Democrats Have a Palestinian Problem
Category: News & PoliticsVia: vic-eldred • one month ago • 2 comments
By: Aleks Phillips
W hile Joe Biden has so far been steadfast in his support for Israel in the ongoing conflict with Hamas, a recent poll appears to show his voter base shifting its sympathies in the opposite direction—posing a potential problem for the likely Democratic nominee as he campaigns for a second term.
As of March, and prior to the current outbreak of violence in the region, a survey by Gallup showed that for the first time since 2001 the overall sympathies of Democrat voters had predominantly shifted from Israelis and toward Palestinians, seemingly caused by a large swing in sentiments by millennial voters.
Though the sympathies of Democrats of all ages had tended to shift toward Palestinians over time, those aged 23-43 had the largest swing in the most recent poll and are the only group where sympathies for Palestinians now outweigh those for Israelis.
This change has come as Biden has apparently sought to court younger voters with student loan forgiveness and policies to address climate change.
The survey lays bare a burgeoning divide between younger, progressive Democrats and the party's traditionally more pro-Israel base that could cause Biden and the wider party electoral headaches—infighting that Republicans could look to capitalize on. However, experts say that Biden's apparent disconnect from younger voters on the issue was unlikely at present to place his electoral hopes into jeopardy—though that could change, given the unpredictable nature of the conflict.
"The state where he will most likely face criticism from fellow Democrats over his stance on Israel will be Michigan, a key swing state with a large population of Palestinian-Americans, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib who has been critical of Biden's position," Julie Norman, professor of politics and international relations at University College London, told Newsweek . "His stance on Israel could lose Biden some votes in Michigan, though potentially secure others."
In 2020, Biden carried Michigan with little over 150,000 votes, granting him 16 electoral college votes. Michigan was one of the swing states that propelled him to the presidency. Ultimately Biden was only 44,000 votes in three other swing states—Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin—from a tie in the electoral college.
Since the violence began, Tlaib, along with other progressive Democrat representatives such as Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez , have called on Biden to de-escalate the crisis and call for a ceasefire .
Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent and has often criticized Israel's actions, told Biden on Tuesday: "Your war and destruction only approach has opened my eyes and many Palestinian Americans and Muslim Americans like me. We will remember where you stood."
In her home state, the Detroit suburb of Dearborn—which has the largest Muslim population in America—was host to a pro-Palestinian rally which accused Israel of "racist ethnic cleansing" and an "inhumane blockade" of Gaza. Abdullah Hammoud, the city's Democratic mayor, has said Israel's "illegal military occupation" of Gaza made "tragic violence inevitable," the same day militants attacked Israel, killing civilians including children.
Activists at the demonstration criticized leading Democratic politicians for their stance. "We made it possible for Biden to win Michigan, and now we are being spit on because we are standing with the Palestinians," Osama Siblani, one of the event's speakers, previously told Newsweek . "So, we are not going to forget."
"Debates over this issue in Michigan could become a microcosm for larger debates in the Democratic party over Israel-Palestine as the more progressive part of the party moves away from the Dems' traditional pro-Israel stance," Norman said.
"We can also expect Trump and other Republicans to attempt to exploit Democrat divisions over Israel, though it will likely be harder to paint Biden personally as weak on Israel after his stance in the past days," she added.
Newsweek approached the state Democratic Party and Republican Party for Michigan via email for comment on Wednesday.
The Gallup survey is a sign that what is being played out in Michigan will soon be something the entire party has to reconcile. Between 2019 and 2023, 46 percent of millennial Democrat voters sympathized with Palestinians to just 35 percent for Israel, a net sympathy score towards Palestine of 11 percent, it found.
By contrast, between 2011 and 2014, 51 percent of respondents in the age group sided with Israelis to 26 percent for Palestinians—a net sympathy towards Israel of 25 percent.
As such, the successive polls suggest a 36-point shift in sentiments, meaning the overall view among Democrat voters between the two periods has shifted from a majority of 53-58 percent support for Israel to just 38 percent.
Despite this shift in sentiments among Biden's voter base, his rhetoric since Hamas launched a surprise assault on Israel on October 7 has been strongly supportive of Israel, even in the face of outcry from some over Israel's subsequent airstrikes .
Over the past week-or-so, Biden has said "Israel has a right to defend itself—full stop," that his administration's support for Israel "is rock solid and unwavering," and that Israel "has a right and a duty to respond to these vicious attacks."
He was also quick to agree with the assessment of the Israel Defense Forces, subsequently backed by U.S. intelligence , that Israel was not to blame for a still-disputed blast at a hospital in Gaza.
"It's true that Democrats no longer have a unified position on Israel/Palestine, with many young voters increasingly sympathetic to Palestinians," Norman said. "Biden has been a long-time defender of Israel, and that was clear in his forceful response to last week's attacks—though the administration is also taking steps to distinguish Hamas from Palestinians and to address humanitarian concerns."
The Biden administration has said it is helping coordinate humanitarian aid shipments to Gaza—though aid organizations have said they have been stopped at the border—writing on Sunday: "We must not lose sight of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians had nothing to do with Hamas's appalling attacks, and are suffering as a result of them."
It appears no accident that the results of the poll align with pro-Palestinian Democrats tending to be younger; Tlaib's progressive caucus, known as "The Squad," has an average age roughly 20 years younger than the rest of the House.
Christopher Phelps, a professor of American political history and elections at the University of Nottingham, suggested the growing internal divide arose from a shift from the Cold War being a primary geopolitical concern to social justice.
"You've got younger people coming up for whom the right-wing politics of Benjamin Netanyahu , the building of walls, is reminiscent of the apartheid state of South Africa, and who think the only way to justice and peace is a policy that includes more opportunity and freedom for Palestinian people," he said.
"They separate out the organizations [such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad] from the mass of Palestinians who are being victimized by the entire conflict," he added. "I doubt there's any sympathy whatsoever—except for possibly a lunatic fringe element—for Hamas's massacre of civilians, but it would be interpreted as a desperate, twisted response to conditions of other hopelessness in Gaza."
Both Norman and Phelps noted, though, that for young Democrat voters, the alternatives to Biden in the 2024 election are unlikely to be palatable, while the current conflict, unless there is an escalation, was unlikely to be at the forefront of voters' minds in 12 months' time.
"I doubt Biden loses votes over being so ardent in support of Israel," Phelps said. "The younger millennials are going to be more worried about Donald Trump taking office than they are about Biden's Israel policy."
Norman said that "while not all Democrats agree with Biden's position, this issue alone is unlikely to cost him many votes, mainly because it is not a defining priority issue for most voters. Furthermore, most Democrats who are more sympathetic to Palestinians know that Trump—or [the] GOP candidate—will likely take an even harder pro-Israel stance."
"For the typical American voter, this is not what people vote on," Phelps said. "People vote on the direction of the economy, on the culture wars—pertaining to gender, and sexuality, and race; they vote on the question of democracy versus stronger authority, or authoritarianism depending on your perspective. These are the sorts of things that are going to animate the voters when they go to the polls, not the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."
He suggested Biden could even attract some Jewish voters who had previously voted Republican, while Norman proposed he might win over some independents and moderates "looking for stronger U.S. leadership in the Middle East."
Biden does face independent challengers on his left flank whom younger voters could be attracted to, though. While Robert F. Kennedy Jr. —who recently announced he was dropping out of the Democratic primary to run as an independent —has sided with the president on the issue, Cornel West , who dropped out as a Green Party candidate to run as an independent, has been more even-handed in his criticism .
On Saturday, he criticized Biden's "baleful, one-sided comments" in an email seen by Newsweek . Norman suggested that while the issue might shift a few younger voters to support West, it was "unlikely enough to make a meaningful difference, especially in most of the crucial swing states."
"If it's Biden versus Trump, then I think those independent campaigns fade to insignificance," Phelps said. "The nature of how Republican Party politics has become so extremist will just lead any doubters back into the Democratic fold just to stop Trump if that's what it comes down to."
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