Biden's re-election campaign will be hit by how US voters view Israel

Because Israeli behaviour will not change, those within the Democratic Party will not ‘go quietly into the night’

Pro Palestinian demonstrators near the US Capitol on February 1. Getty Images
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The brilliant Palestinian scholar Fayez Sayegh once wrote that when pro-Israel groups appeared to be at their strongest, they were only masking the fact that they were at their weakest. This is clear in the contrast between Israel’s sharp decline in standing among many demographic groups of American voters and the actions and statements by Congress and pro-Israel groups, particularly seen in the past week.

Israel has been losing ground in American public opinion since well before October 7 last year. A Gallup poll from March shows that young people in the US – African American, Latino, and Asian Americans – hold a somewhat less sympathetic view of Israelis, coupled with a rise in support for Palestinians.

While Israel, in general, has retained support among Americans, majorities among all demographics strongly oppose the policies of the state, with most saying they want the US to cut aid to Israel because of settlement construction and other violations of human rights.

To confront this, over the past decade, pro-Israel groups have launched a multi-pronged offensive, including: targeting and smearing both pro-Palestinian activists and members of Congress; passing laws in more than two dozen states that penalised supporters of efforts to boycott or sanction Israel; equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism in another dozen states; and a huge multi-million dollar campaign “hasbara” (Hebrew for explaining) to improve Israel’s image in the US.

In the aftermath of the Hamas attack last October, Israel received sympathy for their tragic losses and made up some ground in lost support, but they squandered that opportunity in the months that followed in the sheer brutality demonstrated and their wanton disregard for Palestinian lives. The results have only served to further weaken Israel’s standing among many groups of Americans, especially Democrats and key demographic groups that form its core base of support.

Still, Israel has been able to count on continued support from the White House, leaders in both parties in Congress, mainstream media outlets, and a majority of commentators and “analysts” who have remained receptive to the Israeli narrative of ongoing events.

Officials in the administration of US President Joe Biden have persistently defended Israeli behaviour, even when attempting to shift gears, by suggesting that Palestinian civilians should be protected.

There have been “leaks” from executives of some major US television networks and newspapers telling their staff how to cover stories, what must be said and what may not be said – in ways that echo Israel’s positions. And statements by leaders in Congress have been especially shameful in their defence of Israeli actions.

Despite this top-down advantage, trouble is percolating from below. Israel continues to lose support from key Democratic constituents, young and “minority” voters, with that decline now also affecting support for Mr Biden.

Much has been made of the precipitous decline in Arab-American support and those who have so far voted for the Arab-American-led “uncommitted” campaign in Democratic primaries. The problem is deeper. For example, a recent Washington Post poll shows a significant drop in Mr Biden’s support among black voters, with his backing for Israel being cited by respondents as one reason for that decline.

The changing mood among voters towards Israel has taken an activist bent. Huge demonstrations have been held in most major cities. More than 200 local governments and mainstream institutions, including major unions, have issued strong statements criticising Israeli actions and calling for an immediate and total ceasefire.

Publicised statements by more than 1,000 leading African-American clergy, another by the same number of Catholic leaders, most of the major Protestant churches, and prominent groups of young progressive Jews have also called for a ceasefire and for conditions to be placed on military aid to Israel.

Sustained anti-war demonstrations on more than 200 US college campuses and, more recently, protest encampments at more than 50 colleges and universities have been led by students calling for an immediate, permanent ceasefire and demanding that their universities divest from US companies supporting Israel.

Congress has also been affected. While the leadership of both parties remain lockstep in support of Israel, a higher than ever number of senators and representatives have either signed letters calling for conditions to be placed on aid to Israel or voted against pro-Israel legislation.

It’s clear that change is afoot in the US. And so, in the face of their rapidly deteriorating position, pro-Israel groups have embarked on an all-out campaign – not to make their case, but to stomp out their opponents. Their efforts are both ruthless and a threat to our democracy.

One pro-Israel lobbying group has earmarked $100 million to defeat members of Congress, who have supported Palestinian rights. To understand the magnitude of this expenditure, note that at the high end a congressional election costs about $5 million. The $20 million they are committing to defeat Representative Jamaal Bowman is obscene by comparison.

In Congress, the pro-Israel lobby is pushing national legislation that would equate opposition to Israel with anti-Semitism and result in colleges and institutions being denied federal funding if they don’t pass the test of pro-Israel purity. Legislation has also passed the House (but not yet the Senate) removing the tax-exempt status of institutions deemed supportive of terrorist organisations – with “support” being so loosely defined that it can include simply advocating for Palestinian rights.

Congressional leaders have also threatened the International Criminal Court with stepped up sanctions should they charge any Israeli leader with crimes. And they’ve expanded the ban on any US funding in support of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

Congressional leaders and pro-Israel groups have also been echoing the rhetoric of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in smearing the protesting students, calling them anti-Semites (even though a disproportionately large number of them are Jewish) and equating their protest with the Nazi anti-Semitic campaigns that led up to the Holocaust.

Finally, these same pro-Israel groups are “exposing” and smearing foundations supporting the progressive Jewish groups opposing Israel, calling for them to be shunned by the Jewish community.

The ability of pro-Israel groups to push the administration, Congress and major media outlets to take one-sided positions, pass repressive laws, smear and damage the reputations of members of Congress or students who oppose them may appear to demonstrate strength.

In reality, it’s a function of their weakness and the weakness of their case. Their far-reaching efforts to police speech and to penalise those who criticise Israel and its policies can be reminiscent of the McCarthy era.

But because Israeli behaviour will not change, the critics, especially those within the Democratic Party, will not “go quietly into the night”. Instead, their resolve will harden – and may ultimately damage Mr Biden’s bid for re-election.

Published: May 13, 2024, 2:30 PM