Trump and the Middle East peace process

Is Trump’s Israel policy in line with what the American public wants?

November 22, 2018 20:56
3 minute read.
Trump and the Middle East peace process

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque. (photo credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)

While US President Donald Trump has sharply criticized several decades-old allies and partners of the United States, Israel has been a notable exception. At least so far. The upcoming release of the White House peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians, which will increase the president’s own stake in the US-Israeli relationship immensely, could jeopardize this exception.

Trump has often explained his elevation to office as a repudiation of the previous administration’s foreign policies not just by him, but by the Americans who voted for him. “The American people rejected the failures of the past,” Trump said last December. “You rediscovered your voice and reclaimed ownership of this nation and its destiny.”

At its core, then, the president’s “America First” agenda operates on the idea that Trump is a more effective conduit for US public opinion on global affairs than previous presidents, who followed the advice of a Washington-ensconced foreign policy establishment. Instead, Trump’s foreign policy was to be what the everyday American public wants, and it would be a break with the past. 

But Trump is very much following in his recent predecessors’ footsteps in turning to the Middle East peace process in his second year in office. In fact, the self-described dealmaker has gone further than Clinton, Bush, or Obama, at least rhetorically. He’s called a peace agreement the “ultimate deal.” As recently as September he doubled down, again, saying “I think we’re going to make a deal.”

Is Trump’s Israel policy in line with what the American public wants? The 2018 Chicago Council Survey sheds some light on this question. Americans value their ties to Israel, but no more than other key allies and partners. A solid majority of the US public says that relations between the US and Israel are important for the US economy (72% important), though this is below China (92%), Canada (90%), or Mexico (83%).

The same is true for perceptions of security. While a majority of Americans believe that Israel is important for US security (78%), more rate Canada (84%), Great Britain (83%), and South Korea (82%) higher than Israel.

In the event Israel was attacked by its neighbors, a narrow majority of Americans (53%) say they would support deploying US troops, similar to the percentage that would support sending US troops to defend NATO members Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia if they were attacked by Russia (54%). A smaller share (45%) would support using US troops if Israel were to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities and Tehran retaliated. Yet in both scenarios support for involving US troops is less than if North Korea attacked Japan or invaded South Korea (both 64%).

President Trump has celebrated his recent decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, saying it was “a long-overdue step to advance the peace process.” However, the American public is still on the fence. A slight majority of Americans (51%) say that they have not heard enough to decide one way or another on the embassy. Among those who have decided, the results are pretty much split evenly between favoring (24%) and opposing (23%).

While President Trump has time and again signaled his preference for backing Israel, on the issue of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, 60% of Americans favor impartiality, saying that the United States should not take either side. At the same time, support for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is at its highest level since the question was first asked in 1994, with half of Americans (49%) now in favor.

What the results begin to reveal is there is a notable, though not in itself gaping, disparity between Trump’s highly accommodating approach to Israel to date and the more measured view of the American public overall. What we may find out soon is whether Trump would feel barred by public opinion from deploying his sharper, “America First” approach on Israel if the peace process upon which he is staking his deal-making reputation should stall.

Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; John Cookson is a researcher at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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