“Shared Democratic Values”? U.S. Reactions to the Protests after 8 Months

Since the beginning of 2023, which was also the beginning of the massive protests against the “judicial overhaul” proposed by the new Israeli extreme right-wing government elected in November, 2022, the U.S.-Israel relationship has come under unprecedented strain on many of the various levels through which it is normally conducted. From the American Jewish left through the moderate right and up into the senior levels of government, language about the betrayal of “shared values” is being heard with increasing frequency. Even more surprisingly, one of the most sacred bipartisan cows in American foreign policy is coming under attack; namely, American military aid to Israel.

Since this issue of PIJ is dedicated to democracy, let’s start with the “shared values” paradigm, which means, in large part, different things to Democrats and Republicans. For most Democrats, it refers to (Green-Line) Israel being the only genuine democracy in the region, complete with an active and contentious civil society. Most Democrats by now are at least somewhat uncomfortable with the unending occupation, but it doesn’t disturb the larger picture of Israel as a democratic and reliable ally. Virtually all Democrats are indeed disturbed by the images coming out of Israel this year, both of settlers rampaging through Palestinian and the Government’s attempts to ram through its judicial coup. Few, though, believe that the U.S. could or should do much about them. For many Republicans, Israel’s selling point is its status as the Holy Land and a belief that, wittingly or not, Israelis, by settling the West Bank, are bringing the Apocalypse closer. For now, Israel’s popularity among evangelicals spares it from the instincts of MAGA Republicans to withdraw from the world, as they seek to abandon Ukraine. Both Democrats and Republicans appreciate Israeli Americanness and the fact that for almost all of the last 14 years Israelis have had the sense to elect native-sounding American-English speakers as prime minister.

What both appreciate most isn‘t, however, a political or moral “value.” Rather, it is Israel’s reliable strength and support for the U.S., which is considered a quid pro quo for being the U.S.’s single greatest aid recipient. Israel doesn’t always do what the U.S. wants – its somewhat waffly stance on Ukraine is a prime example – but reliable strength and support are the “values” that matters most. Thus, the mutterings of concern from the Pentagon over the possible degradation of the IDF by the current protests, though that isn’t a major concern yet. 

Presumably, these factors accounts for the long term and fairly durable bipartisan (until recently) public support for Israel. Interestingly, though, in a recent poll of Americans by Prof. Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution, 73% of respondents stated they would prefer Israel as a democratic state rather than a Jewish state if the latter meant unequal rights for Jews and Arabs. Among Republicans, the figure was only a bit smaller: 64%. I must admit I am surprised by the latter figure; perhaps it is partly explained by the large-scale self-described unfamiliarity (often including half or more of the respondents), as measured in other questions in the same poll, concerning Judaism, Zionism, “Israeli policies,” and anti-Semitism.

It is well-known that support for Israel (versus the Palestinians) has been steadily receding among Democrats and remaining high among Republicans. This is illustrated by a chart of Gallup polling over time regarding “net sympathy toward Israel.” In 2001, Republicans and Democrats were about 40% more sympathetic toward Israel than toward the Palestinians; Republicans slightly more while Democrats were slightly less. Since then, Republican sympathy has generally been between 60 and 80%, while Democratic support has receded fairly steadily to almost zero in 2022, and to minus 11% (i.e., more pro-Palestinian) in 2023, an unprecedented low. It is notable that the greatest one-year drop is this year, during the period of the massive protest movement in Israel. It is also unclear how durable the apparent switch among Democrats is, and especially what its political effect will be.

Over 40 Democratic members of Congress are co-sponsoring a resolution “Supporting Israeli democracy.” The resolution is purely about democracy, not even hinting at issues related to the occupation, and gathered an unusual group of cosponsors, located somewhere between the Democratic establishment and the most leftwing Democrats (sometimes referred to as the “squad”), none of whom are cosponsoring.

Another way of saying that is that Israel has become an extremely partisan issue since 2001 for reasons that will be obvious to most PIJ readers. However, many Americans, especially Jews, identify with the democracy protesters and/or the anti-occupation camp. Conversely, since Republicans tend to identify with Netanyahu and the Israeli right, their attitude tends to be that the protests aren’t the business of Americans.

The Absence of Policy

President Biden, in contrast with President Obama when he entered the presidency in 2009, clearly hoped to do as little as possible on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; an intention that was only strengthened after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. His hopes of maintaining a policy of benign neglect were helped by the incumbency of the “Government of Change,” from June 2021 until the end of December 2022, whose coalition agreement stipulated a similar policy. Biden visited Israel, told the Palestinians he sympathized with their plight but couldn’t do anything, and then hoped Israel-Palestine would remain off the crisis agenda. But that didn’t happen. Yet Biden – and most American politicians – still haven’t figured out how to respond to this crisis.

Biden and the senior Democratic leadership are old-style pro-Israel liberals (even the most recent leadership addition, House Democratic Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, appears to be in that mold as well). Their bottom line is maintenance of Israel as “Jewish and democratic,” and the two-state solution has long since been a mantra rather than an active policy. They certainly don’t like Bibi or the Israeli right in general; perceiving (correctly) that the liberal values they cherish in Israel are either downgraded or actively attacked by increasingly powerful portions of the right but they show no indication of contemplating the heavy lifting that would be required to put pressure on the Israeli government.

Pro-democracy protesters gather outside the US Capitol in Washington ahead of President Isaac Herzog's speech to Congress, July 19, 2023. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

The leadership prefers not to talk about the occupation, preferring two-state platitudes. This has changed among large portions of rank-and-file Democrats, who will presumably inherit the leadership within the next few years. It is notable that over half of Democratic members of Congress are endorsed by J-Street PAC (though no Republicans) but that by no means implies that they will take leadership positions regarding the occupation. 

As fears became reality in late 2022, and Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich were elevated to some of the most powerful positions in Israel, Biden showed his displeasure by for many months denying Bibi the coveted – and usual – White House invitation for a new – or reelected – Israeli prime minister. He also made clearly critical remarks, through New York Times columnist Tom Friedman about the importance of democracy as a shared value between Israel and the U.S., and his spokespeople made his unhappiness even clearer. Nevertheless, no policy has emerged as of this writing in late August 2023, with one possible, though unlikely exception.

The Saudi Option?

It has long been understood that Bibi’s fondest wish – besides staying in power and out of jail – has been to conclude a peace treaty with Saudi Arabia. He already had signed treaties with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, through the Trump-sponsored 2020 Abraham Accords with a vague and unclear quasi-promise not to annex the West Bank as his only sop to the Arab public opinion. He professed to see no impediment to finishing the job when he returned to office. However, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman by then had embarked on a new non-aligned policy, clearly signaled by his treatment of President Biden in 2022 and his China-brokered resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran in 2023. Unlike in 2020, he seems much less interested in a treaty with Israel. He even told the U.S. that he wanted a civilian nuclear program, a formal alliance with the U.S. and movement by Israel toward a Palestinian state as prerequisite, none of which the U.S. seemed likely to consider.

Probably to MBS’s surprise, and certainly to the astonishment of many others, Biden took the bait and entered into apparently serious negotiations with the Saudis towards a treaty with Israel. While it is too early to conclude why he did so, some speculation is in order. It is at least a possibility that, among other goals, he wants to dangle a Saudi treaty before Israel – and especially Bibi – partly in order to bring down the current coalition and induce Bibi to create a new one with opposition leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid. His advisors know that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir have no particular interest in a Saudi treaty, and certainly not if it would put any constraints on settlements and possible annexation. 

Apart from such a treaty, it seems unlikely that Biden would do much more than issue occasional negative remarks with regard to the overhaul if indeed it proceeds during the Knesset’s winter session, as Bibi and other coalition leaders have already announced. Of course, if any Republican wins the presidency in November 2024, a more authoritarian Israeli government would only strengthen its ties with the U.S. – and Palestinians would not even receive the current lip service.

U.S. Aid to Israel

Military aid to Israel is currently secured by a $38 billion, 10-year Memorandum of Understanding that expires (i.e., is due for renewal) in 2028. Some prominent pro-Israel figures have questioned the continuation of the aid from two distinct but not incompatible perspectives; that the current government is tearing up the basis of the alliance; namely, the shared democratic values; but also that Israel is now a wealthy country with per capital GNP greater than several Western European countries (including the UK), and thus can afford to pay for its own defense. 

Attached to this argument is, explicitly or implicitly, the recognition that with the Abraham Accords and the bruited “normalization” with Saudi Arabia, even if that is unlikely to come about in the immediate future, Israel’s strategic posture is appreciably more favorable than ever before, with Iran the only state enemy. However, most proponents of an aid cut – or complete elimination – point to the intentions of the current coalition to significantly increase settlement in the West Bank and its hope of annexation, as well as the increasing number and ferocity of settler attacks on Palestinians and the unwillingness of the IDF to do much about them, with very occasional exceptions.

American Jews

We’re lucky to have a recent, reliable survey of the American Jewish attitudes. The Jewish Electorate Institute’s 2023 Annual Survey of Jewish Voters was published on June 23, based on a survey conducted June 4-11, and contains few surprises. About one quarter of the questions relate to Israel. One of its sections’ titles sums up American Jewish attitudes well: “Despite emotional attachment, Israel is a low priority issue for voting.” 

That said, 71% are following “Israel’s judicial proposals” a lot or “some.” Of those, 61% believe they will weaken Israel’s democracy. As in most findings, the Orthodox samples are radically at odds with the rest; 65% of Orthodox respondents believe they will “strengthen” Israel’s democracy. Of all respondents, 62% view Bibi unfavorably; a mirror image of the 63% who view Joe Biden favorably. 

Surveys aside, most liberal and conservative Jewish organizations reacted predictably; the former vehemently denouncing the overhaul; the latter mostly insisting it’s a purely domestic Israeli affair. The surprise is in the center. Most of the mainstream Jewish organizations that normally bend over backwards to avoid criticizing Israel, have either denounced the overhaul process and voiced support for the protesters or, at the very least, expressed qualms about the process. However, despite the many calls on international Jewry to help save Israeli democracy, there is little that American Jews are doing – or indeed could do – to save Israelis from themselves.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most visible demonstrations have been organized by Israelis in the U.S. under the name “UnXeptable.” In direct conformity with the practice in Israel, UnXeptable refuses to officially partner with organizations that link support for the protests in Israel with the Occupation, though they don’t carry that to extremes. I was at one such demonstration in downtown Washington in March, which was officially two separate demonstrations: UnXeptable’s and the anti-Occupation counterpart organized by the Progressive Israel Network (PIN). In practice we mingled. To add to the confusion, there was another demonstration across the street organized by Jewish Voice for Peace and several Palestinian organizations that, by unspoken mutual agreement, kept its distance. 

The upshot – from all evidence – is that the large majority of the predominantly liberal American Jewish community sympathizes with the protests in Israel and sees them as struggling against incipient autocracy, not unlike how the same people see Trump and the Republican Party in the U.S. However, except for those whose communities are already Israel-centered, such as PIN activists, there seems to be a strong perception that American Jews – as well as their elected representatives – will not and cannot do much about it. As the old joke goes: “On us you should not too much depend.”