Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank, signalling U.S. approval of Israel’s military occupation. Pompeo’s visit is the most recent of a series of controversial decisions by the Trump administration. As the Trump era comes to an end, the difference between public opinion and government policy is becoming more pronounced, not only in the United States but also in the Arab countries that have traditionally supported Palestine. As Arab governments are moving towards strengthening ties with Israel – with last week’s clandestine meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the most recent example – public opinion remains convincingly pro-Palestine.
Over the past four years, the Trump administration has supported Israel by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving its embassy there, and presenting a peace plan that if implemented would allow Israel to annex nearly one-third of the West Bank. Under the guise of this “Peace to Prosperity” plan, the Trump administration has also been actively campaigning for normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states. The Trump administration has also actively worked to undermine Palestinian livelihoods, for instance by pressuring the Palestinian Authority to cut welfare payments to the families of political prisoners and eliminating funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
Survey data suggests that Trump’s more radical and outspoken stance towards Israel and Palestine had an impact on the role of Israel in U.S. domestic politics. Traditionally, the pro-Israel stance of the U.S. had enjoyed bipartisan support. In the past four years, the U.S. public has become increasingly critical of the unequivocal U.S. support to Israel. Democrats are substantially more sympathetic towards a more neutral approach. According to a 2018 University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, a substantial majority of Democrats (82 percent) want the U.S. to lean towards neither side, while a majority of Republicans want a pro-Israel policy (57 percent). Furthermore, according to a February 2020 Gallup poll, the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel is supported by 70 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of Republicans.
As for Palestine’s traditional Arab allies, many Arabs are at odds with their governments on the normalization of ties with Israel, with a high degree of support for Palestinian statehood and rights. According to a 2019-2020 poll carried out by the Arab Opinion Index, only 6 percent of Saudis support diplomatic recognition of Israel (with 29 percent refusing to answer, likely due to government pressure), and the results are even more convincing in countries such as Qatar and Kuwait. It is therefore unsurprising that Kuwait, with the most democratic and transparent government in the region, has refused to normalize relations with Israel where others in the Gulf have.
It remains to be seen what impact these public attitudes will have on actual policy now that a Democrat will enter the White House. There are reasons to be sceptical. For instance, notwithstanding the fact that 56 percent of Democrats support sanctions or more serious measures if Israeli settlements in the West Bank continue to expand, Democratic senators have collaborated with Republicans in delegitimizing and criminalizing voluntary boycotts of Israel or settlements through the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. Furthermore, president-elect Joe Biden has proclaimed his “stalwart support” for Israel as a “deeply personal” matter, according to his campaign website.
Many Arabs and an increasing number of Americans are expressing their support for Palestinian statehood, sovereignty, and human rights. However, with the incumbent Biden administration refraining from any substantive proposals to benefit Palestine, and with Arab demagogues holding a firm grip on the course of their foreign policies, the future of Palestine’s international position is looking grim. Until citizens take up action, the great divide between what the population wants and what the governments do will not lead to any substantive support for the people of Palestine.