President Donald Trump and many Republicans are divided over Israel. (Illustration/Nikki Casey for JTA)
President Donald Trump and many Republicans are divided over Israel. (Illustration/Nikki Casey for JTA)

The Republican Party has its own Israel problem

Gallup’s 2019 World Affairs Survey confirms something that’s held true for decades: Most American voters, whether Democrat or Republican, support and sympathize with Israel.

Reading the report amid the national uproar over Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar’s tweets about the Israel lobby, several writers have focused on what they see as declining support for Israel among liberal Democrats, who represent 56 percent of the party, Gallup senior editor Lydia Saad told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Yet according to Gallup, support for Israel among liberal Democrats has remained consistent (and the majority position) for at least the past decade. For all the talk of their hostility toward Israel in recent weeks, 58 percent of liberal Democrats and 66 percent of moderate/conservative Democrats view Israel favorably, and only 9 percent of Democrats view Israel very unfavorably.

But Republicans, who often point to declining support for Israel among Democrats, should also be paying attention to similar trends in their own party.

The largest recorded drop this year is the percentage of Republicans – not Democrats – who sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians. Republican sympathies for Israel fell 11 percentage points this year, to 76 percent from 87 percent, a slightly lower level of sympathy than Gallup has recorded in the last decade.

Support for Israel among Republicans certainly remains robust, with 43 percent of Republicans reporting a “very favorable” view of the country. But there are signs that this support should not be taken for granted. A significant minority of Republicans, for a variety of reasons, are eschewing America’s traditional alliance with Israel and are skeptical of President Donald Trump’s ability to handle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Despite the fact that Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is 90 percent, Gallup found that 32 percent of Conservatives (and 18 percent of Republicans) feel that the president is not doing enough to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This might be because more than one-third of Republicans also feel that Trump is favoring Israel too much. Last year, the University of Maryland’s Critical Issues Poll found that while a majority (57 percent) of Republicans do want the Trump administration to lean toward Israel when mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a significant minority – 39 percent – do not.

“While support for Israel remains high among Republicans and sympathy remains high, all is not perfect,” said Shibley Telhami, who directs the Critical Issues Poll.

It’s not just pollsters who feel this way. Conservatives invested in the U.S.-Israel relationship also echo this sentiment.

“While the real challenge today might be on the left, we can never take the conservative base for granted,” David Brog, a Jewish American who served as executive director of Christians United For Israel from 2006 to 2015, told JTA. “[These findings are] a timely reminder that there’s always work to be done.”

In general, Republican support for Israel has historically been grounded in shared values between the two nations, such as religious liberty, democracy and combating global terrorism. This holds true even among the 41 percent of Americans who identify as “born-again” Christians or as evangelicals (who overwhelmingly vote Republican), although Israel is often seen as a critical part of their theology.

“Leaders have tried to move away from justifications for American policy or Middle East politics that are read directly out of scripture,” Samuel Goldman, author of the book “God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America,” told JTA. “I think that that style of reasoning remains more popular in the pews than in the pulpits.”

If American support for Israel is indeed contingent upon shared values of democracy, peace and freedom, then there are several reasons why Republican support for Israel may have dipped this year in particular. In contrast to the 2019 poll, Gallup’s 2018 survey was conducted shortly after Trump had threatened to end aid to the Palestinians if they didn’t start getting serious about peace.

That may have sounded great to many Republican voters in theory. But this year he’s actually done it – and the reality has been hard to ignore.

The day Gallup’s 2019 survey began, the U.S. stopped sending money to the West Bank or Gaza, including food aid. It’s a move that Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., who is generally sympathetic to Israel, characterized as “waging political/economic war on Palestinians.”

Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, described as “draconian” what Trump has been doing to the Palestinians.

“It could be that people are seeing that in the GOP and realizing that it doesn’t make sense to go after one side so much,” he told JTA.

If Israel is seen as failing to live up to its values of democracy and human rights for all, then support for the nation might start to erode, even among its most fervent supporters.

But it doesn’t take a crisis of biblical proportions to shake Republicans’ certainty in the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship. For some, it just takes a skepticism in a peaceful future for the region. Some millennials and younger voters in particular, Brog said, “feel less connected to Israel, maybe more quickly embrace a narrative in which they see Israel as an obstacle to peace.”

Indeed, groups like CUFI are facing a serious generational issue. Younger evangelicals aren’t identifying as conservatives or with Israel at the same rates as their older peers, Dan Hummel, author of the forthcoming book “Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations,” told JTA. This declining support limits the ability of Christian Zionist groups to spread their pro-Israel message.

“Basically, evangelicals under 35 don’t care about this issue nearly as much as older groups do,” Hummel said. “Most evangelicals rarely think about Israel at all, and when they do, it’s because of a major issue coming out of the Middle East.”

While this apathy hasn’t been enough to dramatically change Republican support for Israel, evangelical groups that emphasize progressive values of Christianity have certainly kept Christian Zionists on their toes. The small but media-savvy evangelical group Telos, which describes itself as “pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace,” is one such example.

“It became clear at a certain juncture that efforts by groups like Telos were having an impact on millennial evangelicals,” Brog told me.

To the thousands of evangelical megachurches in particular, which draw weekly crowds of 10,000 or more, catering to the widest possible audience and keeping the pews full week after week is essential to their mission. Increasingly, Israel doesn’t help them do that.

“Megachurches want to keep their 20,000 people coming every weekend, and Israel is not a sexy thing,” said Sebastian Parra, an evangelical Christian and the Hispanic Outreach coordinator for the pro-Israel group StandWithUs.

Brog is more optimistic. He believes that the overwhelming majority of evangelical congregants, even millennial ones, are not of the “grow your hair a little longer, stop shaving and start criticizing Israel” variety.

He told JTA that he “deeply admires” the emphasis groups critical of Israel place on how Jesus worked to alleviate the suffering of others. Brog, and many Christian Zionists, just disagree with that framing being used as the lens through which to view the Palestinian struggle.

In addition to growing apathy toward Israel among younger voters, Trump’s ability to bring peace to the region does not inspire confidence. Meanwhile, Republicans increasingly are deeply divided over what peaceful outcome they want him to be pursuing at all.

The 2018 Critical Issues Poll revealed that Republicans don’t have a grassroots consensus on what an ideal outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be. While the majority of Americans (64 percent) favor Israel’s democracy more than its Jewishness, “if a two-state solution is not an option,” Republicans are pretty equally split, with 42 percent prioritizing the Jewishness of Israel “even if it means that Palestinians will not have citizenship and full rights,” and 48 percent favoring “a single democratic state in which Arabs and Jews are equal even if that means Israel would no longer be a politically Jewish state.”

It’s not just a clash of values the party is facing, but a cartographical schism as well. In the 2018 Critical Issues Poll question that puts a two-state outcome back on the table, the largest group of Republicans (33 percent) still favors a single democratic state. Meanwhile, 32 percent support continuing the occupation or annexation of the West Bank and Gaza without equal citizenship for Palestinians. Only 24 percent of Republicans support a two-state solution based on 1967 borders.

Putting aside the leading nature of the question posed  – particularly its emphasis on the fact that “many analysts feel that time is running out for some options” – the main takeaway is that no matter the course of action Trump and his negotiating team take, he will likely have less than one-third of his base firmly behind him – not exactly a groundswell.

And the longer Trump is unable to achieve peace in the region, the more frustrated Americans – including Republicans – will grow with Israel.

“You’re going to see a peace process that’s not moving forward,” Brog said. “I would place the blame on the Palestinians, but the frustration is often inappropriately placed on Israeli heads.”

Trump has already had to reassure evangelicals that he won’t go too easy on the Palestinians. But there are swaths of the Republican Party who don’t want him to go too easy on Israel, either.

Like many politicians before him, Trump is damned if he does or doesn’t on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

“If Trump wanted to do something sort of bold that would put both parties in a position of having to make tough decisions over territories or Jerusalem or settlements, that could be not only very controversial for [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and his coalition but could be very controversial for Trump and his base,” Daniel Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel under the Obama administration, told JTA.

“If it caused any tension between Trump and Netanyahu, that might be politically risky for Trump.”

America, including the Republican Party, is only getting younger and more diverse. Millennials, now in their mid-20s and 30s, make up the largest share of the labor force and the voting public. If it hopes to continue winning elections, the Republican Party will have to appeal to both of these groups – and members of both are increasingly skeptical of uncritical support for Israel.

Before pointing fingers at declining support for Israel in the other party, pro-Israel Republicans ought to take a good look at the state of affairs in their own house.

JTA

JTA news agency

Laura E. Adkins
Laura E. Adkins

Laura E. Adkins is JTA’s opinion editor. She was previously deputy opinion editor at the Forward, where she wrote about data, orthodoxy, kosher wine, and built interactive maps. Laura has also served as the editor of Jewish Insider and an assistant blogs editor at The Times of Israel. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, SELF, the New York Observer and elsewhere.