Most Americans support Israel despite media narrative - poll

Diplomatic Affairs: Just because a person says he is sympathetic to the Palestinians does not make him hostile to Israel

IRAN’S CHIEF nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani arrives at Palais Coburg in Vienna for nuclear talks last month. As negotiations proceed, the Israeli government has decided to keep its opposition low-key and behind closed doors.  (photo credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)
IRAN’S CHIEF nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani arrives at Palais Coburg in Vienna for nuclear talks last month. As negotiations proceed, the Israeli government has decided to keep its opposition low-key and behind closed doors.
(photo credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

For many, it has become almost an article of faith: former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s full-throttle fight against the Iranian nuclear agreement, including a controversial speech to Congress against the deal in March 2015, turned Israel into a partisan issue and damaged support for Israel in the Democratic Party and with the American public.

It is from this basic belief that certain policies of the current government have sprung – first and foremost a decision not to oppose the US in a public battle over its seemingly unquenchable desire to enter a new nuclear deal with the Iranians, one that Israel and most of the Arab countries in the region are adamantly against.

True, the government atypically came out very loudly last week against an apparent US intention to delist Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, but as talks in Vienna proceed on an Iranian nuclear deal, the Israeli government has decided to keep its opposition low-key and behind closed doors.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is not on American television news shows warning that the deal is a disaster, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is not giving interviews with leading US newspapers spelling out why the deal endangers Israel and the region, and Ambassador to the US Mike Herzog is not roaming the halls of Congress, buttonholing congressmen and senators and entreating them to work against the deal.

Why not? Because of a belief that Netanyahu did all of the above, including delivering that speech to Congress, and it all badly damaged relations with the US.

netanyahu congress speech 521 (credit: Jason Reed REUTERS)netanyahu congress speech 521 (credit: Jason Reed REUTERS)

But a look at the data from Gallup’s annual poll on attitudes toward Israel and the Palestinians paints a starkly different picture: the partisan gap between Republicans and Democrats is nothing new, and stretches back as far as the Reagan administration, and Netanyahu’s fights with then-president Barack Obama did not damage support among Democrats.

That all may sound wrong and counterintuitive, but that’s what Gallup data show.

This means that the government is basing its policy of not publicly challenging the US on Iran – a policy with huge ramifications for Israel’s long-term security – on a narrative that is unsupported by the data, at least unsupported by Gallup’s data. This narrative may be supported by anecdotes and by left-wing organizations with a clear agenda. It may be espoused by various Israeli and American politicians, but it is simply not supported by the data.

WHAT DO the data show?

Gallup’s poll measures two metrics: whether people are more sympathetic to Israel or the Palestinians, and what is their overall opinion – favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable or very unfavorable – of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

And the two metrics are different.

One is an overall feeling for the country; the other is with which side do people sympathize more in a one-on-one contest? The first measures opinion of Israel standing alone; the second measures sympathy for Israel in competition with the Palestinians.

The findings are eye-opening.

First of all, despite all the hand-wringing, despite all the shouting about how the progressives are turning public opinion against Israel in the US, the US public overwhelmingly has a favorable opinion of Israel, with 71% of the public saying they have a very favorable or mostly favorable view of Israel. On a list of 18 countries and the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s favorability ranking was the seventh-highest (neighboring Canada topped the list).

There are two interesting tidbits in this number. First, the favorability graph line has remained pretty even over the last 12 years, standing at 67% in 2010, going up to 72% in 2014 during the heat of the Obama-Netanyahu battles, and reaching 75% last year.

One thing that shows is that overall support for Israel in the US did not suffer when Netanyahu went to battle with Obama, or even when he embraced US president Donald Trump. These figures show, paradoxically, that favorability of the country seems largely independent of Israeli policy – the favorability line actually rose slightly during the years when Netanyahu was not talking to the Palestinians, after the years when then-prime minister Ehud Olmert was.

The second interesting point is that Israel’s overall favorability rating fell by four points this year, which means that those arguing that Israel’s standing in American public opinion would improve once Netanyahu was removed from office were proven wrong.

The poll was conducted among a random sample of 1,008 adults from Feb 1 to 17 – some nine months after the establishment of the Bennett-Lapid government – as part of Gallup’s World Affairs survey. The poll has a +/- 4% margin of error.

The fall in favorability this year was due largely to Republicans, as the percentage of Republicans saying they have a favorable opinion of Israel dropped from 91% in 2020 to 81% in 2022. Among Democrats, the favorability dropped four points, from 67 to 63. The 10-point decline of support among Republicans can be attributed to Netanyahu’s popularity among Republicans, as well as a view among some in the party that Israel is too close to US President Joe Biden.

The gap in how the two parties view Israel is worth underlining. Not because the numbers supporting Israel are 18 points higher among Republicans than Democrats, but because that gap has been a constant going back to 1989.

Two conclusions that run against the grain can be drawn by looking at the favorability ratings broken down by party.

The first is that, contrary to what people are constantly being told, Democrats have not stopped being supportive of Israel. A 63% favorability rating does not an anti-Israel party make.

The second is that there is not a growing partisan divide between the parties on Israel.

Yes, the Republicans have a more favorable view of Israel than Democrats, but this gap in support is not new, nor was it exacerbated by the clashes Netanyahu had with Obama over Iran. Rather, this gap has remained fairly constant over a long period.

Counterintuitively, the narrowest gap during this period was in 2014 when the Obama-Netanyahu battles were in full swing. That year some 80% of Republicans said they had a favorable opinion of Israel, as did 71% of the Democrats – a nine-point gap. This was the highest favorability level seen among Democrats in the last 22 years.

The largest gap between Democrats and Republicans was in 2020, when 91% of Republicans said they had a favorable view of Israel, compared to 67% of Democrats. What that shows is that the partisan divide expanded when Netanyahu was hugging Trump, but actually constricted when he stood firm against Obama.

There is small evidence in the Gallup data that the embrace of Trump dented support for Israel among Democrats. But there is no evidence at all in the polls that the fights with Obama hurt support for Israel among the party faithful – if anything, the data point to the opposite.

THE OTHER metric Gallup measures is with which side people sympathize more: Israel or the Palestinians. The favorability question measures a person’s overall impression of a country, while the sympathy question judges support in a two-way contest.

The poll found that the American public is overwhelmingly more sympathetic to Israel than to the Palestinians – though since 2018 sympathy for the Palestinians has been on a steady rise, and sympathy for Israel on a slight decline, from 59% in 2018 to 58% in 2021 and 55% in 2022.

This, too, is interesting, and sheds more light on the question asked following the establishment of a new government here: Are those opposed to Israel in the US opposed to Netanyahu, and will his removal from office translate into more support for Israel?

The preliminary evidence, at least from this poll, is the opposite, as sympathy for Israel dropped overall from 58 points to 55 since Bennett came into power. This is not a statistically overwhelming figure, but a drop nonetheless, one that should be kept in mind when government officials speak of how the very diverse Bennett-Lapid government has improved ties with America.

The graph from the poll that will attract the most attention shows that almost as many Democrats are sympathetic toward the Palestinians (38%) as they are toward the Israelis (40%), or a net gap in favor of Israel of just two points among Democrats, as compared to a net gap of 35 points in 2013.

But that does not necessarily mean all those 38% who said they were more sympathetic to the Palestinians are not supportive of Israel, and the high favorability rating (63%) given to Israel by Democrats bears that out.

Just because a person says he is sympathetic to the Palestinians does not make him hostile to Israel. Sympathy for the Palestinians among Democrats has not bled into hostility toward Israel – though that is obviously what some organizations, such as Amnesty International, are trying to bring about by issuing reports saying Israel is an apartheid state.

Then why do Democrats who express support for Israel in one question, turn around and say they sympathize with the Palestinians in another? Because it has to do with a liberal worldview that maintains that the weak are in the right, and that might makes wrong. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel is the mightier party.

None of that is to say that Israel does not have serious problems with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, something shown in the poll where self-described liberal Democrats sympathize with the Palestinians more than with Israel by a 24-point margin. But the data show neither a collapse of support for Israel in the Democratic Party as a whole nor among the general American public.

More significantly, on the question of how public to make the fight with Biden over Iran, the data do not show that Netanyahu’s aggressive approach on the matter harmed public support. This is something that goes very much against the widely accepted narrative, a narrative driving the Bennett government’s decision to fade deep into the background when it comes to fighting the Iran deal.