While support for Israel in the United States is near an all-time high, the partisan divide in backing Israel’s approach to its conflict with the Palestinians is becoming more apparent.
In a Gallup poll published February 24, 63% of respondents said they sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians in the conflict between the two peoples. This number represents a gradual increase over the past two decades, and is second only to a 64% peak in sympathy for Israel recorded in 1991, when Israel was attacked by Iraqi missiles during the first Gulf war.
Palestinians garnered the support of only 15% of those responding. Despite some temporary peaks and dips, that number approximates the general level of support for Palestinians since the late 1980’s. The poll was conducted during the first week of February and included 1,025 participants nationwide. The margin of error was 4%.
In the face of a stream of negative publicity for Israel in the news media, the results of this latest survey are no doubt good news for the American pro-Israel community. But other findings suggest a growing split in the makeup of American support for Israel, an issue that could prove problematic in years to come.
Looking into the political affiliation of respondents, the poll found that Republican support for Israel, in the context of the conflict with the Palestinians, is on the rise, whereas Democrats are much less sympathetic to the Israeli side.
Republicans, the poll suggests, are in a gradual process of warming up to Israel. From a support rate of 60% ten years ago, 85% of Republicans now say they sympathize with Israel. On the Democratic side, support for Israel versus the Palestinians has hovered consistently around the 50% mark for the last decade. The latest poll found that 48% of Democrats favored the Israeli side in the Middle East conflict.
Sixty percent of self-described independents sympathized with Israel over the Palestinians. These numbers continue a trend of shifting support for Israel within the American public. While pro-Israel groups strive to maintain support for the Jewish state as a bipartisan issue, this goal has been gradually slipping away. In 2001 the gap between Republicans and Democrats in terms of sympathizing with Israel over the Palestinians was only 9%, (Republicans, 60%; Democrats, 51%). Now this gap is up to 37%.
Despite this divide, Republicans and Democrats seem to share a pessimistic view on the chances of ever achieving peace in the region. Only 25% of Republicans believe that “a time will come when they [Israelis and Palestinians] will live in peace.” Democrats are only slightly more optimistic – 39% of them think that peace is possible.
David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Coalition said he does not see a problem with the poll’s finding, since it reflects a steady rate Democratic support for Israel. As for the increasing percentage of Republicans who side with Israel, Harris argued this shows “growing support from a Republican party that is continuously shrinking and that is focused on the base of evangelicals and conservatives.”
Based on 2008 data, Democrats make up roughly 42% of registered voters compared to 32% of voters who are registered as Republicans.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.