Even as Americans are preoccupied with the impeachment process and a raft of other news developments, the issue of U.S. policy toward Israel has not escaped our national debate as of late. President Trump’s December executive order on anti-Semitism, which some saw as an attempt to limit free speech on Israel policy, followed a July resolution in the House of Representatives that directly addressed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Although BDS had not been on most Americans’ radar screens, it has suddenly become a subject of more mainstream conversation. How much do Americans know about BDS and what do they think about it? Does it matter for the American political process? The newest University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll provides some answers.
First, some context about American public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The most important change taking place in American public attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past decade has been increased partisanship on an issue that had historically escaped a high level of partisanship. In my 30 years of conducting public opinion polls on this issue, it has always been the case that a large majority of Americans, around two-thirds, wanted the U.S. to take neither side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That has not changed. What has changed over the past decade has been that Republicans have expressed increased desire for the U.S. to take Israel’s side instead of being neutral, with our recent polls showing a slight majority of Republicans choosing that option. In contrast, more and more Democrats (recently over 80%) have supported neutrality, with those wanting the U.S. to take sides roughly evenly divided between wanting to take the Palestinians’ side and wanting to take Israel’s.
When I started observing these trends during the Obama administration, I also noted that the gap between elected Democrats and their constituents on this issue was increasing, with constituents growing more critical of Israel than politicians. I have wondered if this gap would be sustained.
An area where we have seen increased polarization has been preparedness to take action against Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank. For a few years now, the polls have consistently shown a majority of Democrats wanting to take action against Israeli settlements, including imposing sanctions, while Republicans and independents wanted to do nothing or limit opposition to words. But until this fall, I had not asked directly about the BDS movement, as it was not on the radar screen of most Americans. However, the recent debates in Congress and elsewhere have raised the profile of the issue.
In October,* our University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll included questions about BDS, starting with a probing question to determine the extent to which respondents had heard of the movement: “How much have you heard about BDS, or the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement aimed at Israel?”
Nearly half of respondents (49%) said they have heard about BDS at least “a little.”
Among those who said they have heard of the movement, we then asked:
A majority of respondents, including a large majority of Republicans, said they opposed the movement. But the story was different among Democrats, who said they had heard at least “a little” about the movement: A plurality, 48%, said they supported the movement, while only 15% said they opposed it.
Given that those who said they had heard “a little” about BDS are likely less informed about the movement than those who said they had heard “a good amount” or “a great deal,” we probed the better-informed respondents further. I found that a majority of the 16% of Democrats who said they had heard “a good amount” or “a great deal” about BDS supported it (66%), compared with 37% among those who said they heard just “a little.”
The respondents then were presented with two typical arguments from the public discourse for and against BDS to probe the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with these arguments, knowing that some respondents can agree/disagree with both simultaneously. We found that overall, 36% said they agreed with the argument “BDS is a legitimate, peaceful way of opposing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, BDS urges action to pressure Israel to comply with international law. Opposing Israeli policy does not equal anti-Semitism” and 43% disagreed; among Republicans, 69% disagreed, while among Democrats only 13% disagreed. At the same time, 49% said they agreed with the argument against BDS — “Regardless of how BDS defines itself, it is an anti-Israel organization attempting to weaken Israel and to undermine its legitimacy. Some of its supporters are opponents of Israel’s very existence and may even be anti-Semitic” — and 26% disagreed.
After giving respondents the chance to evaluate each argument independently, they were then asked: “Now tell me, which of the following is closer to your view?” Here, the partisan divide was clear: While a majority of Democrats (77%) said the argument for BDS was closest to their views, a large majority of Republicans (85%) agreed with the argument opposing BDS; independents were divided.
Independently from the BDS questions, all respondents were presented with a question probing moves to pass laws opposing boycotts of Israel:
On this issue, respondents appear to transcend the public divide, regardless of their views on BDS or boycotts of Israel broadly: Majorities of Democrats (80%), Republicans (62%), and independents (76%) indicate opposition to such laws, principally over the fact that these laws infringe on the constitutional right to free speech and peaceful protest.
DOES THIS MATTER FOR THE U.S. ELECTION?
As Jon Krosnick and I suggested in a 1995 article, the segments of the public that matter most for the electoral process and elections are those segments that rank the particular issue in question high in their priorities. Over the years, I have thus probed how respondents rank the Arab-Israeli issue in their priorities. Over the past quarter-century, it has been the case that, while a majority of Americans favored U.S. neutrality on this issue, those who ranked the issue among their top priorities tended to favor Israel more. Has this equation changed?
In a September poll,** we found that, overall, while 60% of respondents wanted the U.S. to take neither side in the conflict, 52% of those who ranked the issue among the top three issues in their priorities wanted to take Israel’s side, compared to 35% of those who ranked the issue among the top five, and 23% among those who didn’t rank the issue among the top five. But the bigger story here is to be found in the attitude of Democrats.
Among Democrats who rank the issue first or top three, a large majority (62%) still want the U.S. to take neither side in the conflict, but this is lower than the 80% of all Democrats who want to take neither side. As for leaning toward Israel or the Palestinians, ranking the issue higher increases the chance that Democrats will want to take Israel’s or the Palestinians’ sides almost equally:
The bottom line is that Democrats want U.S. even-handedness on this issue, even among those who rank the issue high in their priorities. And on specific policy issues, such as sanctions on settlements, BDS, and opposing laws prohibiting sanctions against Israel, they have strong views. Will these views matter, at least in the Democratic primaries?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hardly a central issue in American elections, and certainly not in the 2020 presidential race, where the stakes are so high on matters that are at the core of the American political system and the future of the country. It’s improbable that a significant number of people will base their votes (or financial contributions) principally on the candidate’s position on this issue. But there are other ways in which public opinion on this issue among Democrats matters.
Candidates who reflect public opinion more are likely to energize their supporters more, and those who take a position that’s substantially at odds with public opinion may lose credibility and appear less authentic. Among Democrats, positions on Israel-Palestine may have become part of a candidate’s authenticity check, either discounting them in the public’s mind or enhancing their stature. This is unlikely to include positions on BDS specifically, but issues like tying aid to Israel to its policy toward the Palestinians have already made their way into the Democratic campaign debates. Arguably, Bernie Sanders speaking publicly in favor of Palestinian rights (as well as Israelis’) during the 2016 election campaign helped his credibility among supporters and energized his base. He is following a similar pattern this time around, as are several other candidates. Joe Biden, on the other hand, has chosen a different path, criticizing Sanders on this issue by saying, “In terms of Bernie and others who talk about dealing with Zionism, I strongly support Israel as an independent Jewish state.” Notably, in the Democratic debate after his criticism of Sanders, Biden seemed to go out of his way to criticize Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying, “Bibi Netanyahu and I know one another well. He knows that I think what he’s doing is outrageous.” The outcome of the primaries will hardly be determined by the candidates’ position on this issue, but those who stand to embrace the public’s sentiment stand to gain more, and those contradicting it risk having their authenticity questioned.
* The survey was carried out October 4-10, 2019 online from a nationally representative sample of Nielsen Scarborough’s probability-based panel, originally recruited by mail and telephone using a random sample of adults provided by Survey Sampling International. The poll was conducted among a national poll of 1,260 respondents, with a margin of error of +/- 2.76%. Overall, the sample was adjusted to reflect population estimates (Scarborough USA+/Gallup) for Americans. The survey variables balanced through weighting were: age, gender, race/ethnicity, household income, level of education, census regional division, and political party affiliation
** The survey was carried out September 3-20, 2019 online from a nationally representative sample of Nielsen Scarborough’s probability-based panel, originally recruited by mail and telephone using a random sample of adults provided by Survey Sampling International. The poll was conducted among a national poll of 3,016 respondents, with a margin of error of +/- 1.78%. Overall, the sample was adjusted to reflect population estimates (Scarborough USA+/Gallup) for Americans. The survey variables balanced through weighting were: age, gender, race/ethnicity, household income, level of education, census regional division, and political party affiliation