PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 24, 2011. Vice President Joe Biden, left, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, right, listen. (AP/Susan Walsh)
For further reference on Netanyahu's address to Congress, see also our Q&A with expert Trita Parsi on Israel & Iran.
Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and non-resident senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. See here for a recent article by Dr. Telhami on American public opinion towards Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that appeared in the Washington Post.
Q - While levels of support for Israel remain high among Americans overall, you and other pollsters have documented some important changes in recent years. In particular, young Americans who identify as liberal or left wing, including Democrats, are less likely than older Americans to support Israel; their support for Israel is also declining. Similarly, Latinos and other people of color, a rapidly growing segment of the population, are far less likely to support Israel than their white counterparts. Perhaps more worryingly for Israeli officials, support for Israel among young American Jews has dropped dramatically over the past several decades.
How significant do you think these trends are, and what do you think accounts for them?
ST - “In the quarter century during which I have been conducting American public opinion polls toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one thing has remained constant: roughly two-thirds of the American public has continuously expressed the view that they want the United States to lean toward neither Israel nor the Palestinians. Moreover, among those who want the United States to take sides, the balance has been overwhelmingly in favor of Israel. What has changed dramatically, over the past few years, is the partisan divide on this issue. In particular, among Republicans, about half want the US to take Israel’s side, with very few wanting the US to side with the Palestinians. Among Democrats, three-quarters want the United States to take neither side, and the margin between those who want the US to support Israel, and those who want the US to support the Palestinians has declined dramatically. This is especially true of expanding segments of the Democratic Party, especially young people and Hispanic Americans. In fact, among young people, slightly more Democrats want the US to take the Palestinian side over Israel. That’s dramatic change.
“This change is amplified by the fact that on key policy issues, the American public broadly, especially Democrats and Independents, is expressing views that are not only at odds with Israeli policy but also American policy. For example, most Americans do not want the US to veto Palestinian statehood at the UN. It is also noteworthy that, when given a choice between Israel as a democratic state, without a Jewish majority, or Israel as a Jewish state, without equal rights for Palestinians, Americans choose the former across party lines.
“I believe these changes are not so much connected with favoring Israel or the Palestinians, but they are generally grounded in an American view, especially expressed among Democrats and Independents, that’s anchored in the pursuit of human rights, democracy and egalitarianism. If Americans conclude that two states are no longer possible, they just find it hard to accept indefinite occupation and inequality.”
Q - There has been a great deal of controversy over the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to Speaker Boehner's invitation to address Congress on March 3 without consulting the White House first, a breach of diplomatic protocol and the latest in a long series of snubs by Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials. A few weeks ago you wrote in The Washington Post that unlike previous incidents, this one may have substantial long-term consequences, noting that Netanyahu's upcoming "visit threatens what has remained a robust congressional bipartisan support for Netanyahu’s policies and requests despite a divided American public."
Why do you think this latest incident is different than previous disputes between Israeli and American leaders?
ST - “Prime Minister Netanyahu, of course, is not a stranger when it comes to creating partisan divisions in the United States. While of course he is representing the interests of the state of Israel, he nonetheless has actively cultivated a close relationship between his Likud party and the Republican Party. His tension with Democratic presidents goes back to his first stint as Prime Minister during the Clinton administration when Clinton too shied away from seeing him frequently. In the last American presidential election, he all but endorsed the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, angering Democrats in the process.
“But what is especially unique about this case is that his speech takes place at a time when Congress is controlled by Republicans, who invited him, and the White House is occupied by a Democratic president. More centrally, the issue in question isn’t an Israeli-Arab issue as such, but an issue of American national security related to sensitive negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Regardless of the merits of Netanyahu’s substantive arguments, the speech inevitably aligns him with the Republicans, and angers Democrats not only in Congress, but also at the grassroots level—not to mention the White House.”
Q - Last summer, a Gallup poll found that 18 to 29-year olds said by a two-to-one margin (51% vs. 25%) that Israel's attack on Gaza was unjustified. In December, you published a poll that found that among young Democrats who wanted the US to favor either Israel or the Palestinians, more wanted the US to side with the Palestinians (12% vs. 10%), a remarkable figure. And just last week, Gallup published a poll that showed that the percentage of Democrats who support Israel dropped 10 points this year to 48%, Moreover, a recent CNN poll showed that 63% of Americans think that Speaker Boehner shouldn't have invited Netanyahu to address Congress. As someone who has been following US public opinion on Israel and Palestine for a long time, are you surprised by these numbers?
ST - “As I said in my reply to your first question, there were trends in that direction, but still there were two things that surprised me most: the increasing support for a one-state solution; almost as many Americans want the US to push for one democratic state as those wanting the US to support two states. The other thing is that the trends among young Democrats and Hispanics are favoring the Palestinians. It’s happening a bit more quickly than I was expecting.”
Q - In your recent Washington Post piece, you also wrote that "significant and expanding party divides about policy toward Israel... mean that Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress could force congressional Democrats to become more responsive to their grass roots constituents who are far more critical of Israeli policies – just as potential presidential candidates will be gearing up for primaries."
Do you think Democrats running for president in 2016, particularly during the primary season, will be more sensitive to these shifts than we have seen in the past, and why have they not been more responsive to the grassroots of the party before, for example during the 2012 Democratic Convention when party officials reinserted a reference to Jerusalem being the capital of Israel despite vocal opposition from delegates in the room?
ST - “Given the changes that I described in the answer to your first question, this controversy over Netanyahu’s speech to Congress inevitably makes the issue of Israel a partisan issue in the US; it could become an issue in Democratic primaries in ways that we have not seen in the past. It is now about more than foreign policy, and frankly, while many Americans care about allies, including Israel, there is considerable evidence in recent polls that worries about allies is not what concerns them most, even in taking foreign policy decisions. The issue of Israel has become a domestic partisan issue, and that could elevate it in a controversial way in the primaries.
“This issue will not be the central issue in American politics in the foreseeable future, but it could rise in importance. What I mean here is that we know where the Democratic grassroots are on key policy issues pertaining to Israel, and it's evident that their views are at odds with the positions of Democratic members of Congress. This gap has been sustainable because foreign policy issues on Israel-Palestine have not been priorities for the general public. The current controversy not only raises the profile of these issues, but raises the stakes, as they have become part and parcel of American domestic politics. In that sense, an aspiring candidate in Democratic primaries whose position is more in harmony with Democratic constituents will be in a position to challenge a candidate who takes the previously safe position of the American congressional mainstream on Israel.”
Q - What impact might the demographic trends noted above have on US policy towards Israel in the near and long term?
ST - “I think much of the change is about changing demographics, especially within the Democratic Party. We see that the main constituents of the Democratic party, women, African Americans, young people, Hispanic Americans—are all trending away from strong support for Israel, and some of them, Hispanics for example, seem to care about the Israeli-Palestinian issue a little more than the rest of the population. Of course it’s always hard to know for sure if these trends will endure; but because they are not in the first place tied to any particular attachment to Palestinians or Israelis and seem to be driven by broader values, I suspect that they are likely to continue.”