Pro-Palestinian protesters face off with a group of Israel supporters and police in a violent clash in Times Square on 20 May. SIPA USA/PA Images

Larry Donnelly US public opinion is slowly shifting against Israel

Our columnist looks at the might of US policy when it comes to Israel and asks if things are changing.

THE WORLD LOOKED on with a mixture of horror and dread at the latest violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Occasioned, it seems, initially by the provocative interruptions by Israel security forces to the beginning of the month-long Muslim celebration of Ramadan, at least 230 people were killed in Gaza and a dozen or more are dead in Israel.

Simultaneously, there was a surge in attacks by both communities against the other in Israeli cities with heterogeneous populations.

Given the comparative numbers of fatalities and the undeniably ill treatment of the men, women and children residing in Gaza by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, it would appear manifest that, while neither party was blameless when it comes to the loss of innocent human lives, Israel was, by some distance, more culpable.

As Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said, Israel “has a right to defend itself, but it does not have a right to defend itself in a way that results in so many civilians and children being brutalised in the way that we’re seeing right now.”

Fortunately, the two parties assented to a ceasefire brokered by Egypt on Thursday. One can only pray that it endures.

A friend to Israel

For a host of reasons, Ireland is among Israel’s most trenchant critics within the European Union. Others, again owing to a range of factors, are more sympathetic. These differences in outlook are to the fore now.

Moving beyond the tragic occurrences of recent days, however, it is universally recognised that Israel’s proverbial “ace in the hole” – the associate it can call upon for steadfast support of all kinds, quite literally no matter what – has always been the United States.

It is inculcated, directly and indirectly by myriad credible sources, in us Americans that Israel is an indispensable friend. It is the one shining democracy in the Middle East and it is surrounded by enemies who are hostile to the US and who scorn the values we hold dear. Just as Israel needs us, we need Israel.

Much flows from this often unquestioned proposition. The US has provided Israel, despite it being a wealthy country, billions upon billions of dollars in military aid. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is an immensely powerful organisation that donates massive sums to pro-Israel politicians of both parties and maintains tremendous sway in Washington, DC and in state capitals around the country. The pro-Palestinian lobby there is relatively weak and lacks resources.

Jewish Americans veer strongly toward the Democratic Party and its politicians are instinctively wary of being anything less than fulsome in their backing of Israel. As Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi noted last week, “The fact is that we have a very close relationship with Israel, and Israel’s security is a national security issue for us, as our friend, a democratic country in the region. Hamas is threatening the security of people in Israel. Israel has a right to defend itself.”

AIPAC and Co have a major foothold in the GOP, too, thanks to the deeply-held belief of evangelical Christians that God bequeathed Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land to the Jewish people.

Writing in National Review on Monday, former vice-president Mike Pence was uncompromising: “Every tepid statement uttered by the Biden-Harris administration is built on a false equivalency between Israel and Hamas. One is a sovereign nation with a legitimate government, and a trusted ally. The other is an internationally recognized terrorist organization that has fired more than 3,000 rockets at Jewish families and businesses in the past week. There is no moral equivalency between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas.”

Disturbingly, the purportedly compassionate Christian expressed no regret whatsoever even for the deaths of many girls and boys in Gaza. Instead, Pence exhorted Americans “to stand without apology for our most cherished ally, Israel, until the violence is quelled and Israel’s security is restored.”

A turning tide

Historically, Americans who voiced doubts concerning the demonstrable one-sidedness of the dominant perspective on Israel and Palestine were branded as fringe-dwellers on the hard left or right, or as anti-Semites.

For instance, when conservative commentator and unsuccessful presidential candidate Pat Buchanan described Capitol Hill as “Israeli occupied territory,” he was dismissed and disparaged by many as a bigot. He may have employed unnecessarily crude language, yet his fundamental point, in terms of the incredibly disproportionate influence AIPAC and others can bring to bear on members of Congress, was unassailable.

The opinion polls suggest that the American people’s collective thinking is changing, though. The sands are slowly shifting. And time may eventually show that the politicians lagged behind the electorate.

In a Gallup survey conducted in February of 2021, prior to the latest bloodshed, the percentage of Americans with favourable views of the Palestinian Authority (30%) and greater sympathy for the Palestinians than the Israelis (25%) hit unprecedented highs. Moreover, the same survey revealed that a record number (34%) think that the US should emphasise pressure on Israel, not Palestine, for an ultimate resolution.

In an overarching sense, polls indicate that self-identified Democrats are far more likely to side with the Palestinians. It is no surprise, especially in the current context, that a growing band of Democratic politicians are agitating for a re-set of American foreign policy in this regard. They tend to be young and progressive and are ascendant within the party.

I am convinced that they will continue to push hard for change. And my hunch is that their sentiments are shared by plenty of devotees of Donald Trump’s America First mantra. These men and women, above all, want the US to stay within itself and avoid military interventions they allege are typically futile and detrimental.

What has transpired of late should accelerate developments on this front. As he navigates what is turning into an intra-party tug of war at home, President Joe Biden is said to have leaned heavily on Prime Minister Netanyahu to de-escalate things and end fighting with Hamas. This uncharacteristic exertion of pressure doubtless helped to persuade Israel’s security cabinet to unanimously decide to call its bombing campaign to a halt.

In the longer term, here’s hoping that this and future presidential administrations are responsive to the emerging mood of the American people and adopt a more nuanced approach to the protracted clash between Israel and Palestine. And that is not to say the latter is without fault. It certainly is not.

But as I am prone to assert about less heated situations, the truth in this vexed and sadly violent dispute is somewhere in the murky middle. I wish the US would come to accept that reality and act accordingly. On that score, I think I speak for most of its friends in Ireland.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with

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