Love, True Love, and Statistics
The depth of sympathy for the Jewish state among ordinary Americans ought to be cause for positive amazement. In stark contrast to strikingly negative European attitudes, a far-reaching CNN poll released on May 31 presents an uplifting picture of American public opinion toward Israel: 65 percent of those surveyed had a generally favorable attitude. Equally heartening is a recent Rasmussen poll, according to which 71 percent of Americans want the Palestinian Arabs to acknowledge Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. The persistently critical media coverage of Israel's West Bank, settlement, and security policies notwithstanding, ordinary Americans are sensitive to Israel's predicaments, grieve for its losses, and celebrate its flourishing presence in the Middle East.
In general, attitudes on foreign affairs tend to be malleable, shaped—rather than followed—by opinion "mobilizers" in the government, media, and academe. Plainly, there is a connection between media coverage and popular interest. But whether it's interested or not, the American public is fed a heavy diet of news about the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the last week of May, for example, a whopping 10 percent of all coverage was Mideast-related—compared to 12 percent for the troubled U.S. economy. No surprise then that nearly 18 percent of Americans say they follow the Arab-Israel conflict "very closely." That's only 2 percent less than those who say they are tracking the 2012 presidential election campaign.
Positive attitudes toward Israel have held steady through the second intifada, which began in 2000, and the subsequent wars in Lebanon and Gaza. The figures are also strikingly higher than in past surveys: in 1988, only 37 percent said their sympathies were with Israel, compared with today's 65 percent. This increased level of support tracks roughly the same across educational background, income, and political affiliation. To be sure, backing among those who define themselves as politically conservative is more robust, and we also know that there is a wellspring of support for Israel among religiously conservative Christians.
In light of all this, it may seem surprising that, whatever their sympathies, most Americans would still rather Washington not take sides at all. This reflects an always present and now growing trend in favor of U.S. isolationism in world affairs. Further, despite near-saturation coverage, American ignorance about the Arab-Israeli conflict remains deep-seated. A survey conducted by the Arab-American pollster John Zogby, for example, found "a plurality" favoring the so-called Palestinian "right of return" to what is today Israel—a suicidal concession that no serious policymaker of any persuasion expects Israel to make. Yet even here there are unexpected twists. In the Rasmussen survey, 87 percent of "mainstream" (that is, presumably less knowledgeable) respondents thought the prospect of peace unlikely—while of the supposedly savvy "political class," 51 percent were rosily optimistic.
As for the American Jewish community in particular, Israel still enjoys a strong column of support. Despite intensified campaigns by groups within the Jewish community to redefine the essence of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Survey of American Jewish Opinion shows that fully 75 percent of American Jews recognize that the ultimate Arab goal is the destruction of Israel. Similarly, according to a recent Frank Luntz poll, a solid majority of American Jews support a united Jerusalem under Israeli jurisdiction.
The Luntz survey underscores the liberal affiliation of the Jewish community. Politically, Democrats and independents far outnumber Republicans (now at 15 percent). Still, almost 60 percent approve of the Netanyahu government's handling of relations with Washington, and a massive 85 percent think that under Obama, U.S.-Israel relations are not going well. Religiously, too, the community is heavily identified with the liberal streams of Judaism (52 percent), with only 10 percent identifying as Orthodox. Yet once again, in spite of entrenched liberalism, only 15 percent say that Israel is not very important in their lives.
What does all this add up to? When it comes to the seemingly perpetual Palestinian war against Israel, rank-and-file Americans may have only a rough sense of the complexities, yet they display an innate appreciation for the justice of Israel's cause. Israelis can only view this as providential. George Marshall, the U.S. Secretary of State in the late 1940s, observed that "no policy—foreign or domestic—can succeed without public support." Despite Marshall's own efforts—he strongly opposed American recognition of the Jewish state—Israel had that public support then, and has it today. Given their diplomatic, financial, and military dependence on the continued goodwill of the American people, it behooves Israeli policymakers to acknowledge and appreciate this miraculous fact—and never to take it for granted.
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