US public opinion support for Israel wanes
New York - The effusive pro-Israel support from Hillary Clinton and other presidential hopefuls at the recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual meeting in Washington suggested that US-Israeli relations are as strong as ever.
However, scratch beneath the surface and a different picture emerges. In recent weeks, several members of congress requested that the US State Department investigate Israeli abuses against Palestinians and pro-Palestinian lawyers are increasingly using US courts to target Israel. Some polls suggest that public opinion is less pro-Israel than has been claimed.
Meanwhile, US Senator Bernie Sanders, a leftist from Vermont and the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants seeking the Democratic Party nomination for president, criticised Clinton for not being “even-handed” regarding the decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
“US politicians are increasingly willing to question Israeli policies and US support for Israel in ways that didn’t happen in the past,” said Seth Morrison, an activist with the group Jewish Voices for Peace.
“This is rooted in a change in public opinion, particularly among younger Americans who have only witnessed the recent phase of Israeli-Palestinian tensions and view the conflict differently from their parents’ generation.”
Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, wrote to US Secretary of State John Kerry, of possible “gross violations of human rights”, including extrajudicial executions and torture, by Israel.
The letter, which was signed by ten other lawmakers, called for investigations into alleged violations by Israel and Egypt, which are among the top recipients of US military aid.
The Leahy law from the 1990s conditions US military aid on a recipient’s rights record.
Israel has denied that its forces commit abuses, even as video showed an Israeli soldier shooting a wounded Palestinian assailant in the head in the West Bank city of Hebron spread online.
Morrison, who lobbied lawmakers to sign the letter, described what he called a watershed moment.
“The letter showed how lawmakers are increasingly willing to take action, despite the inevitable backlash from the pro-Israel lobby. We’ve been having insightful talks with members of Congress about Israeli aggression. In the past, we wouldn’t have gotten in the door,” Morrison said.
Also in March, plaintiffs began a $34.5 billion lawsuit against Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and other US-based tycoons, firms and charities for backing Israeli land grabs and other violations of Palestinians’ rights.
The case was brought in Washington by activist Bassem al-Tamimi and 35 other Palestinians and Palestinian Americans who allege racketeering, pillaging, conspiracy, war crimes and aggravated trespass.
Such lawsuits typically fare poorly in US civil courtrooms but Martin McMahon, a lawyer in the case, described a “complete reversal” in public opinion that would make US jurors more amenable to Palestinian complainants.
Sanders used the April 14th Democratic debate to criticise Clinton for her approach to Middle East conflicts and for not treating Palestinians with enough “respect and dignity”. Clinton responded by arguing for Israel’s “right to defend” itself.
According to Shibley Telhami, a professor and pollster at the University of Maryland, Sanders is not just advancing his beliefs but also relaying a message that resonates with younger Democrats who are frustrated by Clinton-style favouring of Israel.
“Sanders’ speech has been revolutionary in terms of the degree to which it has been even-handed, supporting Israel’s right to security, but also of the need to end Palestinian suffering in ways that no other major presidential candidate has ever done,” Telhami said.
“He’s really catering to the base and hoping that being closer to the base is going to help him against Hillary Clinton.”
Telhami rejects mainstream opinion polls that show steadfast support for Israel, such as a Gallup survey in February that indicated that American respondents sympathise more heavily with Israelis (62%) than Palestinians (15%).
This partly reflects how questions are phrased, Telhami said. When asked what role Washington should play in managing Israeli- Palestinian tensions, 66% of respondents said the United States should be unbiased.
Evangelical Republicans, one-tenth of the US population, are the key pro-Israel constituency. About 77% of those asked have said they want the United States to lean towards Israel in negotiations compared to 29% of all American respondents.