A U.S. Shift Away from Israel?


An increasingly critical U.S. civil society, in concert with global opposition to Israel’s actions in Gaza and the West Bank, will eventually pose a serious threat to Israeli impunity—but not until the U.S. government revises its current policy of providing nearly unconditional support for Israel. (Photo: Stephen Melkisethian / Flickr)

Whatever global support Israel once enjoyed is slowly trickling away amid rising international opprobrium over the civilian toll Israel has exacted in Gaza.

Leaders from all corners of the world have voiced their condemnation of Israel’s actions—except, that is, leaders from the United States, where knee-jerk support for Israel is still the norm. But change seems to be on the horizon for the U.S. public, if not U.S. leaders.

To date over 1,800 Palestinians have been killed since Israel’s invasion of the strip, at least 70 percent of them civilians. Nearly 450,000 more Gazans have been displaced by the conflict. Targets of Israeli attacks have included a rehabilitation center, hospitals, dozens of mosques, and thousands of private homes.

Israel claims that it’s taken extensive measures to prevent civilian casualties. Indeed, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have at times warned civilians in advance of strikes through leaflets, text messages, and more controversially, “roof knocks”—a tactic of firing a smaller explosive ahead of a full-blown strike that has been condemned by Amnesty International.

But when there is nowhere to flee, such warnings are nothing more than cruel prophecies. The Gaza strip is 25 miles long and a few miles across—roughly the size of Detroit, but with twice the population—and its borders are sealed tight by Israel and Egypt. To make matters worse, an Israeli-imposed “buffer zone” has left 44 percent of Gaza off-limits to Gazans, who risk death if they remain or attempt to return to their homes. Even UN evacuation shelters have been bombed by the IDF.

Given the extent to which civilians have been made to suffer in this conflict, it’s no surprise that the UN Human Rights chief has suggested Israel may be guilty of war crimes.

That’s an increasingly popular opinion among world governments, who have lined up in opposition to the latest violence.

No Warmth in the Developing World

While some developing countries have close relationships with Israel due to its economic support or development programs, most of the developing world is overwhelmingly in solidarity with Palestine.

In Latin America the trend has been particularly acute. Ecuador protested the recent violence in Gaza by recalling its ambassador to Israel on July 17th. El Salvador, Chile, Peru, and Brazil subsequently followed suit, with Chile—a country with a significant Palestinian population—even deciding to end free-trade negotiations with Israel.

At the most recent Mercosur trade bloc meeting, Brazil was joined by Argentina, Uruguay, and Venezuela in a statement to “energetically condemn the disproportionate use of force by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip, which in the majority affects civilians, including children and women.”

In Africa, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) has long identified with the Palestinian cause. During the apartheid era, Israel supported South Africa’s racist government, earning the ire of the ANC and its allies. Bishop Desmond Tutu, the country’s largest trade union (COSATU), and the ANC have all described Israel as an apartheid state. The ANC in parliament has demanded the recall of South Africa’s ambassador to Israel and the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to South Africa.

The trend is also playing out in the Middle East, where there was never much love lost with Israel in the first place. Israel’s actions in Gaza have only deepened the fissures between Israel and Turkey, a NATO member that was a close ally of Israel for decades—until the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, when Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish-flagged humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza and killed eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish-American dual citizen.

In response to Operation Protective Edge, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan donned a keffiyeh in parliament, declared diplomatic normalization with Israel impossible, and claimed that Israel’s “barbarism has surpassed even Hitler’s”—an overblown remark, yet one that highlights the degree to which relations between the two countries have deteriorated.

The West Inches Away

Israel is also losing support from its traditional allies in the West.

In Europe, limited Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) initiatives are gaining ground. Already the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy have warned companies against doing business in Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements.

New EU bank guidelines also prohibit dealings with Israeli entities in settlements. And in response to the recent crisis, the leftist parties of Norway have endorsed a call for an official boycott of Israeli goods produced in the occupied territories.

Israeli officials are beginning to worry about the potential economic costs of BDS. Some are concerned exports could decrease by $5.7 billion with even a limited European boycott.

In the United States, the bedrock of international support for Israel, the “special relationship” is still strong. But while the government has been as unconditionally supportive of Israel as ever, U.S. civil society is undergoing a significant shift.

The change is especially pronounced in the American Jewish community. Young Jews are less religious and less attached to Israel than their parents. According to the Pew Forum, only 38 percent of young Jews believe Israel is making a “sincere effort” at peace, and only 17 percent believe the settlements benefit Israeli security. Groups like the centrist J Street and the more progressive Jewish Voice for Peace now play important roles in shaping Jewish opinions on Israel, eroding the monopoly once enjoyed by the more hardline American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Although polls still show that a vast majority of Americans sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians, a shift in media coverage has illuminated the perspectives of Palestinians more than ever. The rise of social media has allowed for greater dissemination of Palestinian narratives and alternative coverage—like the story of Tariq Abu Khdeir.

A 15-year-old Palestinian-American boy, Abu Khdeir was beaten and arrested by police in Jerusalem after his cousin Mohammed was murdered by young Israeli extremists. As an American, Abu Khdeir has received attention for a story that otherwise might not have been told.

The gradual change in media coverage may explain recent U.S. polling that shows greater sympathy for Palestinians and lower approval of Israel than in the past. Recent Pew Research Center polling shows that among 18-29-year-old Americans, more blame Israel than blame Hamas for the violence. These findings echo an earlier study, which showed that Americans under 50 are much more likely than their older counterparts to sympathize with Palestinians.

The increasing popularity of the BDS movement is further evidence of changes in civil society. BDS has gone from a fringe movement to a mainstream campaign, with the debate playing out on the front page of The Nation and reverberating throughout the foundation world. Both the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches have passed resolutions divesting from numerous companies connected to the occupation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has divested from G4S, a British company that has provided security services to Israeli settlements and prisons.

”I Can’t Hear You”

These incremental shifts in U.S. civil society and popular opinion, in concert with global opposition to Israel’s actions, will eventually pose a serious threat to Israeli impunity—but not until the U.S. government revises its current policy of providing nearly unconditional support for Israel. And that can’t be done until progressive voices are loud enough to compete with the amplified pro-Israel lobby.

As Peter Beinart explained in a telling anecdote of a Jewish American friend’s brief conversation with President Obama:

My friend told the president that many American Jews were unhappy with Israel’s direction and open to American pressure aimed at changing it. “I can’t hear you,” Obama replied. My friend began repeating himself, but Obama cut him off. “You don’t understand,” the president repeated, more slowly and with emphasis: “I … can’t … hear … you.”

But soon, dissent may be too loud to ignore. The increasing plurality of opinions within the Jewish community, the changing media landscape, and the growing success of BDS mean it is only a matter of time.

Noah Habeeb is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • Bluhorizons

    This is the third anti-Israel article in a row. At least we know where FPIF stands–firmly behind the terrorists. I think the author’s article is more of a prayer reflecting her own prejudices rather than anything vaguely resembling fact. If he would read the eLetters in the more reputable papers (not FPIF) she would see they the American public overwhelmingly condemns Hamas and they should. The fact that American Jews debate over Israel policy is normal. they debate over everything.

    Hamas is a terror group with a mandate in their charter calling for the killing of Jews and the extermination of Israel. Their actions are completely consistent with their charter. 18,000 rockets fired into Israel by Hamas cannot be justified by any civilised person. Hamas cares nothing for the lives of the people they rule, throwing their lives away to gain the sympathy of people like Noah. Only those who lack critical analysis and of course the usual anti-semites cannot see that.

    • certop

      you’re welcome to investigate the polling data linked in the article yourself, blu.

      of course, i don’t think you really believe FPIF sides with “the terrorists,” otherwise i’m not sure why you’d spend so much time here. perhaps, deep down, you possess the necessary powers of discernment to recognize the enormous difference between supporting hamas (whose support in the u.s. hovers somewhere around 0) and criticizing israel (which, as the author indicates, is becoming increasingly common).

      • Bluhorizons

        FPIF has made its opinion clear by running only articles that oppose Israel, so it is a pretty easy jump to see what their underlying opinion is. Not one word in on this website about the global jihad or the rise of the 6th Caliphate. I visit this website to remind them that there is another opinion besides theirs, and now it is quite clear the wold opposes the terrorists in Gaza. So all that bull about Israel losing world opinion is–just bull.

        We have to understand that the conflict in Israel is a small part of the big picture. Hamas is not alone. Hamas is part of a huge network of extremists throughout the Middle East working to overthrow democratic governments and replace them with an Islamic caliphate under sharia law. They may not like each other. They may even kill each other, but their dream is the same, overthrow Western-allied governments and replace them with an Islamic caliphate under sharia law. The Palestinians danced in the streets and gave candy away during 9/11. They do not care a bit about our friendship beyond how it directly benefits the caliphate.

        Even though the US is the main benefactor to the Palestinians, they hate us, they hate religious pluralism. They and and their friends have greatly denuded the Middle east of both Christians, Jews and even Muslim sects. To kill a Jew, any Jew for any reason is cause for celebration.

        It is one thing to feel sympathy for an oppressed people, oppressed by terrorists they elected. It is quite another to not see who our friends are and how we are all in the same boat.

        • Adam Carter

          “Not one word in on this website about the global jihad”

          Blu, If you actually read the FPIF website on a daily basis, you would have read (within the last week alone) two articles titled, “Apathy and Denial Won’t Make ISIS Go Away”, and “How Western Aid Bungled Syria’s Opposition & Paved the Way for ISIS”.

          • Bluhorizons

            You will note my post was prior to these articles which in any event are not about Israel. Apparently FPIF cannot see the connection between Hamas and the 6th Caliphate.

            i find it hard to understand why anyone can only print criticisms of Israel, Israel only and not see that Hamas are just barbarians, will stop at nothing, will do anything, use any mosque, schools or home to store arms, care not a bit about the lives of their own people, kill those who disagree and have the audacity to say they are willing to see even more of their people die to achieve their goals, while at the same time appealing for outsiders to help.

            Hamas produces nothing but terrorism, in terms of the Gaza infrastructure they cannot even pick up the garbage as even the palestinians have complained about. They do nothing to help their people live better lives. But FPIF has not a bad word to say about them. Of course if Hamas goal is peace and prosperity they can have that right away by simply being peaceful–but peace is not their goal.

            So, we know what the editors of his website think. They do not want to come right out and say it as they do not want to be labeled for what they are.

          • Adam Carter VI

            Maybe you should re-write that comment and switch “Hamas” with “FPIF” at each opportunity. It would say:
            “Apparently Hamas cannot see the connection between FPIF and the 6th Caliphate.”
            “FPIF produces nothing but terrorism… But Hamas has not a bad word to say about them.”

  • Adam Carter

    This is a great article written by a great American.

  • Bluhorizons

    Hi Noah, here’s a comment from an Dennis Ross American that broke today in the Washington Post:


    “Even as Israel was completing the process of withdrawing all its settlers and soldiers from Gaza, Hamas carried out a bus-station bombing in Israel. Then, from late 2005 to early 2006, Hamas conducted multiple attacks on the very crossing points that allowed people and goods to move into and out of Gaza. For Hamas, it was more important to continue “resistance” than to allow Gazans to constructively test their new freedom — or to give Israelis a reason to think that withdrawal could work. Some argue that Israel withdrew but imposed a siege on Gaza. In reality, Hamas produced the siege. Israel’s tight embargo on Gaza came only after ongoing Hamas attacks.”

    • xi557xi

      You come to this situation under the delusion that European and North African Jews somehow belong in Palestine.