Friends of Israel got a nice lift in late February when the Gallup Organization released a new poll showing that Americans favor Israel over the Palestinians in the Middle East conflict by a margin of more than 4-to-1 — fully 63% believe Israel is more in the right, while just 15% back the Palestinian side. That’s the second-highest pro-Israel margin ever, topped only by a 64% showing in January 1991, when Israel was under Iraqi missile attack.
The Israel-vs.-Palestinians match-up was part of a much larger Gallup poll, the annual World Affairs Survey, which questioned a representative sample of 1,025 Americans by phone between February 1 and 3. Beyond specific policy questions like the Israel-Palestinian conflict, respondents were given a list of 20 countries that are in the news and asked for their feelings about each. Israel came in fifth with 67% viewing it favorably, just behind (in order) Canada, Great Britain, Germany and Japan. The Palestinian Authority was fourth from the bottom with 20% favorable, trailed by Afghanistan (18% favorable), North Korea (14%) and Iran (10%).
Of course, foreign policy isn’t a beauty contest. Nations form alliances based on shared interests, not this week’s polls. On the other hand, public opinion matters in a democracy. If the public leans strongly and consistently in one direction, a nation’s policies will reflect that sooner or later. For all the talk about the pro-Israel lobby and its power in Washington, the fact is that America’s pro-Israel tilt isn’t a hijacking of the people’s will but a reflection of it. And if the people’s will changes, policy will follow.
The bad news is that Israel is the only country on the list that declines in popularity as respondents decline in age. The decline isn’t disastrous: Israel is favored by 63% of people under 35, as opposed to 67% of people between 35 and 55, and 70% of people over 55. That 63% backing among the young folk is nothing to sneeze at. But the direction is clear-cut. Israel is the fifth most-favored nation in the over-55 age group, but the sixth most popular in the 35-to-55 set, and the ninth most popular (out of 20) among those aged 18 to 35.
Israel is also the only country on the list that is viewed more favorably by Republicans than by Democrats. Here the gap is dramatic: Among Republicans, 80% say they view Israel favorably, while only 53% of Democrats say the same. Of the other 19 countries, a few (Canada, Britain, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Afghanistan) receive more or less equal sympathy from Democrats and Republicans. The remaining 12 have more friends among Democrats than Republicans.
Sympathy for Israel isn’t dropping among Democrats. The proportion of Democrats reporting favorable views of Israel has remained at or around the 50% mark for the past decade or more. The partisan gap is due to a change among Republicans, whose sympathy for Israel shot up from about 60% a decade ago to its current 80%-plus level.
Still, facts are facts. Israel is the only country that’s less popular among younger Americans than older ones, and it’s the only country that’s less popular among Democrats than Republicans. What’s going on?
Part of the answer is demographic. A large and growing proportion of Republican voters are self-identified Christian conservatives, and are likely to subscribe to some variation on the belief that Jews are the chosen people and that their return to the Holy Land is part of a divine plan. This line of thought is less popular among Democrats.
That sort of millennial Christian theo-politics got a big boost in the course of the Bush presidency and the war on terror, precisely the years in which Gallup shows Republican sympathy for Israel soaring. President Bush repeatedly portrayed America’s struggles against Islamic extremism as a war of good against evil, in which Israel’s enemies were hardly, if at all, distinguishable from America’s. Israel and its most vocal American defenders welcomed Bush’s embrace. But given the near-universal Democratic opposition to Bush’s overall foreign policy, the wonder is that Democratic sympathy for the Jewish state remained stable.
What next? Well, the Bush presidency is finished. Americans — especially young Americans — don’t want to be mired in endless wars on the other side of the globe. We’ve been there. If Israel keeps casting itself in that role, as the champion in a war nobody else wants to fight, it will find itself waging an uphill battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation of Americans.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).