Thinking Aloud: “American Public Attitudes Toward the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Part I

Dec. 12, 2014 by Darius

Last week, University of Maryland professor and Brookings fellow Shibley Telhami released his latest poll on US public opinion towards the Israel-Palestine issue.  The poll itself contained a number of very interesting revelations about how Americans feel about the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Over the next few days, I’ll share the findings of the poll and a discussion about the poll results between Dr. Telhami and political scientist and Brookings fellow William Galston.

The poll was conducted online in mid-November.  The sample (of 1008 American adults) was representative of the country in age, ethnicity, and gender.  The margin of error for the poll was plus or minus 3.1%.

What was perhaps most striking about the entire poll was not necessarily the overall responses but the enormous divide between Democrats and Republicans in their opinions on Israel.

Nearly 60% of respondents believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is among the US’s top five foreign policy priorities.  More than 20% believe that it is one of the US’s top three foreign policy priorities.  Republicans were more likely than Democrats or Independents to consider it a top foreign policy priority.

The poll’s first question examined various policy options for Israel-Palestine.  A plurality of Americans (39%) still think the US government should push for a two-state solution, the same percentage as last year.  Support for a one-state solution, in which Jews and Arabs would be “full and equal citizens,” increased greatly from last year, leaping from 24% to 34%.  Only 8% of respondents supported Israeli annexation of the Palestinian territories without granting equal rights to the Palestinians.

The second question asked those who preferred the two-state solution what they would choose if the two-state solution was no longer an option.  A large majority (66%) responded that if a two-state solution could not happen, a one-state solution with equal rights for Jews and Arabs would be the next best outcome.

The third question was also only presented to those who opted for a two-state solution.  This question asked whether respondents felt that, should a two-state solution not be an option, is Israel’s democracy or Jewishness more important?  A large majority of respondents (71%) felt that Israel’s democracy was more important.  However, the overall results mask a very sharp divide at work here.  Democracy was supported by 84% of Democrats but only 60% of Republicans; 37% of Republicans (but only 12% of Democrats) prefer that Israel remain a Jewish state even at the cost of its being a democratic one.  For Republicans and Democrats who consider the Israeli-Palestinian issue among the top three priorities of US foreign policy, the divide is even more stark: a majority (66%) of these Democrats favor Israel remaining a democracy more than its Jewishness, but a majority (54%) of the Republicans favor Israel’s Jewishness over its democracy.

The poll was able to provide a more specific look at the respondents to the third question.  Jewish Americans, who represented about 5% of the sample, followed the overall trend of preferring democracy to Jewishness in Israel by a margin of 61% to 34%.  The biggest group who preferred Israel’s Jewishness over democracy was Evangelicals or born-again Christians.  Of Evangelical Christians, roughly equal numbers supported Israel’s democracy over its Jewishness (50%) as said Israel’s Jewishness was more important than its democracy (47%).  Because Evangelicals vote overwhelmingly Republican, their preferences were an important specific driver pushing the overall Republican response.

Based on these results, it is hard to imagine a Republican-controlled US government pressuring Israel to maintain its democracy over its Jewish majority.  That could have profound implications for the US-Israel relationship and the entire Middle East if the Republicans capture the White House in 2016.

Tomorrow, I’ll share more of Dr. Telhami’s poll results.

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