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Did Netanyahu’s visit divide American opinion on Israel? These are the facts.

- November 9, 2015

Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf has written that “the U.S.-Israel relationship is in the worst shape we’ve ever seen it.” Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel seemed to place more blame on the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying that, “on the way to his election victory, Netanyahu broke a lot of crockery in the [U.S.-Israel] relationship.” On the other hand, Jennifer Rubin claimed that “Obama has the most acrimonious relationship with Israel of any President in U.S. history.”

That’s the background as President Obama hosts Netanyahu at the White House, Monday, Nov. 9. This will be their first meeting since the nuclear agreement with Iran was announced in July.

Netanyahu was last in D.C. on March 3 to address a joint session of Congress at the invitation of then House Speaker John Boehner. President Obama chose not to meet with the Israeli prime minister, formally citing a long-standing precedent to avoid meeting with foreign leaders close to their national elections. Israel’s elections were held two weeks later, on March 17.

Netanyahu’s speech — a forceful objection to the nuclear deal — failed to scuttle the agreement. But many observers have suggested that the visit and speech were in fact successful at something unintended: fraying the bipartisan nature of U.S.-Israeli relations. Several administration officials publicly criticized both the Israeli prime minister’s speech and visit. Dozens of Democratic lawmakers boycotted the joint Congressional session when Netanyahu spoke.

Some have speculated that public opinion hit record levels of partisanship on support for Israel. Citing Pew findings, a Bloomberg article based on its own polling stated that:

Israel has become a deeply partisan issue for ordinary Americans as well as for politicians in Washington, a shift that may represent a watershed moment in foreign policy and carry implications for domestic politics after decades of general bipartisan consensus.

Similarly, The Washington Times ran a piece leading with “Partisan Enthusiasm Gap Emerges over US alliance with Israel.” And The Times of Israel reported that the partisan gap on American support for Israel is the largest in 40 years.

But is that true? Not exactly. In reality, attitudes are, in the words of the Talking Heads, same as it ever was. Survey trends show Americans’ favorable views of Israel have not been much affected by these recent events. Some partisan differences exist, but those partisan divides have been there for some time. The differences have more to do with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians than with Netanyahu’s visit.

Overall, Americans support Israel

Overall, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ surveys find that Americans tend to view Israel favorably (giving Israel an average of 59 out of a possible 100 favorability rating), on par with their feelings toward France (61 out of 100). There is a partisan hue to American feelings, as the figure below shows.

But in fact, favorable views of Israel actually rose across the political spectrum when last asked this question in 2014.

Republicans are more likely to give a higher average rating to Israel than Democrats. In part, this can be explained by Republicans’ priorities on military strength and national security, which align with Netanyahu’s security-first approach toward Israel’s foreign policy. It may also reflect Republicans’ greater sense of threat from Islamic fundamentalism compared with Democrats, viewing Israel as an ally in a volatile region. That would help to explain why Republicans expressed more favorable views of Israel even before Netanyahu’s tenure.

SMELTZ Views of Israel by PID

The Chicago Council’s senior fellow Phil Levy has also suggested that Republicans’ higher support for Israel might be linked to a desire among Republicans for an American leader with qualities more like Netanyahu’s — forceful, principled, tough.

That might be one way to interpret an April 2015 Bloomberg Politics survey in which two in three Republicans said that in the recent ‘clashes’ between Netanyahu and Obama, they were more sympathetic to Netanyahu than to President Obama. (Note that an overall plurality of Americans, and a majority of Democrats, said they were more sympathetic to Obama). But these attitudes refer to Netanyahu himself, not to Israel as an ally or as a government.

A majority of Americans support using U.S. troops to defend Israel

If Israel were attacked by its neighbors, a majority of Americans (53 percent) would support using U.S. troops to defend Israel. In part because Republicans are generally more willing to use military force, Republicans are most likely to support using U.S. troops for this purpose (the breakdown was 67 percent of Republicans, 49 percent of Democrats, and 46 percent of independents).

But in fact, support for using U.S. troops to defend Israel is currently at the highest level recorded among all three groups: Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

Republicans and Democrats have different views toward the Palestinians

While overall favorability toward and support for defending Israel are stable over time, there are large partisan differences in the Chicago Council Survey on questions concerning Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians and in the region.

But at least on the possibility of creating a Palestinian state, attitudes have been widening for some time.

Many of the headlines about widening partisan divides were based on questions that pit sympathy for Israel against sympathy for the Palestinians. Pew surveys show in this case, Republicans (73 percent) have become more sympathetic than Democrats to Israel (44 percent).

But a more recent formulation of the question in a 2015 Pew Survey shows that a plurality of Democrats say they sympathize with both sides (42 percent). While a third of Republicans also sympathize with both sides, a plurality (47 percent) say they take Israel’s side. In either case, this question is specific to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which is related but separate from overall support for Israel.

Support for a two-state solution runs along similar partisan fault lines. Chicago Council trends show that until 2003, Americans across the political spectrum were fairly divided on whether they supported or opposed “an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

But in 2003, a majority of both Republicans and Democrats favored the creation of an independent Palestinian state in 2003, when President George W. Bush was attempting to persuade the Israelis and Palestinians to support to the road map to peace.

That was the only year survey results found Republican support; since then Republicans have consistently opposed a two-state solution, while Democrats have consistently supported it.

Perhaps because of their support for a two-state solution and a lack of progress toward that goal, Democrats may be more critical of Israel’s role in the region. While overall, Americans were evenly divided, a majority of Democrats said Israel plays a negative role in resolving problems in the Middle East (54 percent vs. 41 percent positive). In contrast, a majority of Republicans said that Israel plays a positive role (61 percent vs. 34 percent negative).

SMELTZ Support for Palestinian State by PID

These data demonstrate the risk of conflating criticisms of Israeli policies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the creation of a Palestinian state — or Israeli treatment of the Palestinians or Israeli settlement policies — with views considered “anti-Israel.” While Democrats are critical of Israel’s regional policies and favor a two-state solution, these preferences do not, in fact, run counter to their overall support for Israel.

Regarding partisanship among the public in support for Israel, there are some differences between Democrats and Republicans on the depth of their support. But when placed into context over time, these differences are neither revelatory nor unique to the tenures of Netanyahu or Obama.

Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.