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Taking Neither Side

Note that this is a real change. Israel has always had more sympathizers than the Palestinians, but pre-9/11 a kind of neutralism was the predominant view. ~Matt Yglesias

I wasn’t going to comment on the latest Gallup findings on American attitudes toward Israelis and Palestinians, but Yglesias overlooks something important here that needs to be mentioned. Looking at the data from the last 23 years, it is correct that the American public’s sympathy with Israelis as opposed to Palestinians became extremely lopsided after 9/11, and a more balanced/indifferent attitude prevailed prior to the attacks. What these results don’t show is what the public believed the U.S. role in the conflict should be both before and after 9/11.

If we go back to earlier Gallup polls that asked this question, we find that up through 2003 Gallup also asked what respondents thought the U.S. role should be. They phrased the question in terms of taking sides: should the U.S. be on one side or the other, or on neither side? The results were always very similar both before and after the attacks in 2001: approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of respondents wanted the U.S. not to take sides in the conflict. This is entirely consistent with other pollingon the conflict that has been done since then.

Here is Gallup’s June 2003 poll question:

In the Middle East conflict, do you think the United States should take Israel’s side, take the Palestinian’s side, or not take either side?


Not take
2003 Jun 12-15 ^184744
2002 Apr 29-May 1242686
2002 Apr 5-7222715
2001 Sep 14-15271639
2000 Jul 6-9 ^161749
2000 Jan 25-261517212
1998 Dec 4-6172737
1998 May 8-10152749

Neutralism wasn’t just the predominant view before 9/11, but was the consistent overwhelming majority view before and after the attacks. I have been unable to find more recent results from Gallup on this question, but WPO’s findings suggest that Gallup would get similar responses to those they had at the turn of the century.

As these results show, there is a significant minority of somewhere between 15-25% of the public that definitely favors the U.S. taking Israel’s side, they greatly outnumber those taking the opposite, pro-Palestinian position, and they are almost certainly more energized, organized, and interested in the issue than the broad, unmotivated majority. If Americans are asked where their sympathies lie, most will now declare their sympathies to be with the Israelis, but only a fraction of the sympathizers actually want U.S. policy to be the one-sided affair that it is. The good news is that public opinion is broadly in favor of the U.S. taking neither side. The bad news is that a position endorsed by a majority of the public has very little to do with making policy and has minimal representation in Washington, which is why we have a policy towards the conflict that reflects the preferences of no more than 25% of the population.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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