Following Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to Israel and the Trump administration’s late 2017 decision to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Pew released a telling poll on American views of Israel. The headline figure from the survey: Republicans now sympathize with Israel (as opposed to the Palestinians) by a whopping 52-point margin over Democrats—79 percent to 27 percent—the greatest spread between the two parties in the last 40 years. Republicans have never been more favorably disposed toward Israel, while for Democrats, the opposite holds true.
This rift alarms much of the American Jewish political establishment, which believes that pro-Israel sentiment should remain bipartisan. Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center writes that “the need for ‘no daylight’ between the U.S. and Israel used to be a talking point wielded by staunchly pro-Israeli supporters against Democratic and Republican presidents alike; Trump has turned it into official policy . . . [which] plays really well among mainstream Republican voters.” But the Pew survey challenges this narrative. Not just conservatives, but every group of American voters surveyed supports Israel over the Palestinians by a wide margin—with the single exception of “Liberal Democrats.”
Could it be that liberal Democrats have grown more Arabist, consistent with the growing anti-Zionist nature of the progressive movement? Does the growth in the percentage of progressives in the Democratic Party explain the declining Democratic support for Israel? Pew’s numbers limn an increasingly left-leaning Democratic Party. In 2001, only 29 percent of Democrats identified as “Liberal”; by 2017, 48 percent did. In 2001, liberal Democrats sympathized with Israel at a rate of 48 percent—11 percentage points higher than “Conservative/Moderate Democrats” at that time and a staggering 29 percentage points more sympathetic than liberals are today.
The divergence between Democrats and Republicans on Israel did not begin under Trump. Pew’s polling data show that Democrats and Republicans were largely aligned on Israel until around 2008, where the divergence began and then rapidly widened, driven largely by the Obama administration’s barely concealed hostility to the Jewish State.
President Obama demonstrated that hostility by, among other things, his “pre-1967 borders” announcement, which appeared to many to make the 1949 Armistice Line the non-negotiable outline for a new Palestinian state; invocation of the “dual-loyalty” canard over Jewish opposition to the Iran Deal; siding with the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; funding efforts to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the 2015 Israeli election; and de facto support, via abstention, for United Nations Security Council Resolution 2234 (a resolution we now know that Trump administration officials sought to block), which, as noted elsewhere, had the effect of “alienating and delegitimizing Israel while bolstering the position of the Hamas-led Arabs, opening the door to litigation in international courts and increased BDS activity.”
At the same time, Obama took actions that strengthened Israel’s enemies, including his consummation of the Iran deal, flooding the coffers of Iran’s mullocratic regime and its jihadist proxies like Hezbollah with billions of dollars while protecting Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. The Obama administration apparently spiked an investigation into Hezbollah’s cars-for-cocaine money laundering scheme, at the same time refusing to enforce sanctions, which enabled the Turkey-Iran gas-for-gold trade to generate still billions more for the mullahs. Obama’s reflexive support of the Arab Spring destabilized the Middle East to the benefit of jihadist groups that threatened Israel, including the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS, and he repeatedly drew a moral equivalence between jihadists and Israeli forces, providing a propaganda coup for Israel’s enemies. In sum, the Democrats’ dramatic decline in support for Israel correlated with the years that the party was headed by America’s most anti-Israel president.
Support for Israel has become a Republican position for various reasons, religious and secular. Evangelical Christians, who vote disproportionately Republican, largely identify with the Zionist cause. Others respect the Jewish State for standing strong as a free nation surrounded by authoritarian Islamic regimes. Many support Israel because it shares a common set of political and moral values and security interests with the United States. But there is an often-unspoken political reason behind the partisan realignment over Israel: it is not so much that Republicans have seized upon Israel as an agenda item, but rather that Democrats have ceded it. Democrats are content to trade the small percentage of pro-Israel Democratic Jewish votes—a dwindling number—for Muslim votes, which means supporting policies deemed favorable toward Muslims, including on the Palestinian question.
Two-thirds of American Muslims today are Democrats, and an equal share support a large government that provides many services; 30 percent identify as “Liberal.” At the Democratic National Convention in 2012, Democrats removed reference to God and to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital from the party platform, only to see portions added back by voice vote of convention delegates. In 2016, Democrats added a section to their platform specifically geared toward Muslims, reading, “we condemn Donald Trump’s demonization of . . . Muslims . . . and the climate of bigotry he is creating.”
The political logic here makes sense—American Muslims are where the votes will be. The U.S. Muslim population is expected to double by 2050, to over 2 percent of the U.S. population, while the Jewish population is expected to decline from 1.8 percent to 1.4 percent over the same period. A growing share (though still a minority) of this declining Jewish population is made up of Orthodox Jews, staunchly pro-Israel and overwhelmingly Republican. Conversely, the vast majority of Jews, who have fewer children than other Americans on average and are less likely to prioritize Israel among other issues, vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
In short, Muslim votes will be a growth industry for Democratic political entrepreneurs, while Jewish votes will be worth less and less. When you combine these ideological and political trends, it becomes clear that being pro-Israel has been made into a partisan issue not by President Trump, but by the Left.