Monday, June 06, 2011

Public Opinion & the US - Israel Relationship

Liking Israel


The depth of empathy for the Jewish state among ordinary Americans -- persistently critical media coverage of Israel's West Bank, settlement and security policies notwithstanding – ought to be cause for positive amazement.

In stark contrast to strikingly negative European attitudes, a far-reaching CNN poll released May 31 presents an uplifting picture on American public opinion toward Israel: 65 percent of those surveyed had a generally favorable attitude. Equally heartening is a recent Rasmussen poll which found that 71% of Americans want the Palestinian Arabs to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

What regular folks think about foreign policy has often been disparaged. Winston Churchill warned politicians against keeping their ears to the ground because it would be hard for the public "to look up to leaders who are detected in that somewhat ungainly posture." Moreover, a vast swath of the American public remains blissfully ignorant about current affairs.

Be that as it may, the 24/7 news cycle and a ubiquitous Internet means that foreign affairs can hardly be conducted beyond the purview of public scrutiny as it would have been in the Victorian era.

Mass attitudes on foreign policy tend to be malleable, shaped – rather than followed – by opinion "mobilizers" in the government, media and academia. Plainly, there is a connection between what is covered and what people become interested in. But whether they are interested or not, the American public is fed a heavy diet of Middle East and Palestinian-Israeli conflict news.

In the last week of May, for example, a whopping 10 percent of all coverage was Mideast related compared to 12 percent for the troubled U.S. economy. No surprise then that nearly 18% of Americans say they follow the Arab-Israel conflict "very closely." That's only two percent less than those who say they are tracking the 2012 presidential election campaign.

Positive attitudes toward Israel have held steady through the second intifada and wars in Lebanon and Gaza. In the CNN survey, 44% of respondents identified Israel as an ally, only Britain (at 64%) scored higher. Asked where their sympathies lay 67% said Israel against 16% with the Palestinian Arabs; contrast this to 1988 when 37% were sympathetic toward Israel.

This increased level support was roughly the same across educational background, income and political affiliation though backing among those who define themselves as conservative was more robust at 83%. Within the Tea Party movement, 36% identified themselves as "very favorable" against just 6% who were "very unfavorable." Separately, we also know that there is a well-spring of support for Israel among believing Christians.

That said, most Americans (65%) would rather Washington not take sides at all. This reflects an always present and now growing trend in favor of U.S. isolationism in world affairs.

Moreover, despite near-saturation coverage ignorance about the conflict remains deep-seated as evidenced by a survey conducted by Arab-American pollster John Zogby which found "a plurality" for the so-called Palestinian "the right of return" to what is today Israel and for dismantling "settlements."

On the other hand, lack of knowledge probably doesn't explain why 51% of the "political class" (those who take strong and active interest in politics and often exercise power) in the Rasmussen survey were optimistic about the peace process in contrast to 87% of the presumably less informed "mainstream" who thought progress unlikely.

No less important is the backing Israel has within the heterogeneous U.S. Jewish community. A recent Frank Luntz poll found strong (61%) support for a united Jerusalem under Israeli jurisdiction and implied solid support for the retention of consensus or strategic settlement blocs in any peace deal.

Despite intensified campaigns by subversive groups within the community to redefine the essence of the conflict and what it means to be pro-Israel, fully 75% of U.S. Jews recognized that the ultimate Arab goal is the destruction of Israel; 94% wanted the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state thereby signaling an end to further claims. On the political front, a massive 85% thought that under President Barack Obama US-Israel relations were not going well. Which makes the next series of findings as disconcerting as they are seemingly incoherent: 55% of U.S. Jews sided with the administration even though 57% approved of the Netanyahu government's handling of relations; and 48% favor a Palestinian state "in the current situation."

The Luntz poll also illuminated the character of the community: more Democratic (50%) and independent (32%) than Republican (15%); heavily identified with the liberal streams of Judaism (52%) or "just Jewish" (37%) – whatever that means – than Orthodox (10%). Yet regardless of these distinctions, just 15% said Israel was not very important in their lives.

What does all this add up to? When it comes to the perpetual Palestinian war against Israel, rank-and-file Americans may have only a slim grasp of the complexities, yet they display an innate appreciation for the justice of Israel's cause. This is providential because no other nation is more dependent on the goodwill of Americans than Israel. The more solid that support, the greater the political constraints on any president whose pro-Israel sentiments are ambivalent. And the more apt is an Israel-friendly Congress to dispute White House pressure on Israel.

George Marshall, the U.S. Secretary of State in the late 1940s, observed that, "No policy -- foreign or domestic – can succeed without public support."

In the face of encouraging polling data, it behooves Israeli policymakers to shun complacency and to never, never, take the benevolence of the American people for granted.

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