As the Obama administration gets ready to roll out new ideas meant to overcome the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the Saban Center at the Brookings Institute on Thursday presented a set of three public opinion surveys that can help President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton better understand what the people in the region actually want.
The surveys, directed by professor Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, provide a trove of information about Israeli and Arab attitudes toward the key questions of the peace process. But just as interesting is the survey conducted in the U.S., which could give American peace brokers an idea of what people back home are thinking.
Do the American people think their leaders should spend time on getting Israelis and Palestinians to make peace? The answer is positive. Only one-third of Americans don’t believe Middle East peacemaking should be at least one of the top five priorities of the administration. And Obama seems to be doing quite enough on this issue, according to 41% of respondents to the survey. Another 30% thought he should try harder, while 21% said he is trying too hard. When asked if they approve of Obama’s attempt to kick off direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, 72% of Americas responded positively, a staggering figure when one takes into consideration both the fact that Obama doesn’t enjoy these high approval ratings on any other issue and that Palestinians and Israelis in the region have a much more skeptical view of the president’s efforts so far.
But here is where it becomes interesting.
Telhami asked participants in the survey what position the U.S. should take in its efforts to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Two thirds responded that America should be evenhanded and not lean to either side. A quarter believe the U.S. should lean toward Israel, and only 2% think it should lean in favor of the Palestinians.
A closer look gives a better profile of those who think America should be more on Israel’s side of the court when brokering peace: They are those who see resolving the conflict as a top priority, they are older, they’re white, and they are Republican. Of Republicans, 46% think the U.S. administration should lean in favor of Israel in its peace effort, while 50% think America should not take sides and 1% would like to see the U.S. favor the Palestinians. With Democrats and independents, there is an overwhelming majority that supports an evenhanded approach.
Now, Republicans have been claiming the title of being more pro-Israel than Democrats for a long time. Polls, such as this one by Gallup from February of this year, confirm that when faced with a choice between sympathizing with Israelis or Palestinians, the percentage of Republicans favoring Israel has been on the increase over the past decade, while on the Democratic side there is an opposite trend.
Democrats have a whole list of answers to these findings, including the claim that as far as leadership is concerned Democratic lawmakers and officials have just as strong or even stronger record on Israel, and that with Democratic voters more interested in foreign policy, their views on the issues are more complex.
Does this political divide actually play a role in the way any administration approaches Israeli–Palestinian peacemaking? Probably not.
Veteran peace negotiator Aaron David Miller famously accused the U.S. of acting as Israel’s lawyer. And he was talking about the Clinton administration.
And with the Obama administration, who were those pushing the White House to ease pressure on Israel? Congressional Democrats and big Democratic Jewish donors.
So as Secretary Clinton prepares for her presentation of new guidelines for the Middle East peace efforts, this is something to keep in mind. Republicans, who will now rule the House, have a constituency that believes America should favor the Israeli side, and Democrats have a leadership that believes its important to do exactly the same.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was 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.
Who Wants Peace? Americans Do