One of the startling findings in American public opinion surveys on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the wide gap between Republicans on the one hand and Democrats and independents on the other. While there is often a sharp division among the public on many issues across party lines, it was once true that, on this specific issue, the gap was much more narrow. Moreover, while Republican political leaders are in harmony with their grass roots when it comes to their policy stances toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Democratic leaders are not. This begs the question: What is driving this gap, and how much is due to changing American demographics? Could Democratic leaders start to feel some of the heat from their publics on this issue? Findings among two segments of the public that are important for the future of the Democratic Party – Hispanics and young people – indicate that this gap may grow further.
Let’s start with the gap. About two-thirds of Americans tend to want the U.S. government to lean toward neither side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but among the remaining one-third, significantly more people want the United States to lean toward Israel than the Palestinians. When this is broken down along party lines, the results are substantially different. In our most recent probabilistic Internet poll of 1,008 American adults, fielded by GfK, the differences across party lines are wide: 51 percent of Republican respondents want the United States to lean toward Israel, compared to 17 percent of Democrats. While most Democratic and independent respondents want the United States to lean toward neither side (77 percent and 73 percent, respectively), less than half of Republicans want the United States to remain neutral. While there is less support for leaning toward Palestinians versus Israel across party lines, slightly more Democrats than Republicans would favor leaning toward Palestinians.
More importantly, beyond the general predispositions on this issue, there are significant differences on concrete policy issues such as supporting or opposing a proposed Palestinian resolution at the United Nations to recognize a state of Palestine. Among Democratic and independent respondents, 82 percent and 81 percent, respectively, think that the United States should either abstain from voting on the issue or vote in favor of endorsing the establishment of a Palestinian state, compared with 52 percent of Republicans who would favor these approaches. While 15 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of independents think the United States should vote against endorsing a Palestinian state (or even use its veto to prevent such an endorsement), nearly half of Republicans would favor this approach.
Part of this division is explained by the attitudes of the evangelical right respondents within the Republican Party, who not only overwhelmingly want the United States to lean toward Israel, but also tend to rank the Arab-Israeli issue higher in their priorities in comparison with the rest of the population. Nearly two-thirds of evangelicals want the United States to lean toward Israel, compared with about one-fifth of non-evangelicals. When it comes to how the Israeli-Palestinian issue ranks among U.S. interests, significantly more evangelicals than non-evangelicals (36 percent vs. 18 percent, respectively) rank it as the single-most issue or among the top three issues. On more concrete issues, the attitudes of this group tend to be even stronger than those of Jewish Americans. Nearly half of evangelicals favor the “Jewishness” of Israel more than its democracy, compared to only about one-third of Jewish American respondents.
Less than half of evangelical respondents would support the United States voting in favor of the establishment of Palestinian statehood in the United Nations or abstaining from a vote, whereas 60 percent of Jewish Americans would support these measures. Furthermore, on the issue of how the United States should react to continued Israeli settlement building, the number of evangelicals who want the United States to do nothing is about 10 percentage points higher than their Jewish American counterparts. Interestingly, evangelicals seem to feel an even closer religious or ethnic tie to the issue than Jewish Americans. When asked why they would want the United States to lean toward Israel, 38 percent of evangelicals said they felt it was their “religious or ethnic duty to support Israel,” while only 24 percent of Jewish Americans responded this way. Still this is only part of the story.
Another part of the story is not entirely new: the attitudes of women and African Americans. These segments, which provide essential support for the Democratic Party, also have been far more inclined to want the United States to lean toward neither side of the conflict and have tended to show this when it comes to concrete issues. This remains the case in this newest poll. For example, female respondents who want the United States to lean toward neither side in the conflict outnumber their male counterparts by 10 percentage points. This relationship tends to hold across party lines, with the percentage of those supporting neutrality consistently higher among women than men. African American respondents also overwhelmingly favor neutrality, with 80 percent saying the United States should lean toward neither side. This number is slightly less among Republican African Americans, but over half still favor neutrality. Among various ethnicities, African Americans had the highest proportion (78 percent) of those who favor Israel’s democracy rather than its Jewishness.
This tendency also holds across other areas. On whether the United States should support a U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood, 69 percent of female respondents favor the United States either abstaining from a vote or supporting the measure. This number jumps to 81 percent when looking among Democratic women. Eighty-four percent of African Americans (both among Democrats and overall) said the United States should either abstain from voting or favor the vote.
In addition to these findings, the two segments that may provide an even better hint about the future of the Democratic Party (and national politics) – Hispanic Americans and the young – offer even more startling evidence of the changing views of Americans on this issue. Hispanics in particular, nearly half of whom identify themselves as Democrats in the poll sample, provide evidence of divergence not only in attitudes, but also in issue ranking; they tend to rank the Israeli-Palestinian issue higher in national priorities than do Americans overall.
Hispanic Americans have become increasingly central to U.S. electoral politics, and their expanding population means that their role will only increase. They tend to identify themselves far more often as Democrats than Republicans or independents, and they have become a sizable segment of the Democratic Party. It would seem that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not a central cause to them, but surprisingly, they tend to rank it much higher than the rest of population — though obviously not nearly as high as Jewish Americans and evangelical Christians do. Twelve percent of Hispanic respondents rank the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the single most important issue for U.S. interests, compared with 4 percent of non-Hispanics. This contrast is even more pronounced among Democrats, with 17 percent of Hispanic Democrats ranking it as the top issue versus only four percent of non-Hispanic Democrats.
In general, Hispanic Americans want the United States to remain neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more than the rest of the population. Even more telling: Among Hispanic respondents who want the United States to take a side, the ratio of those who want it to lean toward Israel versus the Palestinians is much closer than among the rest of the population. In fact, among Hispanic Democrats, the ratio is roughly 1:1, with those who want the United States to lean toward either Israel or the Palestinians each making up 13 percent of the Hispanic population.
On specific policy issues, such as how the United States should react to continued Israeli settlement building, the positions of this segment are also far more sympathetic to the Palestinians as compared with the rest of the population. For instance, 44 percent of Hispanic Americans support imposing economic sanctions or taking more serious action over Israeli settlement building, compared with 37 percent of non-Hispanics.
Generally, younger adults (ages 18 to 29) tend much more to want the United States to lean toward neither side. But among young Democratic respondents, the results are more striking: Among those who want the United States to lean toward one side or the other, more young people want the United States to lean toward the Palestinians than toward the Israelis (12 percent vs. 10 percent, respectively). This attitude is unique among this age group, as only 5 percent or less of Democrats in each older age group want the United States to lean toward the Palestinians. This contrasts sharply even with female and African-American respondents within the Democratic Party. Even among those who want the United States to lean toward Israel, young people seem to be much more pragmatic about their motivations. Almost half say they feel supporting Israel serves the interests of the United States, while the number who feel this way hovers around one-third among the other age groups, which are much more likely than young people to say that supporting Israel is their religious or ethnic duty.
Positions on other issues, including a U.N. vote and possible action against Israel’s settlement construction, are also noteworthy, with about 42 percent of young people overall and 50 percent of young Democrats favoring economic sanctions or more serious action as a response to Israeli settlement building and 78 percent favoring either abstaining from or supporting a vote in the United Nations for Palestinian statehood.
As Jon Krosnick and Shibley Telhami argued in International Studies Quarterly nearly 20 years ago, it is true that the segment of the American public that cares most deeply about an issue (“the issue-public”) has more say on policy than the rest of the population. But evidence in this new poll suggests that this is not a homogenous group and that ranking this issue highly among priorities does not provide an automatic guide to policy. Respondents from the evangelical right, who rank the issue quite highly in their priorities, lean in one direction while those who rank the issue highly in the Democratic Party, including Jewish Americans, are much closer to the position of other Democrats on a number of key policy issues, including a U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood.
The core constituents of the Democratic Party — women, African Americans, Hispanics and younger Americans — take positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that diverge not only from the positions of Republicans but also from the positions of their elected leaders. This gap is likely to widen given that the two segments that diverge the most, Hispanics and young Americans, are likely to play an even bigger role in the future of the party. Whether they will care enough about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to influence politics remains to be seen, but the fact that even those who care most deeply about the issue within the Democratic Party diverge on important issues from their leaders is telling.
Adding more pressure is the fact that many Americans, especially Democratic respondents, rank the human rights issue high in their priorities: 28 percent of Democrats rank protecting human rights at the top of their priorities for U.S. foreign policy. They also view Israeli-Palestinian issues more through the prism of human rights than strategic interests, with 42 percent of Democrats saying that when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict they are mostly concerned about protecting human rights. This holds true across party lines, where about one-third of respondents say human rights is their top concern. In addition, those who rank human rights highly in their priorities for U.S. foreign policy sometimes hold stronger views than others on key issues. For example, 68 percent of those who rank human rights as either the single most important or a top-three most important issue think Israel should not build settlements, compared with 57 percent for the rest of population.
These findings may have little bearing on national elections as party loyalty may trump all; and in any case, public opinion is only one part of an electoral equation that is influenced more by campaign contributions than rank-and-file opinions. But in Democratic primaries, the electoral equation is different. While the Israeli-Palestinian issue is itself not so central, it is part of a new Democratic identity and a subset of a broader human rights issue that Democrats care about. Just as with other issues that help mobilize Democratic voters, no aspiring politician can afford to look ahead to national elections by bypassing their Democratic electoral base in the primaries. If public opinion continues on its current trajectory, especially among Democrats, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may very well play a greater role in electoral politics in the years to come.
Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Katayoun Kishi is a PhD candidate in the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland.