Do Americans Care About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

Well, one thing’s for sure: Evangelical Christians worry more about Israel’s Jewishness than American Jews.

Pro-Israeli And Pro-Palestinian Groups Rally In Front Of White House
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 08: Metropolitan Police Department officers separate pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups as they hold simultaneous demonstrations on the north side of the White House August 8, 2014 in Washington, DC. Israel resumed bombing targets in Gaza and Palestinian militants started firing rockets into Israel as a 72-hour cease fire ended this morning. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Israel is in the midst of political turmoil with the Knesset voting to dissolve itself and calling for new elections in March, just as most Israelis and Palestinians seem to have lost any hope for a two-state solution. But even more critical than new elections is a proposed controversial “nationality law” that could significantly tilt Israel toward Jewishness over democracy. And the Palestinians are on the verge of asking the United Nations to recognize a state of Palestine forcing the Obama administration to make decisions it wants to avoid. But how does the American public feel about these issues? Do Americans care at all?

A poll I conducted on Nov. 14-19 among a nationally representative sample of 1,008 Americans (fielded by GFK) reveals that, in the absence of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, 71 percent favor Israel’s democracy over its Jewishness. This holds to varying degrees across party lines: 84 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of Independents, and 60 percent of Republicans.

In fact, this trend also holds among Jewish Americans in the limited sample in the poll (about 5 percent of a total sample of 1,008). Sixty-one percent of those identifying themselves as Jewish either ethnically or religiously favor Israel’s democracy over its Jewishness. Even among the policy relevant group — those Americans who rank the Palestinian-Israeli conflict either as a top priority or among the top three issues — 54 percent favor democracy, and 42 percent favor Jewishness. In fact, the only group in the sample slightly favoring Jewishness over democracy is those who identify themselves as Evangelical/Born-again Christians (50 percent to 47 percent, which is within the margin of error).

Since earlier in the year when I reported on another poll in Foreign Policy, more Americans have come to recommend that their government push for a one-state solution to the conflict. Those who recommend a two-state solution as the aim of American diplomacy remain constant from a year ago at 39 percent, but those who want one state have grown from 24 percent to 34 percent. Among those who advocate two states, two-thirds would support one state if two states were no longer an option — comparable to the results of last year’s poll.

What do Americans recommend if the Palestinians take the issue of statehood to the United Nations? A plurality, 45 percent, advocate abstaining; 27 percent support voting against the resolution; and 25 percent support voting for it. Party differences are large with more Republicans supporting opposing the resolution, but still less than half (46 percent).

Who Cares about the Israeli Palestinian Issue?

Consistent with prior years most Americans (64 percent) want the United States to lean toward neither side in the conflict, while 31 percent want it to lean toward Israel. But there is a huge difference between Democrats and Independents, on the one hand, and Republicans on the other. Among Democrats, 77 percent want the United States to lean toward neither side, 17 percent toward Israel, and 6 percent toward the Palestinians; among Republicans, those who want the U.S. to lean toward Israel outnumber those who want it to lean toward neither side, 51 percent-46 percent.

It’s well recognized that the level of public passion on issues varies, and those who care most about the issue matter the most for policy makers. Overall, Americans who rank the Israeli-Palestinian issue among the top three tend to want the United States to lean toward Israel more. But this is not necessarily a clear indication of what policy should be, in part because of another issue that Americans rank highly in their priorities: human rights.

It’s About Human Rights, Stupid

American attitudes toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are often measured in relation to how much people care about one party or the other in the conflict, or about U.S. strategic interests. But in an era where American interests in the conflict are not all that vital, many tend to look at this issue through the prism of human rights. In this poll, a plurality of Americans (31 percent) say that human rights are their primary concern when they consider the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — more than American interests (24 percent) and Israeli interests (14 percent).

A quarter of Americans rank human rights as their single most important priority for U.S. foreign policy (compared with 9 percent for international law, and 5 percent for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict). Those who rank human rights highest in their priorities tend to rank the Palestinian-Israeli conflict higher than other Americans do.

More importantly, the policy recommendations of this group tend to differ from the rest of the population, at least in degree, but sometimes more. This is especially true on the attitudes toward Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. Whereas most Americans oppose settlement building, most are also opposed to taking any action (beyond stern words) against Israel. But among the one-quarter of the American public who rank human rights as their top priority, a majority recommend imposing sanctions or harsher measure.

Policy consequences

The assumption that those segments of the public who care most about an issue are likely to have the most impact remains true. Those who rank the Israeli-Palestinian issue high in their priorities tend to want the United States to lean toward Israel more than the rest of the population, though most Americans want the United States to stay relatively neutral. But this general conclusion is only a starting place for analysis; there are three important factors that significantly affect the policy consequences.

First, the fact that people recommend leaning toward Israel is not in itself a clear guide to policy. People differ on what that means and we can see this in some of the results, as demonstrated by two segments that rank this issue high in their priorities: Evangelicals and Jewish Americans, and their attitudes on Israel’s Jewishness vs. its democracy. Even overall, among those who rank this issue in their top three priorities, only 44 percent recommend voting against Palestinian statehood at the UN.

Second, directly measuring the ranking of the Israeli-Palestinian issue in public priorities doesn’t tell the whole story. As it turns out, many Americans see this issue principally through the prism of human rights, which Americans rank much higher in their priorities than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as such. Whereas one might otherwise conclude that the public predisposition to choose “neither side” as an option is due to lack of interest and passion, the human rights focus suggests otherwise: Americans who rank human rights high in their priorities may be more passionately embracing neutrality. Certainly, human rights advocates tend to support Israel’s democracy over its Jewishness, and tend to recommend more aggressive responses to Israeli settlement building than the rest of the population.

Third, from the point of view of American decision makers, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a highly polarized conflict in American politics with significant differences between Republicans and Democrats in particular. For example, even among Americans who rank the issue high in their priorities, only 24 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of Independents recommend voting against Palestinian statehood at the U.N., vs. 66 percent of Republicans. For the Obama administration specifically, when considering public attitudes, the people who matter electorally are the first two groups, not the third. This may also be the case for hopeful Democratic presidential candidates who have to be concerned mostly with Democrats and Independents.

In the immediate term, the Obama administration has considerable public leeway in its policy toward Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. There is also pervasive public discomfort with an Israel that favors its Jewishness over democracy, and a creeping openness to a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, regardless of how practical or possible that might be. Obviously, public opinion is only one element of policy — even the opinions of those who care deeply about the issue; campaign contributions and broken congressional politics often outweigh everything else. But to the extent that United States policy on this issue appears paralyzed at the moment, no one should use public opinion as an excuse.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Shibley Telhami is professor of government and politics and director of the Critical Issues Poll at the University of Maryland, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is co-author of The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011, and of a forthcoming sequel on the Obama and Trump presidencies. Twitter: @ShibleyTelhami