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Palestinians see opportunity in American division over Israel

Recent study suggests Americans are more divided on Israel than any point in 40 years
Democratic sympathy for Israel declined by about 11 points, from 38 percent to 27 percent, Pew poll found (AFP)

WASHINGTON DC – Palestinians have taken an interest in a new study that shows Americans are more divided on Israel than “any point” in recent history, believing its findings present an opportunity to present their case to the US public.

A poll released by the Pew Research Center, a leading US polling and research institute, found that the partisan split over the US's closest ally is at its largest in the past 40 years. The centre has been assessing American public support for Israel for decades.

According to the survey it conducted, while 79 percent of Republicans sympathise more with Israel than the Palestinians, only 27 percent of Democrats do. This is the largest divide between the two parties on the issue since Pew started conducting this poll in 1978.

Since 2001, Republican support for Israel grew by 29 points, while Democratic sympathy for Israel declined by about 11 points, from 38 percent to 27 percent, the research centre found. It also highlighted a continuing trend of dwindling support among those Democrats who identify as liberal.

These numbers are a reflection of several years of trends that have become most apparent in the Donald Trump era

- Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights

“The share of liberal Democrats who sympathise more with Israel has declined from 33 percent to 19 percent since 2016,” the report said. The research also found that nearly twice as many of liberal Democrats say they support Palestinians over Israel.

“These numbers are a reflection of several years of trends that have become most apparent in the Donald Trump era,” said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

“As Democrats build around ideas of inclusion and equality, Republicans gather around 'faith' and maintaining the status quo,” he said. “As each party has become more attune to its base, the contrast between their own respective values and the values represented by Israeli policies became clearer.”

Shifting attitudes

The Pew report showed that age and education shaped attitudes towards Israel. Fifty-six percent of Americans aged 65 and above say they support Israel more than the Palestinians, but the same applies for only 32 percent of Americans in the 18-29 age bracket.

Approximately half of Americans with high school diplomas or less are more inclined to support Israel, the poll found, but among college graduates, the share of those who sympathise with the Palestinians is higher.

“There is a shift in attitudes and this is something that we have seen develop over the years since Israel attacked the flotilla in 2010, but the numbers were never this stark,” said Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team, referring to the high seas raid on a Gaza aid flotilla in which 10 Turkish activists were killed by Israeli commandos.

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“Of course Americans are going to be divided...As much as Israel may try to gloss over its occupation, it cannot hide that it has denied freedom to Palestinians for 50 years,” she added. “In short, you cannot sell a bad product for a long time and that's what Israel is - a bad product.”

Among Republicans, the survey found there was negligible change in support for Israel. The poll was taken about a month after US President Donald Trump, a Republican, formally recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital and vowed to move the American embassy there from Tel Aviv.

Pew released the results the same day Mike Pence, the US vice president, made a trip to Israel, as part of a four-day trip to the Middle East. While his visit was met with excitement in Israel – he told the Knesset that the embassy could be moved as early as 2019 – Palestinians shuttered businesses in protest and officials refused to meet him.

Palestinian members of the Knesset who raised banners saying “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine” were kicked out of the room where Pence gave his speech.

Despite changing long-standing American policy on the conflict, 73 percent of Republicans believe that Trump is “striking the right balance” between Israel and the Palestinians, compared to 21 percent of Democrats.

But some observers have argued that the change in sympathies outlined by the Pew survey is a result of partisan polarisation, not of opposition to Israel. Others have suggested that the framing of questions pushes respondents into making a binary choice.

“The poll question is faulty because sympathy for Palestinians should not imply hostility to Israel, nor should sympathy for Israel require disregard for the fate of Palestinians,” wrote Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

But Munayyer argues that while this may be true to a point, he said that over time the two have become one and the same.

“For those concerned with holding Israel to account for its denial of Palestinian rights, this opening is an opportunity to have some honest conversations about how US policy should be adjusted with the general public and policymakers alike,” he said.

“Such conversations were reflexively dismissed in the past or considered taboo and while that continues to be the case on the right side of the American political spectrum, liberal and progressive spaces, as well as racially- and ethnically diverse spaces, are more open than ever to talking about change in US policy.”

An opportunity to engage

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has acknowledged that it has not capitalised on this shift in public opinion – by either lobbying Congress more forcefully or making its case to the American people directly.

In a talk held at the Middle East Institute last week, the Palestinian envoy to Washington said the leadership's focus now is to fix the bilateral relationship with the US and “go into every university, every think tank, to correspond with the media..., to revisit congressional resolutions,” including the 1987 legislation defining the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as a terrorist group.

Palestinians should “start the real process of either removing Israel-Palestine as a domestic issue in America or at least to put Palestine as a domestic issue,” Husam Zomlot said. “But just to keep Israel as a domestic issue and [Palestine] as a foreign policy [one] - that balance hasn’t worked for 26 years.”

Zomlot recognised that changes in public opinion, especially among younger and more liberal Americans, present an opportunity for Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said, “can go and speak in Congress, but can he go and speak at a university in California or Wisconsin?”

However, the ambassador stressed that the leadership remained committed to a two-state solution “even if we are the last Samurai”-  a scenario that more Palestinians are rejecting.

“An opportunity [for engagement] is definitely there,” Buttu said. “It requires a leadership to capitalise and build upon this; one that pushes for BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement], and not negotiations. This, we don't have.”

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