The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Sept. 11 is responsible for overwhelming GOP support for Israel — not Sheldon Adelson

Jason Zengerle, writing in New York Magazine, argues:

On issue after issue — from military aid to settlement policy — the GOP now offers Israel unconditional and unquestioning support. … The person most responsible for this development is the multi­billionaire casino magnate and Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson.

No, putting aside the question of whether GOP support for Israel is truly “unconditional and unquestioning,” the person most responsible for making support for Israel a core Republican issue is Osama bin Laden, with a supporting role played by Yasser Arafat. Gallup polls from the past 25 years show that Republicans were already leaning somewhat more in favor of Israel in early 2001 than were Democrats; 53 percent of Republicans favored Israel over the Palestinians, compared with 35 percent of Democrats. This reflected the increasingly strong influence of pro-Israel evangelicals and national security hawks in the Republican Party on the one hand, and the hostility or ambivalence of what was once known as the “McGovernite” wing of the Democratic Party on the other.

But the difference in partisan attitudes accelerated after 9/11. Relative support for Israel unsurprisingly went up among both Democrats and Republicans. 9/11 made Americans more sensitive to Israel’s terrorism-related security concerns, and Arafat’s decision to continue and accelerate the terrorist Second Intifada, replete with bus, cafe and synagogue bombings, was hardly likely to endear the Palestinian cause to Americans after 9/11.

But these factors had a greater influence on Republican opinion than on Democratic opinion. Democratic support for Israel never made it much past 50 percent, and has stalled there, while the upward trajectory among Republicans has been more dramatic, settling at an average of around 80 percent. I’d wager, moreover, that a far higher percentage of Republicans are enthusiastic supporters of Israel. Rank-and-file conservatives, in particular (and as Zengerle acknowledges) have made support for Israel a core element of conservative ideology.

In short, you have a Republican Party in which 80 percent of the grass-roots membership supports Israel, and a significant percentage of that 80 percent consider it a litmus-test issue. Meanwhile, the current Democratic administration has engaged in open rhetorical warfare against an Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Democrats tend to loathe and Republicans tend to admire. Under those circumstances, while it’s plausible that a candidate might modify his pro-Israel rhetoric in subtle ways to appeal to big donors like Adelson, or avoid giving a prominent campaign role to an adviser whom big donors don’t like, it’s really not possible given grassroots Republican opinion to imagine any scenario other than the GOP, and all its major presidential candidates, offering Israel strong support. The idea that instead this is a result of the $100 million or so that Sheldon Adelson spends on politics every four years, out of the many billions spent overall, is silly — sufficiently silly, in fact, that Zengerle can’t help but note in passing the factors mentioned above, while still sticking to his Adelson-centric hypothesis.

Actually, it’s worse than silly; it’s pernicious. Rather than engage is reasoned political analysis based on a rather obvious reading of the polling data, Zengerle chose to promote conspiratorial notions of wealthy billionaires buying American politics.