing perceptions about Israel and Palestine among the American left, and even among some segments of the right. With the U.S. aboil over concerns about endemic racism and allegations of police brutality, more and more Americans may be looking at Israel-Palestine – a conflict occurring thousands of miles away and involving entirely different actors – through the same prism of their own divisions.

That could influence how opinion leaders and even ordinary Americans read the situation going forward. Take, for instance, Bernie Sanders, the socialist Vermont senator who caucuses with the Democratic Party.

Echoing the themes of the Black Lives Matter movement, in a New York Times op-ed he lauded the rise of “a new generation of activists” in the U.S. “We saw these activists in American streets last summer in the wake of the murder of George Floyd,” he wrote. “We see them in Israel. We see them in the Palestinian territories,” and ended the piece by declaring, “Palestinian lives matter.”

James L. Gelvin, a professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of California, Los Angeles, put it more directly in an article in The Conversation: “As in the United States, a brutalized minority group [Palestinians], facing systemic racism and discriminatory acts, has taken to the streets. And, as in the United States, the only way out starts with serious soul-searching on the part of the majority.”

Losing the evangelicals?

It’s too early to say how many Americans are ready to adopt this analogy. But Telhami says his polling has found that growing numbers of Americans are looking at events overseas in terms of political values – and that leaves Israel with a serious handicap vis-à-vis the Palestinians, even if Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid become the country’s public face.

“During the Trump years, one thing that emerged was a war of values: It was Trump versus democracy, rule of law and human rights … and that has been reinforced by the racial divide and Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd issue,” he says. “That has galvanized Democrats around values more than in the past – prioritized values both at home and abroad, in that sense. The Palestinian issue is viewed through social justice, and that has increased sympathy for Palestinians under occupation and increased scrutiny of Israel among Democrats.”

It may also be increasing sympathy for Palestinians among a demographic that Netanyahu has come to rely on as Israel’s principal political base in America. Only last month, Ron Dermer, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington and a Netanyahu ally, said that Israel should spend more of its energy reaching out to “passionate” U.S. evangelicals than Jews, who are “disproportionately among our critics.”

Yet a poll by University for North Carolina researchers Motti Inbari and Kirill Bumin two weeks after Dermer’s remarks revealed that over the last three years, younger evangelicals have grown much less supportive of Israel than their elders. In 2018, 69 percent of evangelicals aged 18-29 said they sided with Israel, against just 5.4 percent supporting Palestinians. In their 2021 poll, taken a month before the Gaza war, support for Israel among the group had dropped to just 33.6 percent while support for Palestinians increased nearly fivefold, to 24.3 percent.

Inbari and Bumin note that their sampling in 2021 was smaller than in 2018 and that it reflected a more racially diverse group of respondents, with whites dropping from 65 percent of the total to 45.5 percent. But Telhami says the declining share of white evangelicals, in fact, reflects the segment’s changing demographics and politics.

“Older evangelicals are disproportionately white; younger evangelicals are more diverse, with a shrinking number of whites to the point that they are less than half,” Telhami says. And younger evangelicals have not ignored the wider political changes occurring in America. “There are indications that young evangelicals have been influenced by progressive evangelicals, who interpret faith through the prism of social justice. In that sense, you can see that in their views on climate change and racial justice and Black Lives Matter,” he adds.