U.S. Opinion on Israel Doesn’t Match the Politics

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by Mitchell Plitnick

The new report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on U.S. public opinion toward the Israel-Palestine conflict rings a familiar tone. It tells us that Americans support a two-state solution, see Israel as an important U.S. ally, and believe the United States should not take sides in the conflict. It fails to drill down on many of these questions, leaving many responses ambiguous, but it does provide a few interesting nuggets about the views of U.S. citizens.

As one would expect, the survey found that Americans valued the relationship with Israel: 73 percent said the economic relationship with Israel was important and 78 percent said the security relationship was important. But in neither case was Israel particularly special in the affection it got from the public.

According to the survey summary:

in comparison to other countries around the world, Americans see Israel as less important to the US economy than China (92% important), Canada (90%), and Mexico (83%). Similarly, other countries are seen as more important for US security, including allies Canada (84%), Great Britain (83% important), and South Korea (82%), though Israel comes ahead of India (62%) and France (71%).

These results do not seem consistent with the exalted status Israel has in U.S. foreign policy discourse. Americans rarely hear anything about the importance of a politician’s commitment to Mexico or the unshakeable alliance between the United States and South Korea.

But perhaps, even if attachment to Israel is less universal than to other countries, is it more passionate among the attached?

The data in the report doesn’t directly address that question, but the pollsters did ask Americans their opinions on Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The opinions were basically split between favoring and opposing, and opinion was split, unsurprisingly, along party lines. The interesting point that emerged from that question is that 51 percent said that they did not know enough about the issue to have an opinion, and that was fairly consistent across party lines (43 percent of Republicans, 53 percent of Democrats, and 56 percent of independents fell into this category).

Anyone who has ever taken even a cursory look at the Israel-Palestine conflict knows that Jerusalem is central to the hearts and minds of both Palestinians and Israelis and that the recognition of the city as the capital of either or both states is a central cog in any negotiation and any political position on the conflict. Moreover, this is a question about U.S. policy, not Israeli or Palestinian, yet more than half of the respondents do not know enough about it to have an opinion. Of couse when it comes to virtually any topic of debate in the United States—from baseball and to tax policy to whether to install a speed bump around the corner—the level of information most Americans require to form an opinion is a low bar.

Taken together, these responses would certainly seem to stand in sharp contrast to the way the U.S.-Israel relationship is treated in public discourse. No doubt, they reinforce the point that most Americans support Israel and want the United States to have a good relationship with it, but they suggest that this relationship is not a particularly high priority for them.

Of course, there are a few big donors—Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer, and Bernard Marcus on the Republican side, and Haim Saban for the Democrats—whose giving is largely, or even entirely, dependent on support for Israel. The power they wield is greatly magnified because there are no balancing donors on the other side at all. This is highly unusual in politics, where there is usually a counter-balancing movement—even if one side has more wealthy donors than the other—and each side competes to raise political costs and benefits to bolster their views. This poll provides some evidence that what makes Israeli-Palestinian politics unique is not public opinion, but rather the massive imbalance in political money on one side, money that is raised from a small number of sources.

Such a view is backed by the overwhelming data that Jewish voters consistently vote Democratic and liberal, and that their vote is not dependent on the question of Israel despite the fact that in 2016 some 50 percent of contributions to Democrats and 25 percent to Republicans came from the American Jewish community, In fact, much of that money, certainly on the Democratic side, is unrelated to Israel, and most of the money that is distinctly pro-Israel is generated by a handful of large donors and PACs.

The lack of knowledge about the Jerusalem issue is completely consistent with the low-level role Israel plays in the political thinking of the overwhelming majority of Americans.

The poll also strongly suggests that Democrats who favor Israel’s position over the Palestinians’ are acting less in accord with their voters than Republicans are. Although a large majority (62 percent) of Americans overall believe that the United States should not take sides in the conflict, the partisan split on this question is particularly pronounced. Support for a neutral stance among Democrats is 75 percent and 68 percent among Independents, but 59 percent of Republicans believe that the United States should take Israel’s side. Among those Republicans, it is telling again that only 45 percent of non-Trump supporting Republicans believe the United States should side with Israel, while 69 percent of Trump supporters espouse that view.

Trump is certainly playing to his base when it comes to Israel.

Among Democrats, the idea that the United States should be neutral has remained steady since 2002. But, report the authors, “Republican attitudes have shifted notably. In 2004, two-thirds of Republicans (64%) said the US should not take either side in the conflict. Six years later, in 2010, Republicans were divided; by 2016, a majority of Republicans (57%) favored taking Israel’s side.” That tracks very well with the rise in the GOP of the neoconservatives, then the Tea Party and finally, Trump, each step being another lurch to the right.

The survey does not drill down into the question of what “not taking sides” means. Does it, for instance, include the routine blockage of UN Security Council resolutions calling Israel’s actions illegal, when they are manifestly so? Conversely, given Israel’s vast superiority in the military, diplomatic, and political fields, is maintaining a level playing field between a giant and a dwarf truly “not taking sides”?

One last takeaway that should serve as an object lesson for those working to promote equal rights for Palestinians is that, although 31 percent of Americans support the United States taking Israel’s side, only four percent want to see the United States take the Palestinians’ side. This tiny figure belies the paranoid rantings often heard about “anti-Israel bias” in the United States, but it also indicates that sympathy for the Palestinians has not risen significantly, despite the availability of much more information about the occupation.

The Israeli right’s narrative, which is ascendant in U.S. discourse these days, is very expensive to sustain. But those forces have the resources to sustain it. Supporters of Palestinian rights have been unable to impress upon the majority of Americans the most basic reality of the occupation: that Israel has held millions of people without their civil, human, and national rights for over 50 years, after dispossessing them 20 years earlier.

The one story this poll does tell is that the imbalance in political contributions (where there is virtually no counterbalance at all) and in successfully conveying the Palestinian narrative (where there has been some movement, but not enough to change the overall public perception) is still the biggest obstacle that the side of peace, justice, and equal rights must overcome.

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Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.

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2 Comments

  1. I suppose the constant bashing of Muslims in the media gets into the minds of the public as a warning not to support Palestine as the people are seen as part of this dangerous evil group.
    I find the fuss about Khashoggi and the tiny interest in Yemen while support for Saudi Arabia remains in the public, rather a sad reflection on US priorities.

  2. Excellent survey Mitchell. Thanks for education us. BTW Rosemerry I concur with you but I didn’t know that US public supports Saudi Arabia. There is great antipathy towards that country justifiable for the great part (their tyrannical rule., misogyny and their role in 9/11) but some racism and antimoslem bigotry is mixed in.

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