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

Dec. 15, 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.  Beginning last Friday, I’ve been sharing the findings of the poll and a discussion about the poll results between Dr. Telhami and political scientist and Brookings fellow Dr. William Galston.]

According to Galston, the Israel-Palestine issue is not a major mover of votes in US elections.  The economy dominates voters’ minds.  Moreover, in the recent midterm elections 70% of Americans thought ISIS was the biggest priority in US foreign policy.  That doesn’t leave a lot of voters open to change their votes from one candidate to another over the candidates’ positions on Israel-Palestine.

Galston said that up until now, foreign policy has been much more of a make-or-break issue for Republican voters.  Because of that, US foreign policy has been aligned with that of the Republicans even under Democratic administrations.  Galston felt there is now a major misalignment between the policies towards Israel-Palestine espoused by Democratic politicians and those actually supported by the rank and file of the Democratic Party.

Dr. Telhami said that based on the poll results, President Obama has actually reflected the foreign policy views of his constituents very well.  If anything, according to Dr. Telhami, the pressure from Obama’s constituents is to take his foreign policy farther to the left, away from the Israeli government.  As a result, Obama does not face a major public opinion constraint on matters such as the vote in the UN Security Council over a Palestinian state.

According to Galston, the biggest prospect for a sea-change in the US-Israel relationship is via a presidential election.  Galston felt that if a Democratic candidate takes a markedly different position on Israel and survives the Democratic primaries, a major shift in policy will have been accomplished because voters will have approved a new position after public debate.

Galston also talked about what specifically resonates with Americans concerned with Israel’s human rights record.  In general, Americans do not approve of the policy of collective punishment, blatantly practiced by Israel with its policies of massive retaliation and home demolitions.  More broadly, according to Galston, the American ethos of the need for equal citizenship is steeped in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  Galston felt America’s struggle with civil rights was reflected in the US public’s response to apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s and is now being reflected in US opinion towards certain Israeli practices.

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