The Bipartisan Consensus in Favor of Israel Is Broken, But When Will It Change U.S. Policy?

CJCS arrives in Israel

Recently, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer warned that making support for Israel partisan hurts “ the cause of helping Israel.” Around the same time, Donald Trump offered a different perspective, saying, “The Democrat Party hates Israel.”

When it comes to Israel, a decades-long bipartisan consensus in favor of unconditional support for Israel has badly eroded. President Joe Biden is facing growing pressure within the Democratic Party to do more to help Palestinian civilians in Gaza. So far, his administration has made the type of modest shifts in rhetoric and policy that appear important to some foreign policy practitioners but feel deeply inadequate to voters and activists who are angry about the war in Gaza.

Fundamental changes to U.S. policy are unlikely until a younger generation of Democratic policymakers gains influence. If they do, U.S. policy is unlikely to become anti-Israel, but senior policymakers are likely to become more circumspect about sending billions of dollars in aid to Israel and will give increased attention to Palestinian viewpoints. Republican policymakers, on the other hand, will remain staunchly pro-Israel far into the future, which is likely to reinforce the growing partisan divide.



New Landscape

Frustration with the Israeli government is nothing new among U.S. leaders. Henry Kissinger, for example, used some very colorful insults when referring to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and other Israeli officials. However, for decades, there was a dominant consensus within U.S. foreign policy circles that Israel was a crucial ally and Palestinians were primarily responsible for the failure of peace efforts. The broader American public — including Republicans and Democrats — was strongly supportive of Israel. For example, in 2001, 51 percent of Americans said they sympathized more with Israelis, compared to only 16 percent who sympathized more with Palestinians, with only a small partisan difference.

Today, Americans remain broadly favorable toward Israel, but that support is less widespread than in the past. In 2023, 54 percent of Americans said they sympathized more with Israelis, but the poll also found that 31 percent of Americans sympathized more with Palestinians — a notable increase from 2001.

Polling from Gallup, the Pew Research Center, Quinnipiac University, and the New York Times/Siena College has shown that the biggest changes in attitudes have occurred among young Americans and Democrats. For example, the New York Times found that 46 percent of registered voters between the ages of 18 and 29 sympathized more with the Palestinians, compared to 27 percent who sympathized more with Israel. In contrast, 63 percent of respondents over 65 sympathized more with Israel, while only 11 percent sympathized more with the Palestinians. The same poll found that 34 percent of Democrats sympathized more with the Palestinians (compared to 31 percent with Israel), while only 4 percent of Republicans sympathized more with the Palestinians.

These trends among the electorate are playing out among foreign policy practitioners as well. A notable number of mid-level and junior officials in federal agencies, as well as staffers on Capitol Hill, have raised concerns about unconditional U.S. support for Israel. In the past, raising such objections was often taboo and could even pose a risk to a staffer’s career. Today, though some risks remain, staff are more willing to raise objections, both anonymously and publicly. More than 1,000 U.S. Agency for International Development staff signed a letter calling for a ceasefire, and current and former staff publicly confronted the head of the agency in January. State Department officials have used the internal dissent channel to raise concerns about the impacts of support for Israel on other U.S. interests. Congressional staff and employees in other federal agencies have signed onto open letters and participated in protests.

Within the broader Washington foreign policy community, there also is more space for critiques of Israel than in the past. Twenty-five years ago, there were few Arab — let alone Palestinian — voices involved in foreign policy discussions in elite mainstream Washington institutions and substantial public criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians was rare. Things have changed. Today, it is acceptable to express at least moderate criticism of Israel in the conference rooms, websites, and podcasts of foreign policy institutions.

What Changed?

Changes in media, generational differences, and partisan polarization have combined to significantly reshape how younger Americans and Democrats view the U.S. relationship with Israel. A new information landscape has allowed Palestinian voices to reach a wider audience. For decades, a relatively small number of television channels and newspapers dominated global news coverage, and Palestinians — and those who shared their concerns — often felt that their voices were seen as less credible or shut out altogether. Internet availability and the diffusion of media in the last few years have started to change that. Today, Americans can easily access Palestinian perspectives directly through social media and a much more diverse range of media outlets, including Al Jazeera English, +972 Magazine, Medium, and more. As those voices have increasingly filtered through, some of the more traditional news outlets have started to take a more balanced approach.

The widespread availability of smartphone cameras, combined with social media, has also played an important role. Previously, Palestinians often struggled to prove their experiences. In 2007, for example, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem started giving video cameras to Palestinians in the West Bank, so they could record attacks by Israeli settlers. Today, many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza can record videos and images on their phones and place them on social media, allowing them far more ability to provide their own perspectives and evidence.

Concurrent with increased access to Palestinian perspectives, the lenses that some Americans apply to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shifted. Different lenses on current versus historical realities play a role. Baby Boomers came of age at the same time as the state of Israel, and their generation remembers Israel as a young country of Holocaust survivors trying to establish a state amidst wars with Arab countries. For example, Schumer recently talked about growing up in New York City knowing Holocaust survivors, listening to radio reports about the 1967 war, and fearing Israel’s destruction. But many Millennial and Generation Z Americans view modern Israel as a powerful, well-established state with a world-class military that is capable of defending itself.

Another factor is that younger Americans, especially on the political left, are more likely to apply a social justice lens to the world, particularly after the Black Lives Matter movement further enhanced young Americans’ focus on principles of social justice. Taking a social justice approach to U.S. foreign policy, they are much more likely to see Israel as the actor with the most power and to see Palestinians as the oppressed group. The highly disproportionate death tolls in recent Israel-Hamas wars — certainly including the current one — reinforce this perspective.

Declining Christian identity is another factor. White evangelical Christian communities have been very influential in promoting pro-Israel policies. However, their percentage of the population is in decline; for example, a PRRI poll found that only 13.6 percent of the population identified as white evangelical Christians in 2022 compared to 23 percent in 2006.

Partisan differences embody another fundamental change that now threatens the bipartisan consensus in favor of Israel. Today, Republican voters are much more likely than Democratic voters to fully support Israel. In 2001, 51 percent of Democrats said they sympathized more with Israelis, while only 16 percent said they sympathized more with Palestinians, according to Gallup. In March 2023, for the first time, Gallup found that more Democrats sympathized with Palestinians (49 percent) than with Israelis (38 percent). Meanwhile, the percentage of Republicans who sympathize with Israelis has grown, from 59 percent in 2001 to 78 percent in 2023.

Several factors have made these views increasingly partisan. Israel’s own politics have shifted strongly to the right over the last 20 years, making it more difficult for American liberals to perceive shared values. During Barack Obama’s presidency, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who has a long history of close relations with Republicans but also had cultivated relationships with Democrats — openly embraced Republicans in ways that alienated many Democrats. This culminated with a 2015 speech to Congress in which Netanyahu disparaged Obama’s policy toward Iran. Trump poured fuel on the partisan flames, taking unabashedly pro-Israel policy moves. Today, for many Americans, especially younger ones, unquestioning support for Israel has become coded as “Republican.”

Consequences for Biden’s Policy

The bipartisan consensus in favor of unconditional support for Israel is seriously weakened within the electorate. However, it is less clear whether that consensus is fading among policymakers and what the impacts will be for the future of U.S. policy.

Erosion in Democratic voters’ support for Israel, combined with the intensity of Israel’s military campaign against Gaza, has put a new level of pressure on the Biden administration to use U.S. influence to demand that Israel does more to protect civilians. Biden has faced calls for a ceasefire and to consider putting conditions on U.S. military support.

So far, the administration has somewhat shifted its rhetoric. For example, after defending Israel for months, in February, Biden referred to Israel’s response in Gaza as “over the top.” He has become more openly critical of Netanyahu, including saying that, “He has a right to defend Israel, a right to continue to pursue Hamas, but he must … pay more attention to the innocent lives being lost as a consequence of the actions taken…” That shift reflects domestic political pressures as well as growing frustration among U.S. officials with Netanyahu’s government.

However, the administration has only made surface-level policy changes. It imposed sanctions on a few Israeli settlers. In February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the United States would return to the decades-long official position opposing settlement expansion, which was overturned under Trump. The United States began airdrops of aid into Gaza in early March, and Biden announced plans for the U.S. military to build a “temporary pier” on Gaza’s coast to facilitate aid deliveries. The administration has continued to call for a temporary ceasefire that would include the release of Israeli hostages held in Gaza. On March 25, the United States abstained on — rather than vetoing — a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire. Tensions increased after an Israeli strike killed several humanitarian workers on April 1, including an American. During a call with Netanyahu on April 4, Biden reportedly said that the U.S. approach toward Gaza depends on Israel doing more for civilians. In response, Israel said it would open the Erez crossing to allow more aid deliveries.

The core components of U.S. policy toward Israel — the ones that really matter on the ground — have not changed. Biden largely continues to support Israel at the United Nations and quickly suspended aid to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency based on Israeli allegations against some agency employees. The United States continues to supply substantial aidand weapons to Israel. Moreover, Biden is unwilling to threaten cutting this aid as a form of leverage. Rather than using such leverage to back up demands that Israel allow more aid into Gaza via ground crossings, Biden plans to spend more U.S. resources to pursue a less-effective maritime delivery mechanism. Biden continues to call for a two-state solution, but Netanyahu and several senior Israeli politicians appear unconcerned about the consequences of openly rejecting the idea. In an interview, Biden said that an Israeli military push into Rafah would be a “red line” but then added that “I’m never going to leave Israel. … So, there’s no red line [in which] I’m gonna cut off all weapons…”

Electoral Pressure

Among some Democrats, there is growing concern that anger over Biden’s determined support for Israel will cost him crucial votes in the presidential election. His support among Arab Americans and Muslim Americans has plummeted. They comprise a very small portion of the electorate, but their votes could be consequential in Michigan, which is a crucial state for Biden to win. Also, many other social justice activists, including some within the African American community, have come to see the Palestinians as oppressed, expanding the issue’s potential resonance beyond the Arab or Muslim American communities.

Beyond voters who are focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Biden’s support for Gaza further weakens him in other areas where he might struggle to turn out voters. The generational gap among Democrats on this issue reinforces the perception that Biden is old and holds outdated ideas. The president’s position on Israel adds to the sense among many progressives that he is not taking their concerns on issues such as immigration, climate change, and foreign policy seriously.

However, faced with a likely contest between Biden and Trump, voters who care about Palestinian concerns will have a choice between a pro-Israel president and a more pro-Israel candidate. Biden’s campaign hopes that the reality of that choice will lead its critics to choose Biden, but it might dampen Democratic turnout, especially among younger voters. Older voters usually have higher turnout rates than younger voters, but younger voters helped Biden win against Trump in 2020 and are important in 2024. Anger over the war in Gaza is unlikely to cost Biden the election on its own. However, the election is likely to be close, and if this issue combines with one or two others to lower votes for Biden, it could be consequential.

Long-Term Policy Impacts

As long as the older generation of Democratic policymakers remains in power, U.S. policy is likely to continue favoring Israel, perhaps with a few modest changes. As younger Democrats rise to influential positions in the White House, Congress, and the bureaucracy, foreign policy will likely change to reflect their views. That does not mean that the United States would become anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian. Rather, future Democratic leaders will be more likely to place conditions on aid to Israel or reduce the amount of funding, less staunchly defend Israel in the United Nations, and be more willing to criticize the Israeli government publicly.

Some Democratic politicians have suggested that Netanyahu is the problem. Schumer — a long-time supporter of Israel — recently called for new elections in Israel. If Netanyahu was no longer in power, it might blunt some of the criticism within the Democratic Party. However, the Israeli government currently includes many further right figures, and centrist politician Benny Gantz may not share U.S. goals such as a two-state solution. It is unlikely that changes in Israeli leadership would tamp down growing Democratic willingness to criticize Israel for long.

Much may also depend on developments in the region. If Israel maintains a hard-right government and the civilian death toll in the current conflict continue to rise, it will reinforce these trends. If Palestinian militants embrace a new wave of international terrorism, as some did in the years after the 1967 war, it could swing public opinion back in Israel’s favor.

Moving away from decades of bipartisan unconditional support for Israel will take time and will likely occur in fits and starts. It will only happen if Democrats control or strongly influence foreign policy. Nonetheless, Israel should no longer assume that it automatically has the full backing of the United States.



Kerry Boyd Anderson writes a weekly column for Arab News and is the production editor for the Texas National Security Review. She also provides political risk analysis through Kerry Boyd Anderson Consulting LLC. Previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica, managing editor of Arms Control Today, and junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She received an M.Sc. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a B.A. in global studies from the University of Iowa. All opinions stated here are her own.

Image: Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique Pineiro