by Jim Lobe
While U.S. public sentiment toward Israel has remained relatively stable, favorability ratings for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have declined sharply over the past six weeks, and particularly since his controversial speech before Congress March 3, according to a new survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center.
The results suggest not only that Netanyahu did himself few favors in intervening so blatantly in partisan U.S. politics insofar as the public is concerned. They may also encourage those in the administration who believe continuing to criticize Bibi for his efforts to undercut Obama’s Middle East policy—whether on Iran or on Israel-Palestine—doesn’t carry too much political risk.
What may be most remarkable about the poll results, which focused primarily on attitudes towards a potential deal currently being negotiated in Lausanne between the P5+1 and Iran, is how little the Israeli leader is known here despite all the brouhaha over his speech. As noted by Pew, “a relatively large percentage (41%) said they either had not heard of Bibi or they had no opinion about him.”
Among the 59% who presumably know something about the man and had developed an opinion about him, the percentage of respondents who said they had a favorable view fell overall from 38% in mid-February to 31% in the most recent poll, which was conducted March 25-29.
Declines were particularly dramatic among 18- to 29-year-olds (from 28% to 19%), 50- to 64-year-olds (47% to 36%), college grads without post-graduate education (45% to 35%), those with some college (37% to 31%), and those with only a high-school education or less (35% to 26%).
Self-identified independents mirrored the change in the general public with favorable views declining from 38% to 31%, but even among Republicans, favorable views have fallen—from a majority of 53% to a plurality of 47% (although unfavorable views also fell by five percent). (For those who haven’t seen it, the New York Times published an important article about Republican support for Bibi and Israel in the wake of Jeb Bush’s distancing himself from former Secretary of State James Baker’s remarks at the J Street conference last week.)
Netanyahu’s popularity among Democrats, meanwhile suffered a substantial blow—from 28 percent who had a favorable opinion of him six weeks ago to 19% today. Significantly, among self-described “conservative” or “moderate” Democrats, the decline in favorability was particularly sharp—from 35% to 20%. One hopes that Hillary Clinton takes note of just how obnoxious Bibi appears to have made himself even among more-conservative Dems.
What makes these results even more remarkable is a quick look at a Gallup poll conducted Mar 5-8; that is, within just a few days of Netanyahu’s big moment at the House rostrum. At that time, a whopping 62% of self-identified Republicans said they had a favourable opinion of Bibi. That’s a decline of 15 percentage points in less than four weeks.
On Iran, the new survey doesn’t offer much in the way of news, as little has changed in public attitudes about negotiations or Iran since the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) was reached in Geneva in late November, 2013. A 49% plurality approves of negotiating with Iran, while 40% disapprove, including a 56% majority of Republicans.
But here again, it doesn’t seem as if many Americans have been paying close attention. Only 27% of the 1,500 respondents said they’ve heard a lot about the talks, while 49% said they’d heard a little, and 24% “nothing at all.” Of the 76% who said they’d heard at least a little, 63% (80% of Republicans) said they don’t believe the Iranians are “serious” about addressing international concerns about their nuclear program—a percentage that is virtually unchanged from when the question was last asked in December 2013.
Of course, that presents a problem to the administration which, along with its negotiating partners and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has repeatedly affirmed that Tehran has complied with JPOA for the life of the agreement.
The survey also found strong support (62% overall) for the notion that Congress “should have final authority over approving any nuclear agreement with Iran,” although views broke sharply along partisan lines, as you might expect. Remarkably the overall percentage for Congressional review is higher than Pew found for conducting military strikes against Syria (61%) in September, 2013, or invading Iraq (54%) in October, 2002, when Congress voted on the Authorization to Use Military Force. It naturally suggests that the administration faces a tough fight in resisting Republican pressure for a vote next month if a deal is concluded, although there appears to be some bipartisan sentiment for putting off any Congressional action until a comprehensive agreement is reached by July 1.
Meanwhile, another poll conducted by CBS News a week ago found that 29% of all respondents (45% of Republicans) believe that “Iran’s nuclear program is a threat to the United States that requires military action now.” (That’s apparently a position shared by John McCain who, speaking on the Senate floor last week, urged Israel to “go rogue” by attacking Iran!)
At the same time 63% of respondents (51% of Republicans) believe that the alleged threat “can be contained for now (45%) or does not constitute “a threat to the United States at this time” (18%).
Nearly three out of four Democrats (72%) and two out of three Independents (64%) consider the nuclear issue to be a manageable threat or not a threat at all, according to the survey.