Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Israel and Public Opinion

Most Americans don't want the U.S. backing Israel to the hilt.
israel tank

Dan Drezner draws attention to some of the more remarkable results from a new survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He was surprised by how limited the public’s support for Israel was, and cites the results:

64 percent of Americans say they prefer not to take sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

53 percent of Americans oppose sending U.S. troops to defend Israel if it is attacked by one of its neighbors.

More Americans prefer cutting economic and military aid to Israel than increasing it (although the plurality is fine with the status quo).

As the survey report notes, this is consistent with earlier surveys from the Chicago Council, and it’s also in line with other surveys of Americans’ views on what U.S. policy towards Israel and Palestine ought to be. There is always a significant minority that definitely wants the U.S. to side with Israel in the conflict, and there are always twice or three times as many that want the U.S. to remain neutral. That is, the overwhelming majority probably thinks that the U.S. should be acting as an “honest broker” in the conflict by not openly backing one side against the other, and yet that has never been the reality of U.S. policy towards these two nations. The 20-30% is the constituency for the Israel policy that the U.S. has had over the last few decades, and the broad majority of Americans doesn’t and never has endorsed the overwhelmingly one-sided policy that receives the backing of almost all elected officials in Washington. It doesn’t surprise me that most Americans don’t want to send U.S. troops to defend Israel, since according to some surveys most Americans don’t consider Israel an ally.

Some “pro-Israel” hawks will cite polls showing greater sympathy towards Israel relative to the Palestinians as proof of Americans’ supposedly profound attachment to the country, but being sympathetic towards another nation and supporting a policy of extensive support for its government are and always have been very different things. More than most kinds of policy, foreign policy often does not reflect what the public wants. Since there are relatively few Americans that make these issues a priority in their voting, elected officials are more likely to pay attention to what the loudest, most activist, and best organized Americans have to say on a particular issue. On most of these issues, it is safer for an elected official to ignore the voters’ preferences and stay on the right side of the activists for a given cause.

That is the point that many critics of the U.S.-Israeli relationship have made for years: the current policy is not simply an expression of what most Americans prefer, and a policy that was more representative of the preferences of the majority would look dramatically different from the one that we have. It’s not that “powerful interest groups have somehow hoodwinked the American public” into endorsing the current policy, because most Americans don’t want the U.S. backing Israel to the hilt, but that these groups have successfully pushed for a policy that is more or less reflexively supportive of most things that Israeli governments do. Likewise, they have created political incentives for elected officials without strong views on the subject to take even more aggressively “pro-Israel” positions than most Israelis do. That 20-30% may not speak for most Americans, but they are typically more organized, more interested, and more committed to their position than the broad majority that doesn’t want the U.S. to take a side because they don’t particularly care one way or the other. That is part of the explanation of why their position prevails in the policy debate: there is scant organized opposition to it.