December 20, 2016 | By Dina Smeltz

American Views of Israel Reveal Partisan and Generational Divides

By Dina Smeltz and Kelhan Martin

Donald Trump has caused controversy for his stated position to relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Such a move would counter decades of State Department strategy to determine the status of Jerusalem only through peace negotiations. Moreover, Trump’s announced choice for US ambassador to Israel, bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, has drawn criticism for Friedman’s dismissal of a two-state solution and tolerance for Israel’s building settlements in the West Bank. While a majority of Americans would prefer not to take a side in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Republicans are more likely than ever to lean toward siding with Israel, perhaps to counter what they perceive as worsening relations between the US and Israel under President Obama’s tenure.

Most Americans Oppose Taking Sides in Conflict

While other president-elect have pledged relocation before, they soon backtracked on this idea to avoid the appearance of taking a side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Taking an impartial stance on the Israel-Palestinian conflict has aligned with at least a decade of American public opinion. A majority of Americans have consistently said that the United States should not take a side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the latest Chicago Council Survey conducted June 10 - 27, 2016, six in ten (59%) say that the US should not take either side, while three in ten (33%) say the US should take Israel’s side, and a mere four percent favor taking the Palestinian side.

However, Republicans are now more likely than ever to support taking Israel’s side (57% vs. 48% in 2014). This increased support for taking Israel’s side has come at the expense of Republicans who support taking no side in the conflict: since last asked in the 2014 Survey, Republicans have become nine percentage points less likely to favor taking no side (38% vs. 47% in 2014). There have not been any significant shifts in the views of Democrats and Independents on this question.

Republicans Perceive Worsening US-Israel Ties

Republicans could be expressing increased sympathy toward Israel in response to the strained relations between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu leading up to and after the US signing of the Iran nuclear deal (the Israeli government has repeatedly denounced the accord). A majority (52%) of Republicans believe that relations between the United States with Israel are worsening, while a plurality overall and among Democrats and Independents think relations are staying the same. In addition to this finding, the 2016 Council Survey showed that a majority of Republicans oppose the Iran deal while Democrats and Independents tend to support it (Republican 52% oppose; Democrat 22% oppose; Independent 39% oppose). 

Despite the partisan differences on taking a side and on the status of bilateral relations, overall trends from Chicago Council Survey data indicate that the relationship between the United States and Israel will continue to be viewed warmly by the American public, much as they have over the past four decades of Chicago Council polling. In 2016, on a “feeling” thermometer with a 0-100 scale, with 100 being the warmest, Americans rated Israel 58°. This reading was the fourth highest registered of nations included in the survey, preceded by Canada (81°), Australia (77°), and Japan (63°). Although all partisan groups expressed a warm view toward Israel, as has been the case in past surveys, Republicans have the warmest view (Republican 65°; Democrat 53°; Independent 58°).

As Dina wrote earlier this year in the Washington Post's Monkey Cage, despite remaining favorable toward Israel, many Democrats are critical of Israeli policy and continue to support the creation of an Independent Palestinian state (while Republicans tend to oppose a two-state solution). The 2016 Survey shows that while seven in ten Republicans (68%) believe Israel is playing a positive role in resolving key problems facing the Middle East, half of Democrats (50%) believe Israel is playing a negative role. 

A Generational Divide

Another divide in the overall feeling towards Israel to have historically emerged is that of an age gap. From 1978 through the mid-2000’s attitudes towards Israel were relatively comparable and stable across all age groups. However, by 2008 generational impressions became increasingly discernable, whereby the elderly feel considerably warmer than youths towards Israel. Today a 14° gap exists between those aged 18-29 and those over 60.

The 2016 Chicago Council Survey reveals consistent age differences of opinion on Israel, whereby the elderly are more sympathetic than youths. For example, 18-29 year olds are 20 percentage points less likely than those over 60 to say that the United States should take Israel’s side (18-29, 26%; 60+, 46%), with younger Americans instead favoring no side. Those over 60 years old are also seven percentage points more like than those aged 18-29 to say that Israel is playing a positive role in the Middle East (18-29, 50%; 60+, 57%). 

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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