Can we really blame the president for not putting the full weight of his office behind the collapsing peace talks?
- By Bruce StokesBruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.
No one said a Middle East peace deal was going to be easy. Brokering such an agreement has been a lost cause for what’s now a long line of U.S. presidents. So when Secretary of State John Kerry embarked on yet another attempt to get Israelis and Palestinians to finally resolve their differences over land, Jerusalem, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees, many skeptics wrote off the effort as a quixotic quest. Now that the talks appear to have irretrievably broken down, such skepticism about the seriousness of purpose of both the Israelis and Palestinians seems vindicated.
As always, Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans have begun to point fingers over who is to blame for the recent breakdown. Even as they do, it is useful to remember that the American people do not believe that Israeli-Palestinian tensions pose a danger to the United States, that they did not accord this peace initiative a high priority, that they never expected it to work, and that they were deeply divided in both their sympathies and support for President Barack Obama’s efforts to achieve a Middle East accord.
The American public’s now well-documented strategic disengagement from the world will make the revival of any Middle East peace effort all the more difficult, even if the Israelis and Palestinians one day decide to reengage.
Americans simply do not believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict constitutes a major threat to the United States. In a Pew Research Center survey conducted in October-November 2013, only 3 percent of the public expressed the view that the Middle East and Israel represented the greatest danger to America. China (16 percent) and Iran (16 percent) registered as much bigger concerns.
Even before the apparent breakdown in the Kerry initiative, Americans were divided over whether a way could be found to craft a peaceful two-state solution in the Middle East; moreover, what support existed for this effort was rapidly waning. Overall, just 46 percent of respondents said an independent Palestinian state could coexist peacefully with Israel, while 44 percent expressed the view that they did not think this can happen, according to a late April Pew Research Center survey. A year earlier, 50 percent thought it was possible for an independent Palestinian state to exist peacefully alongside Israel, 41 percent did not.
In this regard, Americans weren’t uniquely pessimistic — they simply shared the skepticism of both Israelis and Palestinians: only 50 percent of Israelis and just 14 percent of Palestinians believed that a peaceful two-state solution was possible in a Pew Research Center survey conducted in April 2013.
And while successive U.S. administrations have attempted to portray themselves as a neutral arbiter between the Israelis and Palestinians, the American people have never hidden their sympathies. Roughly half the public (53 percent) say they sympathize more with Israel, 16 percent volunteer that they sympathize with neither side, and just 11 percent side with the Palestinians.
Support for Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians has been consistent over the nearly four-decade history of surveys asking about this measure. In polling by Pew Research and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs dating back to 1978, sympathy toward Israel has never been higher. A decade ago, four-in-ten (40 percent) sympathized more with Israel and just 13 percent sympathized more with the Palestinians. By the summer of 2006, sympathy with Israel had risen to 48 percent and has remained at or around 50 percent since that time.
U.S. diplomatic efforts to bring about peace in the Middle East are further complicated by sharp partisan differences on the issue among the American people. Roughly two-thirds (68 percent) of Republicans sympathize more with Israel compared with 46 percent of Democrats (just 15 percent of Democrats and 7 percent of Republicans sympathize more with the Palestinians). The opinion gap is especially large between the two party’s ideological wings: 75 percent of conservative Republicans sympathize more with Israel, compared with only 41 percent of liberal Democrats.
Republicans have been particularly skeptical about the prospects for a peaceful two-state solution. Just 34 percent thought a way could be found for this to happen in the late April 2014 survey. Independents (50 percent) and Democrats (52 percent) were more optimistic that a solution could be found. Liberal Democrats (59 percent) were more likely than the Democratic Party’s conservatives and moderates (47 percent) to say an independent Palestinian state could coexist peacefully alongside Israel.
There is similarly partisan disagreement on how President Obama has conducted his administration’s Middle East peace initiative. Less than half (45 percent) of the American public express the view that Obama is striking the right balance in the Middle East these days; 22 percent say he is favoring the Palestinians too much, and 9 percent say he is favoring Israel too much. About a quarter (24 percent) do not offer an opinion on the topic, another reflection of the low priority Americans place on the issue.
But about two-thirds (65 percent) of Democrats say Obama is striking the right balance in the Middle East; perhaps not surprisingly, thus, few Democrats think he is favoring Israel (10 percent) or the Palestinians (5 percent) too much. By contrast, 40 percent of Republicans say Obama is favoring the Palestinians too much, while a quarter (25 percent) say he is striking the right balance and just 8 percent think he is favoring Israel too much. This partisan divide is particularly evident on the right. Among Republicans and Republican sympathizers who agree with the Tea Party, fully 65 percent say Obama is favoring the Palestinians too much, just 11 percent say he is striking the right balance, and 3 percent say he is favoring Israel too much.
Diplomats never say never. And the Middle East peace process, while appearing to have stalled, will almost inevitably be revived, if not by the Obama administration, then by its successor. But the ongoing intransigence of both the Israelis and the Palestinians will be only one challenge such a revived initiative will face. Future U.S. peace efforts will also have to contend with the American public’s disinterest in the Middle East, disbelief in the achievability of a lasting peace, lack of impartiality and long-standing sympathy for Israel, and a deep partisan divide on anything regarding these issues. Future presidents and secretaries of state are forewarned.