My newest piece for LobeLog (co-authored with Jim Lobe) highlights a recent poll of US opinion on Israel and the Israel-Palestine issue, conducted by University of Maryland and Brookings scholar Shibley Telhami. Telhami’s survey used two samples: one to represent the general public, and then an over-sample of self-professed evangelical Christians, in order to gauge the impact of religious views on how Americans perceive Israel. And it’s in that over-sample where the most interesting findings were contained–basically, it turns out that if you were to take evangelicals out of the equation, a considerable portion of the recent and much-lamented “partisan divide” on Israel policy goes away, because non-evangelical Republicans don’t really diverge all that much from the public overall:
The divergence between evangelical Republicans and other voters, including non-evangelical Republicans, was most striking on the question of whether America should pick sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When asked whether the United States should lean toward one of the two sides, or neither side, when mediating the conflict, 30% of respondents overall said that the U.S. should lean toward Israel, as compared to 66% who believed the U.S. should remain neutral. Among all Republicans, 45% believe the U.S. should support Israel over the Palestinians. But when you remove evangelicals from that group, the number goes down to 36% (with 60% saying the U.S. should remain neutral), consistent with the general public.
A full 77% of evangelical Republicans, on the other hand, want the U.S. to support Israel over the Palestinians. As Telhami noted, “much of the difference between Republicans and the national total disappears once one sets aside Evangelical Republicans…the Israel issue in American politics is seen to have become principally a Republican issue, but in fact, our results show, it’s principally the issue of Evangelical Republicans.”
Evangelicals also love them some Bibi. The percentage of Democrats who view Netanyahu unfavorably stands at 34%, compared to 18% who view him favorably, while about half of Republicans overall view him favorably. But almost two-thirds of evangelical Republicans view him favorably. If you were to take evangelicals out of the picture, Netanyahu’s Republican approval rating would tumble–not to the level of his approval among Democrats, but considerably.
None of this is breaking news, exactly. Evangelical Christians tend to support Israel now because they believe that Israel must reconstitute its Biblical borders (which includes the West Bank) in order to bring about the End of Days and the return of Jesus. But it’s pretty stark seeing the numbers. Evangelicals make up a quarter of the US population, and a significant majority of them make US policy toward Israel, rather than US policy toward, well, the US, the, or at least a, primary consideration when it comes to selecting a candidate. Do they see what’s good for Israel as ipso facto good for the US? Or do they simply not care?
You can also see in polls like this why America’s Israel policy skews so heavily toward Israel, despite the fact that two-thirds of Americans say they prefer the US to remain neutral in the Israel-Palestine issue. Basically, most of those people who want the US to remain neutral don’t put a lot of political weight behind the I-P issue, while those who want the US to back Israel do, so it’s the latter group whose views carry the day. Couple that with the amount of money that gets thrown around DC for pro-Israel advocacy, and it’s hard for politicians to resist supporting Israel no matter what.
Brookings’ Tamara Cofman Wittes wrote today, citing Telhami’s poll, that the recent “downturn” in US-Israeli relations (I put downturn in quotes because while there’s been a rise in US-Israel tension rhetorically, and in terms of public opinion, none of that has affected actual US policy toward Israel in any discernible way) goes beyond the negative Obama-Netanyahu dynamic and even beyond that Democratic-Republican divide. Instead, she argues that US-Israel tensions are rising because of deeper changes in both societies (support for Israel goes down sharply among younger Americans, while an increasingly anti-American right-wing nationalism is on the rise in Israel, for example), and because of a sense on both the American and Israeli parts that the peace process, on life support for at least a decade now, really is finally dead and buried:
This begs a question many American officials and analysts are asking: If there is no prospect for renewed bilateral talks toward a two-state solution, what is Israel’s Plan B? Does the Israeli government have a clear vision for its future relationship with the Palestinians? Israel expects American understanding as it takes steps it deems necessary to protect its citizens and ensure their future security. But American patience with Israel’s control over the West Bank is predicated on that control being temporary. There is impatience in Washington that Israel’s leadership has not tried to articulate a path forward beyond the immediate crisis—indeed, my colleague Natan Sachs argues that the current Israeli leadership has embraced “anti-solutionism” as a strategy. That’s a very difficult position for any American administration to support.
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