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U.S. Public Opinion on Israel and Palestine

Americans that have grown up in the last three decades know Israel only as a nuclear-armed occupying power.

Damon Linker comments on the findings of a new Pew survey of public opinion on Israel and Palestine:

But the consistency of the aggregate numbers conceals a chasm opening up beneath the surface, with Republicans and Democrats moving in polar-opposite directions. Where 49 percent of Republicans sided with Israel in 1978, an astounding 79 percent do now. The percentage of Democrats supporting Israel, meanwhile, has fallen from 44 to 27 percent.

What was once a mere five percentage-point difference between the parties over support for Israel is now a 52-point rift.

The growing partisan divide on this question is important, but what stands out to me more is how low the overall “pro-Israel” number is in light of the near-unanimous backing for Israel in the conflict among our political leaders and pundits. Despite decades of overwhelmingly one-sided reporting and commentary on the conflict in favor of Israel, less than half of Americans (46%) sympathize more with that side than the other. If the bipartisan Congressional consensus in favor of Israel were simply the product of popular sentiment, as “pro-Israel” hawks often claim, we should expect public sympathy for the Israeli side to be much higher than it is.

Another significant detail from the survey is the large gap between younger and older Americans on this question. Among Americans 65 and older, 56% say they sympathize more with Israel vs. 13% who sympathize with the Palestinians more, but for Americans 18-29 years old the result is 32-23%. The 43-point margin among older Americans shrinks to just 9 points in the youngest cohort. As Linker notes in his remarks on internal Democratic divisions, that suggests that there is going to be far more dissension and disagreement on these issues as time goes by. Americans that have grown up in the last three decades know Israel only as a nuclear-armed occupying power that periodically bombs its neighbors, and it is only natural that they would have a greater diversity of opinion on the relevant issues and would be more inclined to question unstinting U.S. support. This an issue on which there has long been far too much “common ground and consensus,” and it would be a sign that our foreign policy debates are getting a little healthier if there were some vigorous disagreement about it instead.