by Derek Davison and Jim Lobe
Despite his renewed courtship of Democrats (including an embarrassingly eager-to-please Center for American Progress), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has widened the increasingly striking partisan divide over his popularity in the United States. However, there is one bloc of American voters on whom the Israeli prime minister can rely for consistent support—self-described evangelical Christian Republicans.
The percentage of Democrats who view Netanyahu unfavorably rose from 22% to 34% over the past year, according to a new survey of U.S. opinion towards Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East released Friday at the Brookings Institutions by Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Chair of the Peace and Development Program at the University of Maryland, and the University’s Program for Public Consultation. Favorable views among Democrats fell from 25% to 18%.
And if Netanyahu hoped to compensate by increasing his support among Republicans, through his strident and much publicized opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 countries and Iran, he has to be disappointed. Favorable views of his leadership remained within the margin of error of last year’s results (from 51% to 49%) in 2014, while unfavorable views actually increased from 9% to 13%. Evangelical Republicans, on the other hand, gave Netanyahu a 66% approval rating.
Those were among the key findings of the survey, which was based on interviews with 875 adult respondents, and an additional 863 self-described evangelical or “born again” Christians, between November 4 and 10.
The divergence between evangelical Republicans and other voters, including non-evangelical Republicans, was most striking on the question of whether America should pick sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When asked whether the United States should lean toward one of the two sides, or neither side, when mediating the conflict, 30% of respondents overall said that the U.S. should lean toward Israel, as compared to 66% who believed the U.S. should remain neutral. Among all Republicans, 45% believe the U.S. should support Israel over the Palestinians. But when you remove evangelicals from that group, the number goes down to 36% (with 60% saying the U.S. should remain neutral), consistent with the general public.
A full 77% of evangelical Republicans, on the other hand, want the U.S. to support Israel over the Palestinians. As Telhami noted, “much of the difference between Republicans and the national total disappears once one sets aside Evangelical Republicans…the Israel issue in American politics is seen to have become principally a Republican issue, but in fact, our results show, it’s principally the issue of Evangelical Republicans.”
Evangelicals differed from non-evangelicals, even non-evangelical Republicans, on virtually every question in the poll. When asked, for example, what they believed the U.S. should do if the UN were to take up a resolution creating a Palestinian state, 60% of evangelical Republicans said the U.S. should vote against it, compared with 27% of all respondents and 38% of non-evangelical Republicans.
Asked whether the Israeli government exerts too much, too little, or about the right level of influence on U.S. politics, 37% of the all respondents said too much, 18% too little, and 44% the right level. But 49% of Democrats said it was too much, compared to 25% of Republicans, 52% of whom believe that Israel exerts the right amount of influence on U.S. politics. A plurality of over 39% of self-identified evangelical Republicans, however, said that Israel exerted too little influence on U.S. politics.
Although evangelicals may hold views on Israel that place them outside the American mainstream, those views nonetheless have a sizable political impact. Evangelical Christians make up over a quarter of the U.S. population, according to a 2015 Pew Research poll on religion and public life, and their influence is heavily weighted toward the Republican Party, which concentrates their political influence. Moreover, evangelicals weigh a candidate’s Israel policy more heavily than non-evangelicals. Telhami’s survey, for example, found that 55% of evangelical Christians consider a congressional or presidential candidate’s position on Israel “a lot,” compared with only 23% of non-Evangelical Christians.
Telhami’s findings suggest a link between evangelicals’ religious views and their views on Israel-Palestine. Among the subset of respondents who said that they believe “Christ will return” at “the end times,” just under two-thirds of evangelicals said that “it is essential for current-day Israel to include all the land they believe was promised to Biblical Israel in the Old Testament.” This would include the West Bank, or “Judea and Samaria” to use the preferred Likudist nomenclature.
The survey tends to confirm the results of other recent polls that have found a growing partisan divide—albeit one that appears to be driven by religious affiliation—on almost all issues relating to Israel. This is a trend that no doubt provokes serious headaches at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which, despite Netanyahu, has labored hard to retain a veneer of bipartisanship.
Asked who or what they hold most responsible for the current escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, for example, Democrats and Republicans offer almost a mirror image of each other. Among Democrats, 37% blame continued Israeli occupation and settlement expansion, 35% blame the absence of serious peace diplomacy, while 15% hold Palestinian extremists responsible. Among Republicans, by contrast, a 40% plurality cites Palestinian extremists, followed by 27% who blame the absence of diplomacy, and a mere 16% cite Israel’s occupation and settlement expansion.
Asked how the U.S. should react to Israeli settlement construction, 27% recommended that Washington do nothing. Another 31% said it should limit its opposition to words, while 27% recommended imposing economic sanctions, and another 10% called for stronger action. A strong plurality of all Democrats (49%), however, urged either economic sanctions or more serious forms of pressure on Israel.
Telhami’s poll also echoes similar polls in finding that support for Israel tends to be greater among older respondents than among younger ones. Only 8% of respondents aged 18-24 agreed that Israel has too little influence on American politics, but that number rose to 17% among respondents aged 25-44, 20% among respondents aged 45-64, and 22% among respondents aged 65 and up.