When Israeli President Isaac Herzog addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday, there will be some notable absences. At least five progressive U.S. lawmakers, including Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, and Cori Bush, confirmed that they will be skipping Herzog’s speech in protest of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians in the occupied territories, which some Democrats recently described as “racist” and akin to apartheid.
While these Democrats may be in the minority among their congressional peers, their positions are more mainstream than the D.C. establishment might suggest. Polls this year have shown that the gap between the American public and those elected to represent them is widening when it comes to U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly among Democrats. This year, for the first time, an annual Gallup survey found that Democrats’ sympathies lie more with Palestinians than Israelis by a margin of 49% to 38%. The survey found that sympathy toward Palestinians among U.S. adults is at a new high of 31%, while the proportion not favoring either side is at a new low of 15%. That’s a remarkable shift from only a decade ago, when sympathy toward Palestinians stood at just 12%. During that same period, sympathy toward Israelis has declined from 64% to 54%.
Other recent surveys, carried out by researchers at the University of Maryland and Ipsos, reveal similarly noteworthy trends. A new poll published on the eve of Herzog’s address found that, in the absence of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, three-quarters of Americans would choose a democratic Israel that is no longer Jewish over a Jewish Israel that denies full citizenship and equality to non-Jews. The U.S. and the wider international community are still officially committed to a two-state solution, but many experts believe it’s no longer viable as a result of Israeli settlement expansion.
Americans are also increasingly less likely to describe Israel as a democracy. When asked to describe the way Israel looks in a poll conducted between March and April, only 9% of respondents chose “a vibrant democracy,” a common descriptor for Israel among U.S. officialdom. The rest chose “a flawed democracy” (13%), “a state with restricted minority rights” (7%), and “a state with segregation similar to apartheid” (13%). Some 56% responded with “I don’t know.” Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland who conducted the poll, tells TIME that the percentage of “don’t knows” was surprising. He says that this suggests that those polled “are either uncertain or they’re uncomfortable answering.”
These shifting opinions coincide with a particularly tense period in Israel, which over the past year has been marked by unprecedented and sustained protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government’s efforts to weaken the judiciary, the sole administrative check on their power. It has also featured an uptick in violence in the occupied Palestinian territories, which have been subject to deadly raids and, in the case of Huwara, what one Israeli general described as a “pogrom” carried out by Israeli settlers. The violence has resulted in the killing of at least 174 Palestinians this year, according to the U.N., putting 2023 on course to become the deadliest for Palestinians on record since the body began recording the number of fatalities in 2005. At least 23 Israelis have been killed in the occupied territories during the same period.
While lawmakers such as Tlaib (the first Palestinian American woman elected to Congress) and Omar have long been critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians—they were banned from visiting the country in 2019—disquiet over Israel’s rightward shift has been growing among Democratic lawmakers in recent years, including among traditionally pro-Israel politicians on Capitol Hill. “We have always said that the U.S.-Israel relationship is built on shared interests and on shared values, but clearly we do not share the values of someone like Ben-Gvir,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a leading Democratic lawmaker on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Israeli newspaper Haaretz following a recent visit to the country, referencing one of Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners.
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And it’s not just politicians. Noura Erakat, an associate professor at Rutgers University and author of Justice For Some: Law and the Question of Palestine, tells TIME that there has been a “serious shift” across academic associations, the arts, and other social justice movements when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “There is now clear and robust support and understanding of Palestine as a freedom struggle,” she says.
There has also been a notable shift within the American Jewish community, where the subject of Israel has become more polarizing in recent years. A 2021 Pew survey found that while more than half (58%) of American Jews express an attachment toward Israel, markedly fewer approve of its government’s leadership (40%) or its efforts toward achieving peace with the Palestinians (33%).
But this disquiet has yet to manifest itself within Washington—a reality that was best exemplified in recent days by the uproar over comments made by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the Democratic chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who came under fire for referring to Israel as a “racist state.” Jayapal ultimately walked back her comments—explaining that she doesn’t believe the “idea” of Israel as a nation is racist, but that the discriminatory policies perpetuated by its government are—though not before being denounced by congressional Republicans (some of whom dubbed the remarks “anti-Semitic”) and many of her own Democratic colleagues. A resolution affirming that Israel “is not a racist or apartheid state” was passed by the House of Representatives on Tuesday, with 412 lawmakers in support and 9 against.
Nor has this shift been acknowledged within the White House. Despite President Joe Biden’s criticism of Netanyahu’s governing coalition—one composed of ultranationalist and pro-settlement leaders that the President described as “one of the most extremist” he’s seen—his administration has resisted calls to leverage U.S. aid to Israel or to ensure that U.S. funding isn’t used in the military detention of Palestinian children. On Monday, Biden extended an invitation to Netanyahu for a face-to-face meeting in the U.S. after months of delays, though it is as yet unclear if such a meeting would take place in the White House.
U.S. lawmakers are undoubtedly aware of this widening gap. “They would have to have their heads buried in the sand not to see a world changing around them,” says Erakat. But American public opinion doesn’t always dictate U.S. policy, nor is this issue as front of mind as more pressing foreign policy concerns, such as the ongoing war in Ukraine.
“Obviously, policymaking is not just about public opinion,” says Yousef Munayyer, a senior fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C. and an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “In the United States in particular, it’s about elections, it’s about interest groups, and it’s also about American geopolitical interests. And all of those things coming together have made it easier for American policymakers to hold on to the old pro-Israel policies than to be responsive to a base that is increasingly calling for change.”
The question is how long that remains sustainable. “This is going to continue to shake the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Munayyer adds. “When exactly that translates into policy change is not something we can tell.”
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