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The growing partisan gap on Israel, in one chart

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Tuesday speech to Congress, coordinated with Republicans without the president's knowledge, is designed to torpedo President Obama's negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. The speech has infuriated the White House and Congressional Democrats, and prompting observers of US foreign policy to ask an alarming question: is the strong bipartisan consensus in favor of supporting Israel starting to crack?

To some degree, Israel already was a partisan issue. But just in terms of public opinion, rather than in Congress, and not in a way that really threatens the US-Israel relationship — yet.

Look at this chart from Gallup, which tracks the percentage of Americans who report "sympathizing with Israel more than the Palestinians" between 1988 and 2015. There's a clear partisan gap, one that's grown substantially since 2001:

gallup israel partisan (Gallup)


Clearly, Republicans are much more likely to sympathize with Israelis over Palestinians than are Democrats or independents. The growing split between the parties long predates the current Obama-Netanyahu tensions, driven by deeper structural forces in American politics. The rise of evangelical Christian pro-Israel sentiment inside the GOP, for example, appears to have played an important role.

But growing Republican sympathy for Israel doesn't mean that Democrats have become less sympathetic. If anything, Democratic sympathy for Israel has slightly increased over time. Gallup's Lydia Saad suggests that's about terrorism: that after 9/11, Americans of all political stripes became more sympathetic to a country that's famously threatened by terrorist groups.

In terms of American public opinion, then, the US-Israel alliance is on pretty stable footing. Public sympathy with Israel is a major reason why US foreign policy is so pro-Israel, and why support for Israel is a bipartisan issue.

However, strong Democratic support for Israel isn't inevitable. If "pro-Israel" policies become identified with more hawkish Republican positions, as appears to be happening with Netanyahu's push against Obama on Iran, expect more tension between Israel and Democratic leaders — and, as a result, more Democratic discontent with Israel.

Moreover, Republicans are tend to be less critical of Israel's more controversial policies, such as the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. If being "pro-Israel" becomes equated with tacit or overt support for those policies, the partisan gap could grow.

Demographics could play a role as well. Large and growing Democratic constituencies — including African-Americans, Latinos, and younger Democrats — sympathize more with Palestinians than do most Americans.

So while the US-Israel alliance is on strong footing today, the growing partisan gap should still concern those who are invested in maintaining it. That's a major reason why many of Israel's most prominent friends in America have been so critical of Netanyahu's speech — they worry he is deepening the preexisting trends that already make Israel somewhat of a partisan issue.