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When displays of strength mask weakness

May 21,2024 - Last updated at May 21,2024

Palestinian Fayez Sayegh once wrote that when pro-Israel groups appeared to be at their strongest, they were masking their weakness. Recent actions and statements by Congress and pro-Israel groups and Israel’s sharp decline in standing among American voters bear this out.

Israel’s been losing ground in American public opinion since well before October 7. Polls have shown young people, Black, Latino, and Asian Americans holding somewhat more negative views of Israelis and more support for Palestinians. While Israel, in general, has retained support, its policies are strongly opposed by majorities among all demographics, with majorities supportive of cutting US aid to Israel because of settlement construction and other human rights violations.

Thus, in recent years, pro-Israel groups launched a multipronged offensive including: Smearing pro-Palestinian activists and members of Congress; passing state laws penalising supporters of boycotting or sanctioning Israel and equating criticism of Israel with antisemitism; and a campaign to improve Israel’s image.

After the Hamas attack, Israel squandered the opportunity to regain lost support through sheer brutality and wanton disregard for Palestinian lives, weakening Israel’s standing, especially among Democrats and key parts of its base.

Still, Israel has had continued support from the White House, bipartisan congressional leadership, mainstream media outlets, and most commentators and “analysts” who remain receptive to Israeli narratives of events. Biden administration officials have persistently defended Israeli behaviours, even when suggesting that Palestinian civilians should be protected. “Leaks” from US media executives telling staff how to cover stories, what must, and may not, be said, echo Israel’s positions. Congressional leaders’ statements defending Israeli actions have been especially shameful.

Despite this top-down advantage, trouble percolates from below. Israel continues losing support from key Democratic constituents, with that decline impacting support for the President. While the precipitous decline in Arab American support and the half-million-plus “uncommitted” primary votes have made news, the problem is deeper. A recent Washington Post poll shows a significant drop in Biden’s support among Black voters, with his backing for Israel cited as one reason.

The changing mood among voters toward Israel has an activist bent: massive demonstrations in major cities; hundreds of local governments, major institutions, and unions criticising Israeli actions and calling for immediate ceasefire; and Black clergy, Catholic leaders, major Protestant churches, and prominent groups of young progressive Jews calling for ceasefire and conditions on military aid to Israel. Student-led anti-war demonstrations and protest encampments at US colleges and universities call for ceasefire and demand divestment from US companies supporting Israel.

While congressional leadership remains supportive of Israel, a growing number of senators and representatives have signed letters calling for conditioning aid to Israel or voted against pro-Israel legislation.

Change is clearly afoot, leading pro-Israel groups to launch an all-out campaign, not to make their case but to stomp out their opponents. It’s both ruthless and a threat to our democracy.

One pro-Israel lobbying group has earmarked $100 million to defeat members of Congress supportive of Palestinian rights. At the high end a congressional election costs about $5 million; the $20 million committed to defeat Rep. Jamaal Bowman is obscene by comparison.

In Congress they are pushing national legislation equating opposition to Israel with antisemitism and denying federal funding to colleges and universities that don’t pass the pro-Israel purity test. Legislation has passed the House removing the tax-exempt status of institutions deemed “supportive” of terrorist organisations (which includes advocating for Palestinian rights).

Congressional leaders have threatened the International Criminal Court with sanctions if they charge any Israeli leader with crimes and expanded the ban on US funding for UNWRA.

Congressional leaders and pro-Israel groups echo the rhetoric of Israel’s prime minister in calling protesting students antisemites (though a disproportionately large number are Jewish) and equating protests with Nazi antisemitic campaigns leading up to the Holocaust.

Finally, pro-Israel groups are “exposing” foundations supporting progressive Jewish groups opposing Israel, calling for them to be shunned by the Jewish community.

While these actions may appear to demonstrate strength, in reality, they betray weakness. Efforts to police speech and crush criticism of Israel and its policies are reminiscent of the McCarthy era. But because Israeli behaviours will not change, the critics won’t “go quietly into the night”, Instead, their resolve will harden, and may ultimately damage President Biden’s bid for reelection.

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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