Last year, publications from the Washington Post to Foreign Policy made hay out of Gallup’s annual poll of global affairs attitudes in America, which showed a drop in Democratic backing for the Jewish state from 59 percent to 49 percent. “Democrats losing sympathy for Israel,” blared a representative headline at Politico.
But this was a dubious claim. In fact, Gallup had registered Democratic support for Israel at 48 percent at the outset of the Obama presidency in 2008. That backing then grew over the ensuing years, only to eventually return to traditional levels in 2015. Moreover, the number of Democrats saying they supported Israel over the Palestinian Authority consistently registered at more than double the number who favored the Palestinian Authority over Israel.
Today, Gallup released the 2016 edition of this annual poll. It should put to rest the “Democratic drop” narrative:
Remarkably, the survey found a 4 percent increase in Democratic support for Israel in a year defined by the U.S.-Israel fight over the Iran deal, including Prime Minister Netanyahu’s deeply divisive speech against it in Congress. Republican support likewise remained high, as it has ever since 9/11. (The partisan gap is not so much the result of any Democratic erosion as of a Republican explosion.)
Republicans favored Israel over the Palestinians 79 percent to 7 percent, Independents did so 56 percent to 15 percent, while Democrats clocked in at 53 percent to 23 percent. The “bottom line,” according to Gallup? “Americans have become more sympathetic toward Israel over the past 15 years, and that more pro-Israel view held steady in the past year.”
These findings once again underscore the well-documented fact that American foreign policy is not pro-Israel because of a shadowy Israel lobby, but rather because of the long-stated policy preferences of the vast majority of the American people. But Gallup’s results also pose a question: Why is the “Israel is losing Democratic support” narrative so popular, despite not according with the data?
In large part, the misunderstanding is driven by certain political operatives in both the pro- and anti-Israel camps who have an interest in interpreting the polling to show that popular Democratic support for Israel is eroding. Some pro-Israel conservatives want to cast the Democrats as anti-Israel to steal pro-Israel votes. At the same time, some Israel critics on the progressive left want to claim that recent Israeli policies are alienating Democratic voters, and therefore Democratic politicians need to adopt a more critical stance towards the country. But while this narrative is politically convenient for this unlikely bipartisan bunch, it doesn’t actually bear out in the numbers.
Simply put, while Israel may (and I would argue is) losing Democratic elite support under the Netanyahu government, that drop has not yet filtered down to the Democratic base. Whether this is a sustainable state of affairs, especially with young people polling pro-Israel but less so than their elders, remains to be seen.