by Jodie T. Allen and Alec Tyson
A substantial plurality of the American public has been steadfast in its support for Israel as the intensity of armed conflict in the Middle East has waxed and waned through the years. While Americans have on occasion voiced criticisms of specific tactics and operations undertaken by the Israeli government, their sympathy for the Jewish state has, with only minor variation, remained strong.
A Pew Global Attitudes survey taken in March through May of this year, before the outbreak of the current violence, found that in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, Americans were the most sympathetic towards Israel of 15 nations surveyed. Among the U.S. public, a 48%-plurality sympathized with Israel. Only 13% of Americans sympathized with the Palestinians, while 4% said both sides and 14% said neither side.
In surveys taken by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, sympathy for Israel over the Palestinians has ranged from highs of 48% in September 1997 and May 2006, to a low of 37% in July 2005. During this period the number of those saying they sympathized most with the Palestinians in their dispute with Israel never rose above the 21% recorded in September 1993.
Similarly in a January 2005 poll, 34% of Americans expressed the view that “bringing about a permanent settlement between Israel and the Arabs” should be the top U.S. foreign policy priority and another 42% said it should be a priority though not the top priority. These percentages have varied little in Pew polls dating back to 1993.
American attitudes toward U.S. policy in the Middle East have registered occasional shifts. A Pew poll conducted in July 2004 found a sharp decline in the percentage of Americans who said they regard U.S. policies in the Middle East as fair: 35% judged them fair, down from 47% in May 2003.
Still, in an August 2005 Pew survey, when asked whether “thinking about the Mideast situation these days, do you think the U.S. should take Israel’s side more, less or about as much as in the past?” 47% of Americans said “as much” and an additional 16% said “more.”
By contrast, European countries are divided in their views. In the 2006 Pew Global Attitudes survey, a 29%-plurality in Great Britain and 32% of Spaniards sided with the Palestinians over Israel. In Germany and Russia, however, the publics sided with Israel (by 37%-18% in Germany and 21%-16% in Russia), while the French public divided its sympathies evenly between Israel and the Palestinians (38%-38%). In both Germany and France, sympathy with Israel had increased significantly since 2004. In most Muslim nations surveyed, however, vast majorities sided with the Palestinians, including 97% of the public in Jordan.
Internationally, American policy is widely viewed as favoring Israel excessively. In the May 2003 Global Attitudes survey, which covered 21 countries, pluralities or majorities in every country except the United States expressed the view that American policies in the Middle East favor Israel over the Palestinians too much.
Notably, this opinion of U.S. policy tilt was shared in Israel itself. Nearly half (47%) of Israelis expressed the belief that the U.S. favors Israel too much, while 38% said the policy is fair and 11% said the U.S. favors the Palestinians too much. But Israel was the only country, aside from the U.S., in which a majority said that U.S. policies lead to more stability in the region. Most Muslim populations saw U.S. policies bringing less stability to the Middle East, while people elsewhere were divided in their evaluations of the impact of U.S. policies.
Similarly, a nine-country Pew survey in the spring of 2004, found that among those who had doubts about the sincerity of U.S. motives in the anti-terrorism effort, large percentages in predominantly Muslim countries (ranging from 44% in Pakistan to 70% in Jordan) saw protection of Israel as an important reason for U.S. actions.
The American public is not unaware that U.S. policies in the Middle East have strengthened anti-American feelings around the world in recent years. In a November 2005 poll, about four-in-ten (39%) of the U.S. public said that U.S. support for Israel is a major reason that people around the world are unhappy with the U.S. (though far more fingered U.S. wealth and power and the war on terrorism as major reasons). Another 39% saw it as a minor reason. Opinion leaders, questioned in the same survey, were more emphatic on this point. Fully 78% of members of the news media and 72% of security experts and military leaders interviewed saw U.S. support for Israel as a “major reason why there is discontent with the U.S. around the world.” Only the Iraq war was designated by higher percentages of the experts and leaders as a major source of global discomfort with the U.S.
As Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes describe in their book, America Against the World, Americans’ attitudes toward Israel appear to be influenced to no small extent by religion. In a July 2003 Pew survey, fully 44% of Americans expressed their belief that God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people. In a Pew survey a year ago in August 2005, 22% of Americans said that their religious beliefs were the biggest influence in determining their support for the Jewish state. And among Americans who sympathize with Israel, one-in-three Americans said their sympathy arises from their religious beliefs.
That religious-based support is by no means confined to — or even centered on — Americans of the Jewish faith. In the same 2003 survey, 36% of U.S. adults expressed the belief that creation of the state of Israel is a step toward the Second Coming of Jesus.
That survey also finds that white Evangelicals are significantly more pro-Israel than are Americans in general — with more than half of saying they sympathize more with Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians, compared with 40 percent of Americans overall who held this view. Further, white Evangelicals who self-identified as political conservatives were more than three times as likely to back Israel as were Evangelicals who identified themselves as moderates. However, in terms of support for Palestine, Evangelicals differed little from the general American population, which, as noted earlier, voices very weak support for the Palestinian cause.