Some recent polls have shown a growing polarization on the formerly bipartisan issue of support for Israel. A widely cited January 2018 Pew poll, for example, found that 79% of Republicans sympathize with Israel instead of the Palestinians, compared with 27% of Democrats; support for the Palestinians was 6% among Republicans and 25% for Democrats.
Some observers view these results in apocalyptic terms, and warn that these trends presage the U.S. abandonment of Israel. Before giving in to the doomsayers, however, it is useful to examine the historical context and data that contradicts the conventional wisdom.
In 1977, just over 40 years ago, Seymour Martin Lipset and William Schneider wrote in Commentary about public support for Israel. They noted that in 27 national polls taken between 1967 and 1977, sympathy for Israel ranged from 35 to 56%, and between 1 and 9% for the Arabs (polls changed the question wording from “Arabs” to “Palestinians” consistently starting in 1993). By contrast, the latest (March 2018) Gallup poll found sympathy for Israel equalling the record high of 64%, with support for the Palestinians at 19%.
For those who think that support for a Palestinian state is a new trend because of greater sympathy for Palestinian rights or opposition to Israeli policy, consider that a Yankelovich survey in 1977 found that 52% of respondents agreed that “the Palestinians have a right to a homeland as much as the Jews do.” In February 2017, Gallup found a split of 45% in favor, and 42% opposed to a Palestinian state.
That same Yankelovich poll reported that 55% of Americans believed “Israel’s refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians” was an obstacle to peace (70% said the Arabs’ refusal to recognize Israel and negotiate was the major obstacle). As further evidence Americans were not in love with Israel, sympathy for Israel in the 1970s Gallup polls averaged only 42%.
Lipset and Schneider did not look specifically at partisan identification, but they did examine differences between liberals and conservatives, as well as McGovern versus Nixon voters. They found that McGovern voters were somewhat less supportive of Israel than Nixon voters, but this was only true for those under 40. This is a noteworthy reminder to those who believe that young people are suddenly turning away from Israel; in fact, this cohort has historically been less supportive of Israel than its elders. The polls also show that, as they age, these same people will become more pro-Israel.
If you look at Gallup data (because they have been asking the sympathy question consistently for decades) on partisan support for Israel during that period, Democratic support was well under 50% in the 1970s. For example, 44% of Americans sympathized with Israel in a 1975 poll, and Republican support exceeded that of Democrats by 47%-42%. A few months later, they were tied at 40%. In 1979, overall support for Israel was only 40%, and the Republican/Democratic split was 43%-41%.
In the 25 Gallup polls for which data was available between 1975 and 2018, average support for Israel among Republicans was 65%, and for Democrats 46%. Independents have been more pro-Israel than Democrats, averaging 51%. Gallup noted that Democratic support in the most recent (March 2018) poll had increased to 49% from 42% in 2001 and is higher than it was in the 1970s. Instead of a dramatic decline in support among Democrats, as some have suggested, the data indicates that Democratic Party voters’ sympathies have not changed dramatically in the last 40 years. Support for Israel among Democrats has increased slightly above the average, but the more startling change is in their increased support for the Palestinians, especially in comparison to the lack of sympathy among Republicans.
Moreover, the data tells us the notion that Democrats have historically been overwhelmingly sympathetic toward Israel is a myth. Similarly, it is a myth that Republicans were once less supportive of Israel than Democrats. The dramatic change, which has been widely noted, is that support among Republicans has skyrocketed. Instead of a difference of a few points, as in the 1970s, the partisan gap in 2018 was a record 38 points.
Rather than lament a non-existent decline in support among Democrats, the question to ask is why Democratic support has been so low all these years, predating the failure of Oslo, the growth of settlements, the Gaza blockade and all the other issues typically used to explain the party’s qualms with Israel.
One of the important points that Lipset and Schneider made, which is too often forgotten by those who jump to conclusions based on poll data, is that results do not necessarily represent what they called “passionate conviction.” They noted that “younger liberals tend to doubt the legitimacy of Israel’s liberal credentials,” but “one would have to go to a very fine level of detail — probably among younger blacks and radicals — to find deep-seated anti-Zionist conviction.”
Think about the issue of gun control. Polls consistently show significant support for tougher restrictions, but lawmakers ignore these results because the number of people who have that “passionate conviction” to lobby for gun control, and support candidates with their money and votes, is dwarfed by the far more vocal minority on the other side. In the case of Israel, the pro-Israel side has the double advantage of being the majority, and also being more passionate than Israel’s detractors.
It is also important to distinguish between general public opinion and that of elected officials. While a handful of Democratic politicians are certifiably anti-Israel, and a larger number are sometimes critical, overall, Democratic members of Congress have remained steadfast in support of Israel on key issues such as military cooperation and aid.
A good example was a vote in Congress on the Taylor Force Act. All 11 Republican senators and 6 of 10 Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted for the bill, which calls for a cutoff of aid to the Palestinian Authority if it continues its “pay-for-slay” policy of paying salaries to terrorists and their families. Immediately after the vote, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer announced that he would be a co-sponsor (along with five other Democrats), virtually guaranteeing that it will pass the full Senate.
And what about presidents?
Presidents’ positions on the Middle East are based primarily on their ideology and world view, and less influenced by public opinion or partisan considerations. During the last 40 years, we have had three Democratic presidents and four Republicans, whose reputations on Israel are mixed. Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama were widely viewed as more critical of Israel, while Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were regarded as very pro-Israel. The jury is still out on Donald Trump.
Lipset and Schneider’s 1977 conclusion that “the only ‘veto group’ in the American electorate concerned with the Middle East is composed of those dedicated to the survival of Israel” remains true today.