August 7, 2014 | By Dina Smeltz, Craig Kafura

Americans Prefer Neutrality in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Chicago Council Survey results from May, before the recent outbreak of fighting in Gaza, show that Americans did not see the lack of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to be a critical threat to the vital interests of the United States. A solid majority continued to want the United States to remain neutral in the conflict, even though their sympathies tended to lie more with Israel than the Palestinian Authority.

Americans opt for neutrality

Over the last decade of Chicago Council Surveys, a majority of Americans have consistently advocated for a neutral approach to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Chicago Council results from May 2014 found that six in ten (64%) said the United States should not take either side, while three in ten (30%) favored taking Israel’s side (3% favored the Palestinians’ side).

While these recent data were collected prior to the June kidnappings that sparked outbreak of fighting in July, previous data suggest that these incidents would most likely not have a dramatic effect on Americans’ preference for the United States to stay neutral. For example, results from the identical question in a 2000 Gallup Poll fielded just prior to the beginning of the Second Intifada found that a majority said the United States should not take either side. Two years later, the 2002 Chicago Council Survey found a majority continued to prefer that the United States remain neutral, just after an outbreak of fighting in Jenin and an extended standoff at the Church of the Nativity. And in 2010, a year after Operation Cast Lead in Gaza ended in Israeli forces declaring a unilateral ceasefire, a majority of Americans continued to support not taking either side in the conflict.

Americans feel warmer toward Israel than the Palestinian Authority

Americans continue to feel warmly towards Israel, rating it an average of 59 on a 0-100 scale. In 2014, this rating places Israel just above Brazil (58) and just below France (61). But American attitudes on current Israeli actions are mixed. A July 22-23 Gallup poll shows the US public is divided over whether Israel’s actions against Hamas are justified (42%) or not justified (39%). Americans are cooler in their feelings towards the Palestinian Authority, giving it a 33 out of 100. Comparatively, the Palestinian Authority is viewed slightly more favorably than Iraq (31) and slightly less favorably than Russia (36).

Support for meeting; talking with Hamas

According to the July 22-23 Gallup poll, a solid majority of Americans consider Hamas’ actions unjustified (70%, vs. 11% justified). But Americans do not want to close the door on dialogue with Hamas. A bare majority of Americans (50%) continue to say that US leaders should be ready to meet and talk with leaders of Hamas (46% oppose doing so). This has been a consistent finding in Chicago Council Surveys over the last six years, and reflects the public’s general preference for diplomatic engagement, even with hostile nations or groups.

Half willing to send US troops as part of a peacekeeping mission if a peace agreement reached

Relative to other threats to US national security, the lack of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is not considered a critical threat (26% critical). A majority (53%) label it as an ‘important, but not critical, threat.’ But if a hypothetical peace agreement is reached, half of Americans are willing to send US troops to be part of an international peacekeeping force to enforce a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians (50%; 49% oppose). Americans are only slightly less supportive of using US troops to defend Israel in the event of an attack by its neighbors, with 45 percent of the public in favor. Finally, in the event that Israel bombs Iran’s nuclear facilities and Iran were to retaliate against Israel, four in ten Americans (43%) support the use of US troops.

Support for economic, military aid to Israel

Reflecting the generally positive view Americans have of Israel, a plurality of Americans support maintaining both economic and military aid to Israel. An additional one in ten support increasing economic and military aid to Israel, while about two in ten want to decrease or end that aid. This is unique among nations in the Middle East: support for aid to nearby Egypt and Iraq has declined in recent years.

Partisan divides on the Middle East conflict  

As in past Chicago Council Surveys, self-described Republicans tend to express more positive views toward Israel than other partisans. Though supporters of all three political groupings view Israel quite favorably, Republicans ratings of Israel are highest. In addition, Republicans (49%) are more likely than Democrats (17%) or Independents (30%) to say that the United States should take Israel’s side in the conflict – though Republicans themselves are divided (47% say the US should take neither side). By contrast, solid majorities of Democrats (76%) and Independents (60%) prefer that the United States stay neutral in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

When it comes to using US troops, Republicans are more likely to favor coming to Israel’s aid in a military confrontation with its neighbors or with Iran. As in other peacekeeping scenarios, Democrats are more likely to support using US troops as part of an international peacekeeping mission to enforce a peace agreement between the two sides.

Younger Americans less pro-Israel

Chicago Council Surveys conducted over the past 40 years show that an interesting age gap has emerged in overall impressions of Israel. From 1978 to the early 2000s, attitudes towards Israel across age divisions were fairly similar. But by 2008, these views became more differentiated: younger Americans (between the ages of 18 and 29) now feel significantly less favorably about Israel than do Americans over the age of 60. As the figure below shows, the gap today between the oldest and youngest Americans is at its widest ever. This is due primarily to an increase in favorability among older Americans, and secondarily to declining favorability among younger Americans. 

Older Americans are also more likely to support taking Israel’s side in the conflict. While majorities of all age groups prefer taking a neutral position, four in ten (42%) of Americans age 60 or older are more likely than other age groups to support the US taking Israel’s side (42%, compared to 29% among those 45-59 and 25% among those 30-44 and 18-29).  

  

About

Dina Smeltz joined The Chicago Council on Global Affairs in February 2012 as a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy, and directed the Council’s 2012 survey of American public opinion (see Foreign Policy in the New Millennium).  She has nearly 20 years of experience in designing and fielding international social, political and foreign policy surveys.

As the director of research in the Middle East and South Asia division (2001-2007) and analyst/director of the European division (1992-2004) in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department’s Office of Research, Dina conducted over a hundred surveys in these regions and regularly briefed senior government officials on key research findings. Her experience includes mass public and elite surveys as well as qualitative research.  She has written numerous policy-relevant reports on Arab, Muslim and South Asian regional attitudes toward political, economic, social and foreign policy issues.  Her writing also includes policy briefs and reports on the post-1989 political transitions in Central and Eastern Europe, and European attitudes toward a wide range foreign policy issues including globalization, European integration, immigration, NATO, and European security.

With a special emphasis research in post-conflict situations (informally referred to as a “combat pollster”), Dina has worked with research teams in Bosnia, Kosovo, Cyprus, Israel-Palestinian Territories and in Iraq (2003-2005), where she was one of the few people on the ground who could accurately report average Iraqis impressions of the postwar situation.  In the past three years, Dina has consulted for several NGOs and research organizations on projects spanning women’s development in Afghanistan, civil society in Egypt and evaluating voter education efforts in Iraq.

Dina has an MA from the University of Michigan and a BS from Pennsylvania State University.

Feel free to email Dina with comments or questions at dsmeltz@thechicagocouncil.org

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