Part of the series Symposium on US-Israel
The shift in attitude of the mainstream liberal opinion, media, and political class in the United States toward Israel and the Palestinians was much emphasized and discussed during the recent round of protests and violence in the regional conflict that occurred in May. This shift is but the reflection of a trend that has been developing among young and nonwhite Americans in the past fifteen years, fueled by Israel’s successive rounds of violence against Gaza in particular.
The previous peak in conflict reached during Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” against Gaza in July and August 2014 had seen, for the first time, more young Americans under thirty (aged eighteen to twenty-nine) blame Israel as the main culprit than those blaming Hamas (29 percent vs. 21 percent), according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center; the same was observed among black Americans (27 percent vs. 25 percent) and, most strikingly, among Hispanics (35 percent vs. 20 percent), while liberal Democrats were evenly divided on the issue (30 percent vs. 30 percent).1 During Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006, there were still three times more young Americans blaming Hezbollah than those blaming Israel (30 percent vs. 10 percent). However, during “Operation Cast Lead” against Gaza in 2009, the margin in Israel’s favor among young Americans had considerably shrunk already (23 percent vs. 14 percent).2
The most recent poll that AP-NORC conducted in June, after the May 2021 events, surprisingly showed that there are more Americans, all categories combined, who believe the United States is not supportive enough of the Palestinians (32 percent) than of the Israelis (30 percent). Among Democrats, a majority of 51 percent now say that the United States is not supportive enough of the Palestinians, this majority reaching 62 percent among those who describe themselves as liberal.3
The reasons for this trend are manifold, starting with the steady degradation of Israel’s image at the global level over the last four decades. The first phase of degradation went through three key moments: the arrival of the Israeli far right, the Likud, to power for the first time in 1977 after winning the Knesset election; Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the most blatantly unprovoked and non-“defensive” of all Israel’s wars; and the Palestinian intifada of 1987–88, when the Israeli armed forces got involved in the brutal repression of a nonviolent uprising in the territories of Gaza and the West Bank that had been occupied in 1967 (Occupied Palestinian Territories, or OPT).
This first phase ended with the 1993 Oslo Accords, whereby leaders of previously dominant “Laborite” Zionism, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, strove to restore Israel’s image and end the conditions that got Israel’s army bogged down in the role of colonial police force before the eyes of the world. Soon after, the cycle of Palestinian suicide attacks, in reaction to the accelerated deployment of Israel’s settler-colonialism in the OPT, mitigated the sympathy Palestinians had won through the intifada. So did the serious error made by the Palestinian National Authority when it fell into the trap of using the light weaponry Israel allowed it to hold in the territories assigned to its rule, in fighting back against Israeli repression in the wake of the provocation staged in Jerusalem in September 2000 by then–Likud leader Ariel Sharon. This provocation created the conditions that allowed Sharon to win the Knesset elections in early 2001 and launch a full-scale onslaught on the OPT that coincided with George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.”
The second phase of the deterioration of Israel’s image started in 2006, with the parallel brutal onslaughts on Lebanon and on the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip that Israel evacuated in 2005, only to guard it tightly from the outside like a vast open-air colonial concentration camp. The trend was aggravated by the 2008–9 renewed onslaught on the Strip, then peaked a second time in 2014 with the most brutal and murderous of all Israel’s assaults on Gaza to this day. The heavy pounding of the enclave by Israel’s armed forces in May, combined as it was with an upsurge in colonial brutality toward the Palestinians in Jerusalem, as well as in naked racist violence against Palestinian citizens of the Israeli state, could only bring Israel’s image to a new low.