Congress’s Israel Support Is Out of Touch With Voters

Polling of US voters shows growing sympathy for Palestinians. But this week, the Senate couldn't even bring itself to pass a modest measure to investigate whether Israel is using US aid to violate human rights.

Pro-Palestine protesters interrupt an October 31 Senate hearing where US secretary of defense Lloyd Austin and US secretary of state Antony Blinken were testifying. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

In 2024, the United States of America is still a pro-Israel country, albeit one where a large and growing segment of the public sympathizes with the Palestinian cause — particularly young people, Democrats, and progressives.

In the US Congress, meanwhile, support for Israel is near-lockstep and unconditional, and support for Palestinians is a minority position, almost to the point of being fringe.

If you need convincing, just look at the latest Senate vote on Israel’s nearly unprecedented destruction of Gaza. Last month, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) put forward a modest measure that would invoke an existing US law that requires the State Department to look into whether or not a country getting US aid is following the laws of war, and apply it to Israel. Sanders’s measure finally came up for a vote earlier this week.

The resolution wouldn’t have cut US aid to Israel, though if the State Department had failed to put together a report in 30 days, the aid spigot would have automatically shut off. The most likely outcome would have been that the report was produced, at which point Congress would have voted on whether to continue sending more aid to Israel — a vote that, let’s face it, probably would have gone Israel’s way regardless of what the State Department determined about the country’s military campaign.

Nevertheless, the bill was nixed in the Senate by an overwhelming 72–11, with 17 senators abstaining. All but two who voted for the measure — Sanders himself, and Republican senator Rand Paul — were Democrats. Opponents like Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) charged that the bill “would show a division between Israel and the US.”

To put that into percentage terms, 72% of the Senate is against having the US government simply investigate whether its aid is being used to carry out human rights abuses, a charge Washington regularly lobs at its adversaries to justify escalating hostilities or taking military action against them, and which US politicians perpetually cast themselves as protecting the world against. A mere 11% of the Senate thinks the United States should verify that it’s not enabling Israeli war crimes.

To break that down along partisan lines, just 19% of Senate Democrats voted for this mild check on Israeli war crimes, with 77% voting nay. For Republicans, those figures were only 2% and 67%, respectively.

Now compare that to recent polling on US opinion about the Gaza war — this survey, for instance, commissioned by the American Arab Institute (AAI) and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and conducted at the start of this month. The poll found that a plurality of 42% think US policy should be balanced between Israeli and Palestinian needs, and that the American public believes the United States should strive to be an honest broker between the two, by a ratio of 57 to 26%.

By just about anyone’s definition, making sure that the assistance you give one of the parties in a conflict isn’t being used to violate the human rights of the other would count as a “balanced” approach and “being an honest broker.”

The survey also asked specifically whether US military assistance to Israel should come with absolutely no strings attached while Palestinian civilians are being put at risk. The answer? No, by a ratio of 51 to 26%. That same portion of respondents also agreed with objections to President Joe Biden’s leapfrogging of Congress to send Israel weapons in December, while another plurality, this time of 41%, said the United States should think about cutting or putting conditions on the billions of dollars of US aid Israel gets annually.

Think about those numbers. The American public thinks the United States needs to condition US aid to Israel by a nearly two-to-one margin. The US Senate thinks the United States shouldn’t even make sure its arms aren’t being used to commit atrocities by a seven-to-one margin.

Congress looks similarly unrepresentative even when you put it next to polls that show a public more supportive of Israel’s war. A CBS News/YouGov survey carried out in early December, for instance, asked whether Biden’s “recent statements and actions toward Israel” had exhibited too much or too little support for the country. A total of 69% thought he was either showing the right amount (41%) or not enough (28%) — which doesn’t neatly map onto the substance of this week’s Senate vote, but does show there was (at least in early December) a robust majority of the public that erred on the side of backing Israel.

But that poll also found that fully 31% of Americans believed Biden had displayed too much backing for Israel, in stark contrast to the only 11% of the Senate who voted for Sanders’s bill — and that poll was before the events of the past month and a half, including an explosion of starvation in Gaza, the Palestinian death toll crossing the 20,000 mark, and the genocide case brought against Israel at the International Court of Justice. That same survey, by the way, showed 38% of Democrats and 23% of Republicans believing Biden was too supportive of Israel — significantly more than the only 19% of Democratic senators and 2% of Republican senators who just voted for the bare minimum of oversight on aid to the country.

But since the Senate vote is about a fairly specific issue that doesn’t correspond exactly with what pollsters are asking US voters, let’s look at something that does: support among members of Congress for a cease-fire, the central global demand from the Palestine solidarity movement, human rights organizations, and states appalled by the war.

According to Win Without War’s tally, 59 members of the House and four senators — all of them Democrats — have so far joined calls for a cease-fire. That means a cease-fire is only backed by:

  • 13.6% of the House;
  • 4% of the Senate;
  • 24% of all Democrats in Congress;
  • and 0% of all Republicans in Congress.

These figures are wildly, grossly out of step with the rest of the country, across partisan lines.

Take the AAI/Rainbow PUSH poll, which asked voters whether they’d be “more inclined” or “less inclined” to back a House candidate who supported a cease-fire. By a more than two-to-one margin, or 51–23, voters say they would be more inclined, including a large majority of Democratic respondents, who said so by a 61–17 tally. Even the far smaller pro-cease-fire Republican margin, 39–30, is vastly more in favor of the idea than the zero Republicans in Congress who back it right now.

This same pattern holds across other surveys. A Morning Consult poll taken in mid-December has all voters in favor of a cease-fire by a 59–19 margin, or three to one, including majorities of Democrats (68–13, or more than five to one) and Republicans (53–24, or more than two to one). An early December Data for Progress survey puts those same numbers at 61–28, 76–16, and 49–41, respectively. Even a New York Times/Sienna College poll from that month that showed less emphatic approval for a cease-fire still found a US electorate broadly favorable toward the idea, no matter their party, with those respective margins at 44–39, 61–22, and 24–60 — again, far different from the level of support in Congress.

You will notice that all of these figures, whether you’re asking Democrats or Republicans, do not remotely match the near-universal opposition to a cease-fire in the US Congress, and the support of congressional members from both parties for Israel, no matter what it does with US weapons. We’ve known for a long time that Congress largely doesn’t represent the views and needs of the US public. We’re learning that’s true whether we’re talking about Medicare for All or, it seems, ending Israel’s ongoing mass murder of Palestinians.