With the fighting in Gaza showing little sign of abating any time soon, it may be time to ask whether the political status of Israel within the U.S. could be changing. It won’t happen overnight, and it may not happen at all, but it’s entirely possible that the issue of U.S. support for Israel could go from being a matter of complete unanimity in Congress, and among political elites, to being something we actually debate and argue about. If Israel becomes more of a partisan issue, with Democrats and Republicans seeing it in fundamentally different ways, this just might happen.
This wave of violence is different from previous iterations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict both in the number of people being killed — we’re now approaching 2,000 Palestinian deaths, most of them civilians — and the visibility of the death and destruction. Because of social media and the ubiquity of camera phones, we’re now able to see war in much more graphic detail than ever before, lending the story a vividness and emotional weight it might not have had before.
The longer the conflict goes on and the more such deaths there are, the more difficult it becomes to sustain the prevailing view among American political elites, which is essentially that Israel’s government is perfect and blameless in all things. We may be reaching a point where we can hold in our minds two thoughts that seem incompatible only to the most morally simpleminded: Both that Hamas is monstrous for putting rockets near places where hundreds of people are huddling to escape the fighting, and that Israel is wrong for taking the bait and bombing the school or hospital anyway. Even the State Department said it was “appalled” that such a bombing occurred yesterday, saying in a statement that “the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.” That’s not the kind of language that we’re use to hearing from the American government.
There are also some signs that views of Israel might shift over time. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that young people were much less supportive of Israel’s actions than older people. More importantly, a large partisan gap has opened up in public opinion. Up until around 2001, Democrats and Republicans differed only slightly in their views, but since then unquestioning support for Israel has become dogma among elite Republicans, and their voters have followed along. It’s no accident that this period has also been one of extended Likud rule in Israel (though Ehud Olmert was prime minister from 2006-2009 under the banner of Kadima, a party formed by more moderate Likud members), in which conservatives have dominated the country’s politics and a two-state solution has become something to which its leaders pay only the most perfunctory lip service.
It’s true that when it comes to this debate some things haven’t changed in the U.S. The (mostly military) aid we give the country continues to flow; since the state’s founding in 1948 we’ve given over $120 billion, and before leaving town Congress made sure to approve another $225 million for the Iron Dome missile defense system. Congress will if anything be a lagging indicator of any shift in opinions on Israel: Even left-wing members of Congress are reacting to the current crisis mostly by trying not to talk about it.
But that means what Democratic voters see is not only all the horrible news from the war, but also a parade of right-wing Republicans bellowing their undying support for Israel and dismissing the lives of Palestinian civilians as unworthy of concern. Regular people take their cues from political elites, not only by seeing what their own party’s politicians say, but what those from the other party say as well. The more support for Israel begins to look like not a matter of consensus but a Republican position, the more Democratic voters might question it. And eventually, that could bubble up to the Democratic officeholders who represent those voters.
Nothing is assured, of course. One day there could be another Labor government in Israel, which could pursue policies aimed at actually achieving a two-state solution (at which point American conservatives would probably decide that “supporting” Israel no longer means supporting whatever its government does). And the tie between Israel and the United States is based on many things, not least of which is cultural affinity. Americans see Israel as part of the west, and its neighbors, both the friendly and unfriendly, as part of the Muslim world; for many Americans that makes the latter the enemy, full stop.
But if this conflict drags on and the civilian casualties mount, more Americans could begin questioning their position on this issue. That doesn’t mean they’ll go from being “pro-Israel” to “anti-Israel,” a pair of perniciously simplistic ideas that discourage us from thinking rationally. It means that they might start seeing the issue as a complex one, where sometimes Israel’s government is right and sometimes it’s wrong, and a contest to see which politician can wave an Israeli flag with the most vigor doesn’t serve America’s interests (or Israel’s, for that matter). If that happens, politicians might actually feel free to enter into real debate on this topic.