Good News, Bad News in Latest Poll on Israel
Over the last year, we have continued to hear a lot about growing antisemitism, the BDS movement, media bias, and suggestions that the Democratic Party is moving in an anti-Israel direction. The latest Gallup poll gives some reassurance about the American public’s support for Israel, but also reinforces concerns raised in the last few years about the depth of that support.
Many polls are cited by various sources, but I prefer to rely on Gallup because it has consistently asked the same question since 1967: “In the Middle East situation, are your sympathies more with Israel or with the Palestinians?” (the question referred to Arab nations until 1993).
The latest poll, conducted in February, found that 60% of Americans sympathized with Israel, and 23% the Palestinians. Support for Israel was just below the high of 64% (as recently as March 2018), while support for the Palestinians was the highest since 1990. When asked to rate Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), 74% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Israel compared to 23% for the PA, which ranks among the least popular choices every year.
Sympathy for Israel has remained between 58% and 64% since 2006, and has steadily grown, on average, each decade from 42% in the 1970s to 62% since 2011. Even former president Barack Obama’s often critical attitude had little impact on public support for Israel, which averaged 62% during his term.
The increase in support for the Palestinians is driven by Democrats; 38% sympathized with them, the highest ever, and well above the average of 20% since 1993. Contrary to the assertion that Democrats are turning on Israel, they have actually remained consistent. In February, 44% sympathized with Israel, and the average since 1993 is 46%. By contrast, Republicans’ support for Israel has averaged 68% since 1993 and reached 86% this year, just below the high of 87% in 2018. This year the partisan gap is a record 42 points.
Fears about the Democrats are not entirely unfounded if you look at support by ideology. Conservatives favor Israel over the Palestinians by 80%-9%, while liberals favor the Palestinians by 43%-36%. A majority of moderates support Israel (51%-27%).
Liberals and Democrats are also driving up support for a Palestinian state, which was the highest since 2003 — 55% in favor and 34% opposed. Only 44% of Republicans and 42% of conservatives favor statehood compared to 70% of Democrats and 68% of liberals.
The other concern we have heard a lot about over the last several years is that the anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses is turning young Americans against Israel. Younger Americans, however, have consistently been less supportive than their elders. In February, support for Israel vs. the Palestinians was 48%-30% for ages 18-34, 61%-19% for ages 35-54, and 66%-21% for those over 55.
As in the case of Democrats, the change is primarily in support for the Palestinians, which has averaged only 17% among the youngest cohort since 1975 (Gallup has used different age brackets in some polls). This is at odds with some past research suggesting that support for Israel was eroding without any increase in sympathy for the Palestinians. Support for Israel among the young, however, is just below the average of 50%. As I’ve noted before, however, over time the opinions of the youngest Americans grow more supportive of Israel. Alarmists may worry that the trend will not continue, but it has been consistent up until now. For example, someone who is now over 55 was in the youngest cohort at least 21 years ago. In 1999, 46% of 18-29-year-olds supported Israel, and now those same people would be in the cohort whose sympathy is 20 points higher.
What does this all mean for US policy toward Israel?
Well, for one thing, we should not overestimate the influence of the views expressed by liberals or Democrats in these polls. Contrary to what some might think, most Americans are not liberals or Democrats. According to Gallup, 35% describe themselves as conservative, 35% as moderate, and 26% as liberal. In April 2020, 31% identified as Democrats and 27% as Republicans. A month earlier, Republicans and Democrats were tied at 30%.
Few non-Jewish liberals vote based on a candidate’s views on Israel. The liberals who are most critical of Israel, such as Bernie Sanders, are not determining US Middle East policy, nor are they likely to do so in the near future. Yet this does not mean that Israel can expect uncritical support from the United States. Even the most pro-Israel members of Congress occasionally take issue with Israeli policy, and our potential next president, Joe Biden, is critical, for example, of Israel’s settlement policy.
Keep in mind also that when someone is asked a question in a survey, most will give an answer, but they might not hold that position strongly enough to act on it. Historically, supporters of Israel have been far more passionate and engaged than its detractors, which reinforces my belief that US policymakers will remain staunchly pro-Israel.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and authority on US-Israel relations.