Series: Saban Forum
Students march along the National Mall in Washington, U.S., November 15, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria - RTX2TU9T
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Palestine and Israel in the shadow of the election: What do Americans want Obama and Trump to do?

Shibley Telhami

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hardly a top American priority now, the transition to a new U.S. administration has revived the conversation about what the United States could or should do to break the current stalemate. President-elect Donald Trump himself touched on the issue in his recent conversation with the New York Times, and the Obama administration has been considering acting, possibly at the United Nations, to keep the prospects of a two-state solution alive. In some ways, the election of Donald Trump has made it easier for Obama to act now if he chooses—he would have likely felt the need to show more deference to a President Clinton.

Amidst all this, where is the American public on these issues?

The numbers in context

A new University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, fielded after the election by Nielsen Scarborough, probed some of these issues. In addition to tracking issues on which we have accumulated multi-year data, we asked about the prospect that Obama would take action at the United Nations, and about what the public wanted and expected Donald Trump to do when he takes office.

First, some context. I have conducted many polls probing American public opinion on various aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that provide some measure of opinion of change over time. Over the past three years, the most striking aspect of polls on this issue has been the deep polarization that has taken hold, with Republicans increasingly wanting the United States to take Israel’s side and Democrats increasingly want the United States to lean toward neither side. This has created a political imbalance, where Republican politicians—especially in Congress—take positions that are in tune with their constituents; Democratic politicians, meanwhile, seem more at odds with their constituents.

This imbalance was reflected in the recent presidential primaries. On the one hand, Republican candidates competed to be the most pro-Israel, often invoking the name of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom my polls in the spring showed to be the single most admired national or world leader among Republicans. On the other hand, Senator Bernie Sanders accused Secretary Hillary Clinton of not showing enough empathy with the Palestinians; and some of Clinton’s advisers suggested that she not mention Israel much before Democratic constituents.

In our new post-election poll, we continue to see heavy—even increasing—polarization on this issue, along party lines, especially on the question of how the United States should react to continued Israeli settlement expansion. While Republicans continue to want the American reaction to be either do nothing in response to Israeli settlements or to just limit the reaction to words, an expanding majority of Democrats in the new poll say they want to see sanctions or more serious actions taken in response. While in my 2014 poll, 48 percent of Democrats supported sanctions or more serious measure, the number now stands at 60 percent. In contrast, there has been little change in the position of Republicans, with a large majority, 66 percent in 2014 and 68 percent in 2016, supporting taking no action or limiting reaction to words. Overall, American support for sanctions or more serious measure went up from 38 percent in 2014 to 46 percent in the most recent post-election poll.

"How do you believe the US should react to new settlements?"

Similarly, there is a noticeable partisan divide on whether the United States should support a U.N. resolution on Palestinian statehood. Overall, this post-election poll showed that Americans supporting a U.S. veto of a U.N. resolution on Palestinian statehood remain a minority (31 percent). But the differences were striking: While 51 percent of Republicans wanted to see U.S. veto, only 16 percent of Democrats supported such move.

Compared with last year (November 2015), the percentage of Democrats who support voting in favor of a U.N. resolution on the establishment of a Palestinian state has increased from 38 percent to 51 percent. In addition, the number of Democrats who believe the United States should abstain from voting has decreased from 42 percent to 29 percent. For Republicans, there has been a decrease in support for abstaining from voting, which dropped from 37 percent to 29 percent in the past year. The number of Republicans who think the U.S. should vote against endorsing the establishment of a Palestinian state increased from 43 percent to 51 percent.

On Obama’s parting shot

To probe how the public feels about the prospect that Obama may initiate or support a U.N. resolution on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict before Trump moves to the White House, we first presented arguments for and against to measure the reaction to these arguments.

The argument against such action during the transition was this:

“It’s wrong for Obama to act on such an important issue during the transition. The decision on this issue should be left to President Trump to deal with, regardless of the complexity of our political system. Besides, it’s not up to the United States and the international community to decide the final parameters of the political solution on this issue. This should be left first and foremost to the parties themselves. In addition, the Israeli government has opposed such steps and we must be mindful not to alienate them.”

Overall, a plurality, 46 percent agreed with this argument with significant partisan variation: 73 percent of Republicans but only 21 percent of Democrats.

"It's wrong for Obama to act on such an important issue during the transition. The decision on this issue should be left to President Trump to deal with, regardless of the complexity of our political system."

In favor of the move, we presented the following argument:

“One reason the United States has been ineffective in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that American Presidents face domestic political constraints in Congress, campaign contributions, and lobbies. Presidents have an opportunity to act effectively to advance the national interest during the Presidential transitions when they face fewer constraints. President Ronald Reagan did this before he left office in starting a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization that may have helped bring the PLO and Israel together five years later. The U.S. has a stake in this issue and it’s clear the parties have not been able to resolve it on their own. Obama should seize the opportunity.”

"The US has a stake in this issue and it's clear the parties have not been able to resolve it on their own. Obama should seize the opportunity."

Again, a plurality, 45 percent, supported this argument with partisan variation: 71 percent of Democrats compared to only 20 percent of Republicans.

Once we presented the arguments for and against Obama moves at the U.N. during the transition, we then asked two specific questions, one about a possible resolution that defines the parameters of a final peace deal on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and one that specifically addresses Israeli settlements.

A plurality of Americans (46 percent) said that they either strongly or somewhat support the Obama administration backing or sponsoring a United Nations resolution that outlines the parameters for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before Obama leaves office. A quarter of Americans neither oppose nor support this resolution, while 27 percent either strongly or somewhat oppose it.

Democrats were far more likely than both Republicans and Independents to support this resolution. Seventy percent of Democrats support it, compared to 22 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Independents.

"President Obama's support or sponsorship for a United Nations resolution that outlines the parameters for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before he leaves office."

On the issue of President Obama supporting or sponsoring a United Nations resolution to end Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank before he leaves office, a plurality of Americans (40 percent) either strongly or somewhat support this. Twenty-three percent of Americans neither oppose nor support, and 33 percent either strongly or somewhat oppose this resolution.

"President Obama's support or sponsorship for a United Nations resolution to end Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank before he leaves office."

Trump, the dealmaker?

Early in the presidential campaign, Donald Trump said that he would take an “even-handed” position in mediating the Palestinian-Israeli conflict before he followed with positions that were decidedly pro-Israeli. The post-election poll probed what the American public wanted Trump to do in mediating the conflict. As in previous, general polls on this issue, a majority of Americans (57 percent), wanted Trump to lean toward neither side of the conflict. Here too, Americans were divided along party lines: 69 percent of Democrats compared to 42 percent of Republicans.

"Should the new Trump administration:"

We followed up with another question about what, in fact, they expect Trump to do if he engages in mediating the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Here, the public expected something other than what it wants: a majority, 57 percent, expect Trump to lean toward Israel. Here, Democrats and Republicans were much closer in their expectations: 62 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats agreed that Trump is likely to lean toward Israel.

The upshot is that public opinion on the Palestinian-Israeli issue is not a barrier if Obama decides to act at the United Nations either on Palestinian statehood or on taking action to end Israeli settlement expansion. In fact, pluralities of Americans overall and majorities of his core Democratic constituents support such moves. There may be other reasons why the administration refrains from taking such action, but it won’t be because of public opposition.

As for Trump, he has not played by the book so far and is unlikely to do so if he chooses to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians. The public wants even-handedness, but they seem not to expect they will get it.

"If the new Trump administration engages in mediating the Israeli Palestinian conflict, what do you believe it will, in fact, do?"

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