A Gallup poll released on Friday shows Americans’ sympathies for Israel at an all-time high, just days before President Obama makes his first presidential visit to Israel. According to the poll, when asked whether their sympathies were more with the Israelis or the Palestinians in “the Middle East situation,” 64% of responders answered Israelis, and only 12% answered Palestinians; 23% answered both, neither, or no opinion. While sympathy for Israel has stayed above 60% since 2010, the 64% figure recorded in this latest poll represents the highest since during the Gulf War in 1991.
This hardly seems surprising given America’s unconditional financial and diplomatic support for Israel. And yet other polls conducted recently have shown a contrasting trend, with this discrepancy highlighting the need to ask about more than just sympathies.
Conducted between February 7 and 10 this year, the Gallup World Affairs poll has asked this question since 1988 (the poll has generally been conducted annually but frequency increased in the early 2000s). As the graph below indicates, there has been a steady increase in sympathy for Israelis over the past decade, while support for Palestinians has remained relatively flat, before dropping off this year. Meanwhile, the percentage of people with no opinion, or who favor neither side has generally been in decline, although it did pick up this year.
The spike in sympathy for Israel seems in large part to be due to the announcement of Obama’s impending trip to Israel, which came just days before the poll was conducted. This would have meant that it was arguably the thing at the forefront of peoples’ minds regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict when they were asked the question.
When broken down according to political affiliation, the Gallup poll results reveal that support for Israel has increased among Republicans, independents, and Democrats since 2001, particularly amongst the former two. Although support among Republicans has dipped since 2010, at 78% in the most recent poll it is still substantially higher than among independents, 63%, or Democrats, 55%, which is consistent with previous polls.
A further break down shows that support for the Palestinians rises with education levels, and is strongest amongst liberals, while older people and conservatives are more likely to support the Israelis. These variances, however, are relatively minor, with the overall picture being one of much stronger support for Israelis than Palestinians.
Yet interestingly, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (see graph below) conducted between February 20 and 24 this year, which asked a similar question to the Gallup poll (among others), actually found that sympathy for Israel was at its lowest level since 1989. As Adam Horowitz of Mondoweiss points out, the poll was conducted in the wake of the drama surrounding the Chuck Hagel nomination, the headlines about Israeli soldiers’ photos on Instagram, and the publicity surrounding the Oscar-nominated film 5 Broken Cameras. Horowitz goes on to argue that the poll “seems to reflect the general trend we follow here on the site that public perception towards Israel is shifting and the ongoing occupation is eroding American support for the country.”
While it is impossible to say for sure what caused the contrasting results, it seems highly unlikely that the large discrepancy between the two polls is simply due to developments that have occurred between when they were conducted. It is more likely to be due to the general fickleness of polls and their differing methods and respondents.
Depending on which poll you believe, sympathy for Israel is either at a record high or record low. One poll seems to provide vindication to the efforts of the pro-Israel lobby, while the other seems to vindicate those who argue that support for the Israeli occupation is eroding.
But either way, neither poll is likely to have any influence on the Obama administration and neither poll is actually particularly helpful when it comes to developing a detailed picture of how American view the Israel-Palestine conflict; the questions asked are simply too general.
What would be more interesting, and helpful, as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argue, is a poll that asks what Americans think U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine should be. In particular, whether they support America’s policy of unconditional aid and diplomatic backing for Israel. According to past polls, the majority of Americans actually do not support this. That way, we could learn much more about present trends if we asked questions that focused more on policy than on sympathies.