Keep Support for Israel Bipartisan by Talking to Both Parties
According to a March 2020 annual Gallup poll of country favorability, Israel benefits from a 74% favorability (90% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats), compared to a 23% favorability of the Palestinian Authority (9% of Republicans and 34% of Democrats).
With the dawn of the Biden administration, Israel enjoys bipartisan support among most US voters and representatives. However, one should not ignore the gradual — and recently accelerated — erosion of this support.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Israel’s national security policy is responsible for the erosion of bipartisan support. However, US-Israel relations have experienced a number of raucous confrontations between US presidents and Israeli prime ministers — some of them harsher than the Obama-Netanyahu “Iran showdown” — but that did not fracture bipartisan support of Israel.
For example, in 1948-49, during and following Israel’s War of Independence against a military invasion by five Arab countries, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion confronted brutal pressure from the White House, State Department, Pentagon, and CIA to refrain from the application of Israel’s law to certain parts of the country. Ben-Gurion resisted, and Israel was still seen favorably by most Americans.
Furthermore, the 1980s saw major rifts between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Menachem Begin over Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor, the application of Israeli law to the Golan Heights, and Israel’s war on the PLO’s terror headquarters in Lebanon. These confrontations triggered a suspension of the delivery of F-16 aircraft to Israel, and the suspension of a major US-Israel strategic pact and arms deals. Yet, bipartisan support persisted and the mutually-beneficial defense relations were renewed, reflecting US awareness of the historical and cultural common denominator between the US and the Jewish state, which has emerged — since 1967 — as the most effective, reliable, and democratic force-multiplier for the US in the region.
Other examples of past tensions include the dispute between the administration of President George H.W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
As indicated, bipartisan support for Israel has been a derivative of US history, values, and civic experience, which are shared and cherished by most Americans (Democrats and Republicans alike) dating back to the Founding Fathers. And this bipartisan support for Israel was buttressed following the Holocaust and World War II.
Bipartisan support gained further momentum with the emergence of Israel as the “largest US aircraft carrier,” which requires not a single American on board, deployed at the most critical junction between Europe, Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean, Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf.
However, erosion of support for Israel has been intensified by the dramatic demographic and ideological changes of the last few decades, which have been accompanied by bitter and growing political and social polarization. The latter has also affected bipartisan support for Israel.
These developments have provided a tailwind to those who have attempted to belittle, and even discredit, the legacy of the Founding Fathers, as well as the special US-Israel relationship.
Stopping the erosion of — and reinforcing — bipartisan support requires addressing US concerns in general, and the major cause of the erosion in particular: the changing US society, culture, and order of priorities.
Israel and its friends in the US should shift the focus to “what’s in it for the US” — focusing largely on US concerns and interests.
For instance, Israel’s supporters should emphasize:
- The annual US appropriations to Israel are not foreign aid — but an investment in Israel, yielding the US taxpayer a high annual rate-of-return;
- The 400-year-old American roots of the US-Israel bond;
- Iran’s ayatollahs are a mutual threat to both the US and Israel;
- An Israeli presence in the Golan Heights and Judea and Samaria advances US interests; and
- The negative impact of a proposed Palestinian state on US security interests.
Notwithstanding the progressive erosion of bipartisan support for Israel, support for Israel still epitomizes the majority of the US constituency and members of the House and the Senate.
Just like the unique giant Sequoia redwood tree, the unique tree of bipartisan support of Israel is 400 years old, with deep roots, but must also be encouraged to flourish while fending off a multitude of assaults, including the recent erosion.
Yoram Ettinger is a former Israeli ambassador and a political commentator.