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Liberal American Attitudes Are Starting To Shift On Israelis And Palestinians

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Americans' views on the plight of Palestinians are shifting. While the majority of Americans still sympathize with Israel, a Gallup poll taken before the most recent fighting shows a small but growing number of people believe the U.S. should put more pressure on Israel, and those people feel more favorable to the Palestinian Authority. The U.S. political debate over Israel since the latest conflict began has changed notably. To help understand American sentiments on the topic, we're joined by Peter Beinart, editor at large of Jewish Currents. Welcome to the program.

PETER BEINART: Thank you.

CORNISH: Did you see something different in this moment? Why do you think that this conflict is having an effect on people's opinions?

BEINART: I think one difference is that there is a heightened sensitivity in the media today in the wake of Black Lives Matter and other movements towards questions of representation. So the fact that Palestinians have been dramatically underrepresented in the American media discussion of Israel-Palestine, I think, is something that people have - are starting to rectify. And when you bring in Palestinian voices, it's very powerful to those Americans who themselves have had the experience of being denied basic rights because that is the Palestinian experience.

CORNISH: Now, you wrote on Twitter a few days ago that, quote, "The reason the American debate over Israel-Palestine could shift dramatically and quickly is that many Democratic politicians don't need to be convinced that what Israel is doing is wrong." It sounds like what you're saying is the consequences for them to speak out against Israel, that that calculus for them has changed. In what way?

BEINART: Well, there is still a pretty dramatic divide between public opinion among ordinary Democrats and Democratic politicians, but I do think that grassroots pressure is having an impact on Democratic politicians. And as I said in my tweet, I think that many Democratic politicians already understood at some fundamental level that what Israel was doing was wrong because at some fundamental level it's not that complicated. When you have control...

CORNISH: But we know they didn't act in that manner, right? When - look at their votes. Look at their spending. That's not how they were operating.

BEINART: Yes. And the point I was making is that I think what was holding them back was political fear, rather than conviction. And so I think that as their - every time a Democratic politician speaks out on Palestinian rights and sees that they can survive - right? Rashida Tlaib got reelected. Ilhan Omar got reelected. Betty McCollum, who introduced the bill to condition military aid, got reelected. Every time someone shows that, actually, you can do it and your political career can be fine, I think others are more willing to take that step.

CORNISH: Israeli politics - you see a rightward shift there in the last decade. How has that affected, maybe, how Americans view politics from here?

BEINART: I think it has alienated Democrats. Democrats have seen Benjamin Netanyahu - they used to see him as a kind of Israeli version of Dick Cheney or George W. Bush, and now they see him as an Israeli version of Donald Trump. And there are clear ideological similarities. And so I think that has made it, for Democrats, harder to identify with the Israeli government. And Democrats overwhelmingly support the idea, have supported the idea, of a Palestinian state. And you've simply had an Israeli government that, for more than a decade now, has been deeply hostile to a Palestinian state and been moving to make one impossible. And I think all of those have created a culture that has made people being more willing to be critical.

CORNISH: So then what's significant about this moment?

BEINART: There is a little bit of a sense that some of the political fear is breaking among Democratic politicians and also about others who have - you know, commentators in the media who've avoided the subject because they associate it with political risk. And if that fear continues to break, I think we could see a little bit of a tipping point inside the Democratic Party, in which people start to feel comfortable raising questions and thinking thoughts that they have not allowed themselves to think or say publicly at least. And that could mean a pretty significant change.

CORNISH: That's Peter Beinart, editor at large of Jewish Currents. You can find more of his writing at The Beinart Notebook. It's a newsletter on Substack. Thank you so much for your time.

BEINART: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.