How not to measure Americans’ support for Israel

A boy holds a U.S. flag and Israeli flag during a demonstration in
Editor's note:

Many pundits and reporters read the results of a new poll to show that Republicans and Democrats are growing further apart in their support for Israel. But a partisan divide over American support for Israel is neither natural nor inevitable, argue Tamara Wittes and Dan Shapiro. This piece originally appeared in The Atlantic.

When the Pew Research Center released its findings this week on American views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the traditional handwringing ensued. Many pundits and reporters read in the results that Republicans and Democrats are growing further and further apart in their support for Israel. Based on the findings, some Israeli pundits and politicians, and many on the American right, have been arguing that Israel and its supporters should give up on the Democratic Party and its elected representatives as supporters of Israel. As the Republican Jewish Coalition tweeted,

The Pew poll is a terrible foundation for such claims, and the claims themselves demand close scrutiny. Support for Israel is, in fact, becoming a politicized issue in the United States, and partisan divides on policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are indeed getting wider. But the wrong response risks making Israel’s real problems in American public opinion worse.

Let’s first understand the realities. This poll question, asked annually by Pew since 2001, is a very poor indicator of American attitudes toward Israel. The question reads, “In the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, which side do you sympathize with more, Israel or the Palestinians?” The wording, quite obviously, asks the respondent to make a binary choice between two seemingly exclusive options. (The poll also records the number of those who volunteer an answer of “both” or “neither,” but those options are not offered by the interviewer.)

The poll question is faulty because sympathy for Palestinians should not imply hostility to Israel, nor should sympathy for Israel require disregard for the fate of Palestinians. A solution to their conflict enshrining two states for two peoples is the outcome most preferred by Americans regardless of party, and administrations of both parties have sought to help both Israel and the Palestinians achieve their goals in a two-state solution. In fact, as the efforts of President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush attest, successful U.S. mediation of the conflict requires empathy with both sides, and understanding of their narratives.

Despite these realities, though, the strong push in the poll question’s construction is toward dichotomy: Which side are you on? Thus the responses, by design, suggest greater polarization than perhaps exists in reality. In fact, the answers really don’t show us how divided Americans are.

Even if you are among those who find the Pew survey valuable to the extent it shows changes in attitudes over time, it’s important to understand what trend you’re seeing. Looking at the underlying data from the survey responses, we see that 34 percent of this year’s sample identify as independents—more than identify as Republicans (26 percent) or Democrats (33 percent). The gap between independents and Republicans remains large and trending larger, but the independents’ trend tracks the Democratic trend—both moving toward less sympathy with Israel relative to the Palestinians in the conflict between them. That’s the pattern that should worry Israelis, because independents and Democrats together represent more than two-thirds of Americans.For past content on politics in and policy toward the Middle East, check out the Markaz blog.

The deeper problem with the poll question is that the results are marketed by Pew, covered by the media, and used by political partisans to indicate American attitudes toward Israel, when what the question measures (albeit badly) is attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This misleading framing reinforces an existing problem: that “Israel” is conflated in the public mind with “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Of course the conflict is a major policy issue for the United States, although arguably less central to U.S. security interests, and less demanding of U.S. policy makers’ time today, than it has been since the 1970s. But we think pro-Israel Republicans and Democrats should agree that the conflict is not, and should not be, the totality of what Israel means to Americans.

The reality of U.S. policy for years has reflected a broader understanding. President Barack Obama, like his predecessors, pushed hard for progress toward a two-state solution—an effort in which one of us was directly involved as U.S. ambassador to Israel. Obama’s push sometimes created tension or disagreements with Israel’s leadership (although he hardly spared the Palestinians the same). At the same time, like other presidents of both parties, he celebrated the shared values at the heart of the U.S.-Israel partnership; encouraged U.S.-Israeli trade, investment, and scientific cooperation; and upheld U.S. commitments to Israel’s security. He won praise from Israeli leaders for increased military assistance, investment in lifesaving missile-defense technologies, and expanded intelligence cooperation to deal with regional threats. And he did all this with strong support from the American public.

Americans are far more divided on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than they are on Israel or the U.S.-Israel relationship—and so when Israel advocates and Israelis themselves use this poll question as a proxy for American support for Israel, they are not doing themselves any favors. The organizations that have traditionally led on advocacy for Israel, like AIPAC, have always prized bipartisanship, recognizing that the pendulum of American politics swings both ways and that Israel never benefits from being used as a partisan political football.

The Pew poll, though, does show real changes in attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among adherents of the two political parties, and a look at more detailed polling tells us why. In recent years, some Americans have come to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of human rights—and this is especially true for younger Americans, African Americans and Hispanic Americans. This makes them sensitive to the hardships faced by Palestinian civilians, and to certain Israeli practices, like housing demolitions. These groups form a larger proportion of the voting public than they have in the past, and a growing proportion of the Democratic Party’s core constituency. And yes, there is some anti-Israel sentiment on the left end of the progressive political spectrum, just as there is some on the right end of the conservative camp.

These trends place a responsibility on Democrats like the two of us, who believe a U.S. commitment to Israel is a strategic and moral imperative, to continue educating others about why that is the case. We also believe, and will continue to explain, how such a commitment is fully consistent with working for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state outcome.

Likewise, Israeli leaders should take these underlying trends to heart, and act accordingly. The survey results point to how specific aspects of Israeli policy, such as the expansion of West Bank settlements that make a two-state solution more difficult, affect the way Israel is viewed in the United States. As American society becomes “majority-minority,” with no group, including Americans of European origin, constituting a majority of the population, Israelis should consider what policies can best shore up the U.S.-Israeli relationship, and which might erode its foundations. Israelis don’t have to take all the blame for the diplomatic stalemate—Palestinians bear plenty of their share, from failing to respond to negotiating proposals, to inciting and glorifying violence, to denying the historical Jewish connection to the land of Israel. But an Israeli government that does not seem committed at least to keeping the two-state solution alive and viable for the future will likely find there are some American supporters whose sympathy they will struggle to retain.

The sharp uptick this year in partisan divides over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also a consequence of the increased tribalism in American politics generally, and the readiness of American leaders to play into that tribalism, even on issues about which there used to be more consensus. In this fevered environment, anytime President Trump and his allies say “up,” Republicans leap to agree and Democrats leap to say “down.” Israeli leaders may find it difficult to resist the temptation to ride this wave, embracing one side in partisan U.S. political battles—as when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arranged his speech in Congress against the Iran deal solely with the Republican congressional leadership. But that approach comes at the cost of alienating even longtime allies across the aisle, and when the next crisis inevitably hits, Israel’s leaders may regret having burned those bridges.

Indeed, Israelis of all stripes should beware of playing into partisanship in the United States. Israeli leaders would be wise not to allow the perception to take hold that they are writing off whole chunks of the Democratic camp, or disrespecting elected officials from the Democratic Party. And without weakening their own relationship with President Trump, Israeli leaders should find ways to demonstrate sensitivity to progressives’ concerns, especially when those concerns touch on issues core to the values Israel and the United States share. One clear missed opportunity was Netanyahu’s failure to speak out swiftly and strongly against the racism and anti-Semitism on display in Charlottesville last fall.

The bottom line is that a partisan divide over American support for Israel is neither natural nor inevitable. Last year, polling data from the University of Maryland showed that three-quarters of all Americans—including 70 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Independents—see Israel as a strategic asset to the United States. That’s a strong consensus, and one to hold onto.