Poll: Deep partisan divide among Americans over Israel

JERUSALEM (AP) — The bitter divisions in the United States are being felt across the world in the Middle East, where Israel is emerging as an increasingly partisan issue in the Trump era.

A new opinion poll released Tuesday showed U.S. Republicans to be far more supportive of Israel than their Democratic counterparts. It also found Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close ally of President Donald Trump, to be a divisive figure.

The findings by the Pew Research Center could be a cause for concern for Israel, which has traditionally relied on broad bipartisan support in America.

“I think it’s a very concerning trend,” said Sallai Meridor, who served as Israeli ambassador to the U.S. a decade ago. “For Israel, the bipartisan support of the American people is a strategic asset.”

He said the poll is “concerning and saddening” because the countries have so much in common. “There are many reasons for Democrats to see in Israel a mirror of their deep values and beliefs,” he said, pointing to his country’s commitment to free speech, a universal health care system and its support for gay rights.

The poll, however, found a far different sentiment. It showed that 79 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, compared with just 27 percent of Democrats. It said the partisan divide was the widest it has been since 1978, the earliest year it provided for comparison.

Just 49 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats sympathized with Israel in 1978, Pew said.

Netanyahu also is seen through a partisan lens. Fifty-two percent of Republicans view him favorably, compared to just 18 percent of Democrats.

The survey did not analyze the reasons for the partisan divide, but Netanyahu’s close ties with Trump, a polarizing leader beloved by his supporters and reviled by his opponents, appears to be a factor. That friendship was on display during this week’s warm reception for Vice President Mike Pence in Israel.

The share of liberal Democrats who sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians has plummeted from 33 percent to 19 percent since 2016 alone, the survey found.

Netanyahu’s hard-line policies toward the Palestinians, characterized by his strong support for West Bank settlement construction and a four-year breakdown in negotiations, may also be alienating Democrats.

“America is terribly divided today and Israel is perceived to be very close to a president that the other part of America is very much against,” Meridor said. “Over time I think it has its toll.”

Meridor said Israel must be careful to reach out to all segments of American society. He also suggested a serious peace push with the Palestinians would help.

“I think it’s very important that we always make an effort to reach accommodation and peace with our neighbors. It would help in maintaining more support among Democrats in America,” he said, declining to discuss specific Israeli policies.

In another sign of trouble for Israel, the survey said young people are more divided in their sympathies, with 32 percent of people under 30 favoring Israel, and 23 percent sympathizing more with the Palestinians. Respondents ages 50-64, for instance, favored Israel by a margin of 56 percent to 12 percent.

Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which sponsors educational trips for Israeli politicians to meet American Jews, said the results were not surprising given the deep divisions in American society.

He said that with most American Jews supporting the Democrats, Netanyahu’s close alliance with Trump is risky.

“It’s not playing well to the vast majority of Americans. I don’t think it’s playing well to the vast majority of the Jewish community,” he said.

With Trump facing midterm elections later this year, Ruderman said Netanyahu should be hedging his bets.

“That short-term alliance with Trump could have devastating effects,” he said. “Things could look very different at the end of this year.”

Netanyahu was traveling on Tuesday and aides were not reachable for comment.

Marc Zell, chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel, said he too was concerned by the partisan divide in the U.S., but rejected the idea that Netanyahu was responsible. Instead, he claimed the Democratic Party has lost its way.

“Israel should be concerned about the fact that the Democratic Party has moved leftwards and is now adopting a lot of radical positions,” he said.

The Pew survey questioned 1,503 people from Jan. 10-15 and had a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.