Rarely — if ever — has a presidential candidate been so publicly critical of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians as Sen. Bernie Sanders was last week during the CNN Democratic primary debate in Brooklyn. Media outlets seized the moment, with headlines such as “Bernie Sanders smashes the Israel status quo,” “Bernie Sanders just shattered an American taboo on Israel” and “Why Does Bernie Sanders hate Israel?”
Some writers have pitched this as a “watershed moment” in Democratic Party politics. For the political class, perhaps it is. But public opinion surveys show that Sanders’s views are representative of many Americans, and particularly Democrats, who are critical of some Israeli policies yet remain favorable toward Israel.
At the debate, the senator from Vermont stuck by a previous comment that the 2014 Israeli incursion into Gaza was “disproportionate.” Sanders further advocated a more balanced U.S. role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, saying “there will never be peace in that region unless the United States plays a role, an even-handed role trying to bring people together and recognizing the serious problems that exist among the Palestinian people.”
Survey results from the past decade demonstrate that a majority of Americans has consistently favored an impartial role for the United States in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. A CNN-ORC poll from 2015 showed that two-thirds of Americans said the United States should refrain from taking either side, while 29 percent favored taking Israel’s side and 2 percent favored taking the Palestinians’ side. Although this sentiment is strongest among self-described Democrats (76 percent), a majority of independents (70 percent) and even a substantial number of Republicans (47 percent) agree.
These attitudes, which seem to amplify Sanders’s message, have been present in American public opinion for much longer than the current primary season. Chicago Council surveys conducted from 2002 to 2014 have found solid majorities of Democrats and independents and about half or more of Republicans repeatedly endorsed keeping a nonaligned U.S. role in this conflict.
Sanders also said, “There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time.” This was in response to Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s arguments for her more traditional political stance toward Israel. The Chicago Council Survey results show a majority of Democrats (54 percent), half of independents (49 percent) and a third of Republicans (34 percent) seem to agree, saying that Israel plays a negative role in resolving problems in the Middle East.
Moreover, while Americans overall are somewhat divided on the creation of an independent Palestinian state (42 percent favor vs. 38 percent oppose), the Democratic base and many independents support it. A majority of Democrats (61 percent) supports “an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” as do 42 percent of independents and 29 percent of Republicans. When the question is posed in a more abstract way — asking about an independent Palestinian state without specifying the West Bank and Gaza — support rises among both Republicans (46 percent) and independents (60 percent).
Sanders was careful to acknowledge that Israel has a right to defend itself and to “live in peace and security without fear of a terrorist attack.” He even mentioned spending time on a kibbutz and having family in Israel. But he underscored the need for greater assistance to the Palestinian people, and he said this belief does not make him “anti-Israel.”
Again, U.S. public opinion reflects this. Although many Americans criticize some Israeli policies, Americans feel favorably toward Israel overall, and increasingly so in recent years. This is visible in the Chicago Council and Gallup polls. In 2015, Gallup found that 60 percent of Democrats, 81 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of independents are favorable toward Israel.
By flipping the script, Sanders’s comments help to highlight the nuances of American attitudes on Israel. Americans do not necessarily see any conflict in expressing support for a two-state solution, concerns about the treatment of Palestinians and concerns about Israeli settlements — all the while maintaining support for Israel. As Rami Khouri wrote last week, Sanders’s appeal for even-handedness on Israel-Palestinian issues “are very American.” Time will tell if this frees up other political leaders to challenge the status quo.
Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.