Pence and Pew, present and future

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Vice President Mike Pence gave an epic speech at the Knesset this week. His was the most powerful embrace of Zionism and the Jewish people any foreign leader has ever presented. Pence’s fluency in Jewish history, and his comprehension of the centrality of the both the Bible and the Land of Israel in the vast flow of that history in far-flung-exile communities across time and space was spellbinding. He touched the hearts of his audience, causing knots in the throats of most of the people sitting in the Knesset on Monday afternoon.

Pence’s speech was rendered poignant and the friendship he bore became tinged with urgency with the publication, the very next day, of the latest Pew Center survey on American views of Israel.

Speaking in the name of the American people he represents, Pence said on Monday: “The friendship between our people has never been deeper.”

And when it comes to the Republican voters who elected President Donald Trump and Vice President Pence a year and two months ago, Pence is certainly correct. But the Pew data showed that on Israel, as on so many other issues, the cleavage between Republicans and Democrats is vast and unbridgeable.

Most of the coverage of the Pew survey focused reasonably on its main finding. The good news is that overall American support for Israel over the Palestinians remains more or less constant, and overwhelming. Forty-six percent of Americans support Israel over the Palestinians while a mere 16% of Americans support the Palestinians against Israel. The numbers haven’t changed much since polling began in 1978.

But then the news becomes more fraught. The disparity between Republican support for Israel and Democratic support for Israel has never been greater. Whereas 79% of Republicans support Israel over the Palestinians, only 27% of Democrats do. Moreover, the further one goes to the Left among Democratic voters, the more anti-Israel the respondents become. Liberal Democrats are now nearly twice as likely to support the Palestinians over Israel as they are to support Israel over the Palestinians. Thirty-five percent of liberal Democrats support the Palestinians against Israel. A mere 19% support Israel more than the Palestinians.

Conservative and moderate Democrats still support Israel far more than they support the Palestinians with 35% of moderate and conservative Democrats supporting Israel over the Palestinians, and 17% supporting the Palestinians more than Israel. But the level of support for Israel among this demographic has dropped precipitously in the last year and a half. In the previous survey, which took place in April 2016, support for Israel was 53%, or 19 points higher.

In other words, the last year and a half has seen a precipitous drop in Democratic support for Israel even as Republican support for Israel has grown ever higher.

For Israel’s leaders, as distressing as these numbers are, they don’t give an indication of how Israel should relate to the vast disparities in US support for Israel as they plot policies for the future.

The survey does provide that answer though. The last question in the survey asked respondents about the viability of the so-called two-state solution.

They were asked, “Can a way be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully or not?”

The answers were notable. While among the general population, faith in the two-state solution runs 49% to 39%, that support is indirectly proportionate to respondents’ support for Israel. The more they support Israel, the less they believe in the two-state solution.

Americans who support the Palestinians more than they support Israel, believe in the viability of the two-state solution runs 64% to 28%. Americans who support Israel more than the Palestinians view the two-state solution as nonviable by a margin of 40% to 51%.

On the face of things, this seems like an anomaly. For a generation, three successive administrations have insisted not only that the two-state solution is the only path to peace and security for Israel and the Palestinians. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all insisted that Israel’s very survival as a Jewish state is contingent on it surrendering land it has held for 50 years to the PLO. Americans have been told that the only way to truly care about Israel is to support the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza, Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem.

And here we see that the US public has reached the opposite conclusions. Americans who oppose Israel support the establishment of a Palestinian state along the lines set out by Clinton, Bush and Obama. Americans who support Israel view such a prospect as impossible.

What explains this disparity? Two data points in the survey point to a reasonable explanation.

According to the survey, the greatest leap in Republican support for Israel occurred since 2001. In the past 17 years, Republican support for Israel leaped from 50% to 79%.

On the Democratic side, an opposite trend occurred. Since 2001, Democratic support for Israel has dropped from 38% to 27%.

Two events occurred in 2001 that set the parties on disparate paths: the September 11 attacks and the disputed results of the 2000 presidential race between Al Gore and Bush.

The September 11 attacks caused Republican voters to study the Middle East, including Israel, more closely than they ever had before. And the more familiar they became with Islamism, jihad and the other pathologies of the Arab world, the more supportive of Israel they became. The fact that the Palestinians rejected peace at the Camp David summit in July 2000 and that by the time the September 11 attacks occurred they were engaged in the largest terrorist onslaught against Israel in history, reinforced the sense among Republicans that Israel is the US’s closest ally in the war on Islamic terrorism.

On the other hand, the Democrats’ rejection of the legitimacy of the 2000 election results set the party on a course of radicalization. The best indication of the Democrats’ radicalization on Israel came with the precipitous downfall of senator Joseph Lieberman.

Lieberman was a liberal hawk, an ardent supporter of Israel and a proud Jew. In 2000 his positions had sufficient traction among Democratic voters to cause Gore to select him as his running mate in the presidential election.

Just six years later, a transformed Democratic party rejected Lieberman when he ran for reelection to his senate seat in the Democratic primary in Connecticut. His challenger, Ned Lamont, defeated Lieberman after running a campaign laced with antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Lieberman’s longtime ally, then-senator from New York Hillary Clinton, who was looking forward to the 2008 presidential race, refused to support him.

Today Democratic presidential hopefuls like New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker have discarded their previous support for Israel to satisfy their party’s increasingly radical, anti-Israel base.

The Democrats’ move to the Left has caused them to ascribe increasingly to identity politics as the basis for policy-making. Identity politics dictate a pecking order of victims. The greater a group’s status as victim, the more the Democrats support it. In this taxonomy, Israel has been determined to be an oppressor, and the Palestinians are defined as the victims.

The problem with identity politics, at least insofar as Israel is concerned, is that there is no basis in fact for the determination that Israel is the bad guy and the Palestinians are the good guys. To the contrary. As the steep rise in Republican support over the past 17 years demonstrates, the more you know, the greater the likelihood that you will support Israel.

Rather than being a fact-based conclusion, the determination that Israel is bad and the Palestinians are good is an ideological dictate. And this presents Israel with an intractable problem as far as Democrats are concerned.

Israel cannot reason Democrats out of an anti-Israel position that they weren’t reasoned into. Israel has no ability whatsoever to convince the Democrats to rethink their animosity, when they never thought about it to begin with. They simply accepted the dictates of their political and ideological camp.

This brings us back to Pence, and the Trump administration’s extraordinary, voter-supported friendship for Israel and what it means for Israel today, as the prospect of an impossibly hostile Democratic administration in as little as three years lurks in the corner.

The most significant “news” that Pence announced in his address was Trump’s determination to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem by the end of 2019. This is important because, given the hostility of the Democrats, there is every reason to believe that if a Democratic administration takes power in 2021, Trump’s decision to move the embassy will be canceled if it hasn’t already happened.

Just as this is the time for the US to move its embassy to Israel’s capital, now is also the time for Israel to ditch the failed two-state model before it is too late.

Israel will never have a better opportunity than it has today to convince an American administration to abandon the anti-Israel narrative at the foundation of the two-state formula. That narrative, which asserts that there is no peace because there is no Palestinian state, places the blame for the absence of peace between the Palestinians and Israel on Israel alone.

Today there is an administration that is open to hearing an alternative narrative that portrays Israel properly as the good guy, and the Palestinians as the hopelessly intransigent foe that they have always been.

Now is the time for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his colleagues in the government to be speaking this plain truth in one voice. And now is the time for them to decide on, explain and implement a policy based on Israel’s rights and interests that will secure Israel’s strategic viability and position vis-à-vis the Palestinians for years to come. Such a policy, which will involve applying Israeli law over large swaths of Judea and Samaria, is clear, easy to explain and will successfully ensure the civil rights of Jews and Arabs alike for generations.

No, Israel’s efforts to explain itself will not crack through the closed intellectual circle of identity politics and partisanship. But that is why Israel needs to act now so that the new policy is explained and implemented along the same timetable as the US Embassy moves to Jerusalem.

By the time the 2020 US election campaign begin, Israel should have already determined and implemented its new policy. As Pence demonstrated so eloquently at the Knesset this week, Israel has a friend the likes of which it has never seen in the White House today. And if President Trump is not president in January 2021, Israel will face an administration that will make us miss Obama.

Pence and Pew showed us what we have and what awaits us. Now is the time for Israel to act.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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