Posted on March 20, 2009 in Washington Watch

Despite claiming continued support for Israel, a majority of Americans want a change in U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A decisive plurality of Americans think U.S. aid to Israel is “too much,” and a majority want to see Israel penalized for building new settlements on occupied Palestinian lands.

These were some of the findings of a Zogby International (ZI) interactive survey of 4,320 American adults conducted in April for the Doha debates – a BBC program based in Qatar.

Support for Israel is High

Support for Israel remains high, with 71% of Americans having a favorable attitude toward Israelis and only 21% holding a negative view. Attitudes toward the Palestinian people, on the other hand, are in the inverse, with a favorable/unfavorable ratio of 25% to 66%. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is viewed positively by 52% of Americans, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is seen favorably by only 19% – with an unfavorable rating of 59%! This reflects a dramatic drop in support for the Palestinian leader, who just five years ago had a near 60% favorable rating in the U.S.

Establishing this continuing support for Israel and strong negative views for Palestinians is important, and makes even more significant the survey’s other findings.

Americans Want to be Fair

When asked whether they agreed with the proposition that “both Israelis and Palestinians are entitled to equal rights,” 84% of Americans agreed. And by a margin of 67% to 17%, Americans continue to support the notion that “there should be an independent Palestinian state.”

When asked to characterize the direction of the policies pursued by the Bush Administration, 71% said that Bush favored Israel, while only 15% felt that the former President had a balanced policy “steering a middle course” between the two sides. But when asked about how President Obama should direct his policy – toward Israel, toward the Palestinians, or “steer a middle course favoring neither side,” only 33% pushed for supporting Israel (with 9% saying Obama should favor the Palestinian side). On the other hand, 49% of Americans believe that Obama should favor neither side.

This almost innate sense of balance and fairness comes through once again when Americans are asked how best to solve complicated “final status” issues. A plurality, for example, agree that Palestinians should be guaranteed “the right of return.” Similarly, a plurality agree that Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land in the West Bank “should be torn down and the land returned” to the Palestinians. And on the sensitive issue of Jerusalem, Americans are evenly divided as to whether the city should be partitioned or remain under Israeli control.

Americans Don’t Like Aid

Foreign aid has never been popular with Americans voters, and in the midst of the current economic meltdown, it is less so. Although Americans are evenly divided on whether the U.S. should engage in talks with Hamas “as they would with any other democratically elected groups,” this tolerance does not translate into support for aid to the group. 67% of Americans support the U.S.’ decision to suspend aid to the Palestinian Authority following Hamas’ victory – unless and until Hamas agrees to recognize Israel, renounce violence, and commit itself to previously signed agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

Yet, strong pluralities of Americans also feel that the U.S.’s aid to Israel (now pledged to include $30 billion over the next ten years) and the $900 million in humanitarian aid to the Palestinians is “too much.”

Getting Tough

The specific issue addressed by the Doha Debate in their BBC televised session from Georgetown University was “Resolved: This House believes it’s time for the U.S. administration to get tough on Israel.” At the debate’s conclusion, the resolution won the support of 63% of the audience.

As the results of the ZI interactive poll demonstrate, the post-debate vote reflects a developing trend in U.S. public opinion. When asked straight out, “Should the U.S. government get tough with Israel?” – a slight plurality agreed. But when asked about two issues that framed much of the debate’s discussion, Americans had more sharply defined views.

For example, asked whether “U.S. support for Israel makes the U.S. more or less respected in the world,” 44% responded “less respected,” as opposed to only 13% who felt that support for Israel made the U.S. “more respected.”

And when asked what he U.S. should do about Israel’s settlement policies, 50% said “get tough with Israel and attempt to stop the expansion,” while only 19% said that the U.S. should “do nothing and allow the settlements to continue.” (The remaining 31% were unsure.

Deep Partisan Split

While there were some areas of agreement between Republicans and Democrats in this poll, on most critical issues there was a deep partisan divide. Because this divide has consequences for U.S. policy, it requires an in-depth examination. This will be the subject of the next column.

comments powered by Disqus