Expert Q&A: On Shifting US Public Opinion Towards Israel

December 16, 2015 IMEU
Expert Q&A: On Shifting US Public Opinion Towards Israel


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.




Q - Your latest poll, What Americans (especially Evangelicals) think about Israel and the Middle East, contains some remarkable findings. Among other things, it reveals that fewer than half of all Republicans (45%) want the U.S. to side diplomatically with Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, with that number dropping to just 36% when you remove Evangelical voters from the picture. Meanwhile, fully 75% of Democrats and 80% of independents want the U.S. to be neutral. Moreover, just 43% of all Republicans (and 38% of non-Evangelical Republicans) said they want the U.S. to veto a UN resolution endorsing the creation of a Palestinian state, while just 15% of Democrats and 13% of independents felt the same.

Did these results surprise you, and do they represent a longer term trend in U.S. public opinion in terms of dropping support for Israel. If so, what do you think accounts for it?

ST - "Some aspects of the poll have remained relatively constant over the years. In particular, really ever since I started polling in the early 1990s, we found that roughly two-thirds of the American public want the U.S. to lean toward neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians. Among those who do want the U.S. to take sides- Americans overwhelmingly choose leaning toward Israel over leaning toward the Palestinians. What has changed is the partisan divide on this issue, which we have begun seeing over the past few years. This has resulted in more Democrats wanting the U.S. to take neither side and more Republicans wanting the U.S. to lean toward Israel. This year we find the same results underpinned by demographic changes, particularly within the Democratic Party where its core constituents — women, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and younger Americans — generally want the U.S. to lean toward neither side more than the rest of the population. What we did notice this year is that fewer Republicans overall say they want the U.S. to lean toward Israel compared to last year, 45% versus 51% from last year. In addition, this year we were able to do more analysis of Evangelicals as we had a large oversample of this group. So when you put aside Evangelical Republicans, the percentage of non-Evangelical Republicans who say they want the U.S. to lean toward Israel drops to 36%. As for support for a possible UN resolution on the establishment of a Palestinian State, we found that a majority of Americans do not want the U.S. to vote against such a resolution (43%, want the U.S. to abstain from voting. And 27% want to vote in favor). Only 26% want the U.S. to vote against such a resolution. This was roughly comparable to our findings from last year."


Q - This and other polling you’ve done reveals a very wide gap between the positions of politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties, including their presidential candidates, and their constituents when it comes to Palestine-Israel. In a Washington Post piece last January, you 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."

Have you seen this happening, and do you think growing unhappiness with uncritical U.S. support for Israel among grassroots Democrats and others will be reflected more as the 2016 campaign develops?

ST - "In general, Republican candidates are obviously catering to their base, especially the roughly one-quarter who are Evangelical Republicans and who are particularly passionate about their support for Israel. However, among Democrats, it’s obvious that Democratic politicians, particularly in Congress, are not in harmony with their Democratic base on many of the questions related to Israel-Palestine. At some point, one would expect that this gap cannot be sustained. In the short term, the fact is that leading Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton, look so much to the left of all the Republican candidates on this issue that this mutes the frustration on the left of the candidates within the Democratic Party. Moreover, while public opinion is important, what’s most important is the degree of passion on any specific issue. And the Israel-Palestine issue has not been the central issue of the day for most of the Democratic constituents. Nonetheless, in both last year’s poll and this year’s poll, we note that many Democrats say they are passionate about human rights and they see the Israel-Palestine issue mostly through this prism."


Q - In regards to Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian land in violation of international law and official U.S. policy, your latest poll found 49% of Democrats said they support imposing economic sanctions or more serious action against Israel (while a poll you released in December 2014 found 39% of all Americans support imposing sanctions). At the same time, Democrats like Hillary Clinton have pledged to fight the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights, putting them at odds with half of Democratic voters.

Do you think Clinton and these other Democrats realize how out of step they are with the Democratic grassroots, or do they even care?

ST - "Let’s be clear — I have not asked any questions about BDS and if I did I’m not sure what I would get. What I have asked is about American public views of Israeli settlements in the West Bank specifically and what they think the U.S. should do about it. I say this because I think a large percentage of the public, including those who want the U.S. to lean toward neither side, differentiate between the settlements specifically and support for Israel broadly. I notice for example that when Clinton specifically addresses the question of boycotting Israel, she addresses the BDS movement specifically and not so much possible measures on Israeli settlements although I suspect if pushed she would probably oppose these as well politically. I’ve always believed that on the settlement issue there is widespread opposition and frustration within the American public and even among political elites within the U.S. This was born out last year when we discovered that 39% overall were open to punitive measures against Israeli settlement activity which is comparable to this year (37% overall). But the fact that half of the Democrats want the U.S. to impose some punitive measures could ultimately become a factor in the debate though I suspect not in this election cycle."


Q - This latest poll also shows that a large majority of Americans of all political stripes believes that if it cannot be both, then Israel should be a democratic state rather than a Jewish state, with 82% of Democrats, 74% of independents, and 62% of Republicans endorsing such a view. Given that approximately 20% of Israel’s population is Palestinian and not Jewish, Israel is not and has never been a secular democracy like the U.S., but rather an ethnocracy where Jewish citizens are systemically privileged over Palestinian and other non-Jewish ones.  

Do you think as this contradiction becomes clearer to Americans support for Israel will continue to slip, and support for a one state solution with equal rights for all, which is currently at 31% overall (versus 35% for the two-state solution), will grow?

ST - "Let’s differentiate between the status of the Arab citizens of Israel and the Palestinians who are under occupation in the occupied territories. While there’s always a debate as to how Israel as a Jewish state sits with the 20% who are Arab citizens, and whether or not they are fully equal citizens, they still have a status of citizenship with voting and legal rights which is substantially different from the status of Palestinians under occupation. So the question that I posed wasn’t really about Arab citizens of Israel but what would happen if Israel continued to control the Palestinians under occupation without a prospect of two states. Here I think the American public’s instinct is very clear: it chooses democracy with full equal rights for Arabs and Jews — even if it means that Israel loses its Jewish majority — over a Jewish but non-democratic Israel. This holds for all parties and surprisingly this year even for Evangelicals, a slight majority of whom now say that they prefer Israel’s democracy over its Jewishness."


Q - Do you think there is anything that can be gleaned from the results of your polling for U.S. politicians and policy makers who want to move beyond decades of failed U.S. policies in the region but may be afraid to challenge the status quo and the conventional wisdom in Washington when it comes to Israel?

ST - "Two things are very clear to me- one is that public opinion does not present a barrier for bold U.S. actions such as recognizing the state of Palestine at the United Nations. The public is far more open to this option than politicians and it’s obvious that the barrier is principally emanating from passionate minorities, campaign contributions, and lobbying. This is not to say that serious people, including serious politicians, cannot also not disagree on the right path for addressing the Israel-Palestine conflict. The second thing that I notice is that the most important driver for Americans who want the U.S. to lean toward neither side and younger Americans, particularly Democrats, who are less supportive of Israeli policies is human rights, which many Americans, especially among Democrats, rank high in their priorities when they take positions. The changing demographics in America (the increasing number of Hispanic Americans and the young people) as well as traditional constituents in the Democratic Party such as women and African Americans suggest that the Democratic Party will continue to move in the direction that we have been identifying over the past couple of years. This is likely to be even more so if Americans reach the conclusion that two states are no longer possible as a way of resolving the conflict and Americans across the political spectrum are simply not accepting of an outcome that leaves deep political inequalities."