Mark Mellman: The US public on Israel

Mark Mellman: The US public on Israel
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The controversy surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress threatens to obscure a fundamental fact: Israel enjoys tremendous support from Americans of almost all stripes.

That is not to say that every policy or every leader is equally popular; neither are our own leaders or policies. It is to say that Israel enjoys broad support across party and demographic lines.

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A new Gallup poll found 70 percent of Americans holding a favorable view of Israel. Moreover, that reflects an upward trend over the long run. In 1989, 45 percent expressed favorable views of the Jewish state. (By the way, 26 countries in the world officially define themselves as Muslim and 24 as Christian. There is but one Jewish state.)

Of course, opinions of Israel don’t necessarily exist in a vacuum. It’s a country involved in a conflict with Palestinians who want a state of their own for the first time in history.

As a result of earlier agreements with Israel, there is now a Palestinian Authority (PA), which suffers a rather negative image among Americans. Just 17 percent view the PA favorably.

Pew takes a somewhat more political tack, but in response to their question, just 18 percent of Americans say the U.S. is too supportive of Israel. About a quarter of Democrats hold that view.

Another oft-used question asks respondents to choose sides. Despite our pronounced tendency toward evenhandedness in conflicts that don’t directly involve us, 62 percent express greater sympathies for Israel, while just 16 percent side with the Palestinians. Over the last several years, sympathy with Israel has varied within a fairly narrow 61 percent to 64 percent range, while the range of support for Palestinians has been equally narrow — between 12 percent and 22 percent.

Republicans are relatively more supportive of Israel, with 83 percent sympathizing with the Jewish state. Democrats are hardly slackers in this respect, with 48 percent favoring Israel over the Palestinians, and independents are in between, with 59 percent supporting Israel.

The trend lines are interesting. Democrats are no less supportive of Israel than they were in the 1970s. And back then, there was very little difference between the parties. The gap that exists today is completely a function of increased Republican support and not by any decline in Democratic support.  

We can only speculate on the reasons for the dramatic rise in Israel’s fortune among Republicans; I’d suggest three. 

First, evangelical Christians have become an increasingly large proportion of the Republican Party, and some of them are theologically pro-Israel. 

Second, since 9/11, Republican ideology has become increasingly intertwined with Clash of Civilizations thinking and rhetoric, in which Israel literally serves the bulwark against Islamic domination. 

Finally, reflecting these trends in their constituencies, Republican leaders have been increasingly vocal about their support for Israel. In our hyperpartisan politics, where tribal signaling does so much to create public views on issues, the effect of these statements by party leaders is to make followers identify more closely with Israel. 

While some have tried to make much of the gap between Democrats and Republicans, what strikes me is the fact that support for Israel does cut across party lines and that support for Israel has remained more or less constant over the nearly four decades during which the same question has been tracked over time. 

The U.S.-Israel relationship is not predicated on a lobby, as some have alleged, nor will it be run off the rails by disagreements among leaders, even on vital issues. That’s because the strength of the relationship is based on the enduring commitment to Israel deeply etched in the American public mind. 

In our democracy, public opinion counts.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.