Despite a flood of wrenching images and graphic reports on the suffering of Palestinian civilians, a majority of Americans side with Israel in its assault on densely populated Gaza. So say polls taken since the July 8 start of a campaign that is denting the image of Israel in much of the world. The polls, one commissioned by CNN and one conducted by the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank, were the latest in a line of surveys going back almost five decades. While overall support for Israel has fluctuated, the American public has consistently favored Israel over the Palestinians by sizeable margins.
If history is a guide, that preference is unlikely to change no matter how lopsided the death toll, no matter how many Gazans are bombed out of their homes, and no matter how many world leaders call for restraint.
According to CNN’s director of polling, Keating Holland, American attitudes toward Israeli military actions have been “extremely stable” over the years. In the latest poll, 57 percent of the public said Israeli military actions against Hamas were justified. That was the same percentage as in 2012, when Israel launched an operation against Hamas. In the 2009 war between Israel and Hamas, the American level of support was even higher – 63 percent.
Going back to 1967 War in which Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza, a Gallup poll showed 56 percent in sympathy with Israel and a mere 4 percent with the Arab countries it fought. The lowest level of support recorded by Gallup polls was in 1982, when Israeli troops stood by as their Christian Lebanese militia allies slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the Beirut refugee camps Sabra and Shatila. Thirty-eight percent of Americans expressed support for Israel at the time, 28 for the Palestinians.
The lowest level of sympathy for Palestinians was recorded in September 2001 when the murderous attacks on New York and Washington turned all Arabs into terrorists in the mind of many Americans. (Fifteen of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, two from the “United Arab Republic” and one each from Lebanon and Egypt).
Through the first week of Israeli airstrikes on targets in densely populated Gaza in July, Pew polled American attitudes toward Israel and the Palestinians and found 51 percent sympathize with Israel, 14 percent with the Palestinians. When that survey was published, the Palestinian death toll stood at 220, Israel’s at one. By the time the CNN poll came out, on July 22, the toll was 635 Palestinians and 38 Israelis.
The American public’s pro-Israel sympathies have been matched, through wars and crises, by American leaders. On day 17 of the latest Gaza conflict, all 100 U.S. Senators voted for a resolution that condemned Hamas for firing rockets into Israel and reaffirmed its right to self-defense. The senators clearly were in no mood to call for an end to the bloodshed or express compassion for the people of Gaza.
Analysts cite a variety of reasons for generations of American support for Israel, from the notion of “shared values” with the only democracy in the Middle East to the influence of a powerful pro-Israel lobby. The phrase “unshakeable bond” with Israel part of every American politician’s vocabulary, from the president down.
Still, a close reading of the poll suggests that demographics and cracks in bipartisan support could eventually result in a less partial attitude. The Pew Research Center found a generational gap in attitudes of young Americans (aged 18 to 29) and those over 50. Among the young, the sympathy gap is 44 to 22 percent. Among the older crowd: 60 to 9. Seventy-three percent of Republicans sympathize with Israel, compared with 44 percent of Democrats – the widest gap in 40 years.
“Young Americans grew up knowing Israel only as a superpower,” said Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute. “They have not embraced the story of ‘poor little Israel’ in need of help.”
In contrast, older Americans grew up with the heroic picture of Israel portrayed in the novel “Exodus” by Leon Uris, a book first published in 1958 and described by Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion as “the best piece of propaganda ever written about Israel.” In the book, most Arabs figure as savages.
But Israel’s good versus evil version of events in Gaza still falls on receptive ears. The Israeli ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, won warm applause from 4,000 evangelical Christians and Jews at a Washington conference on July 22 by saying that “the Israeli Defense Forces should be given the Nobel Peace Prize ... a Nobel Peace Prize for fighting with unimaginable restraint.”
For anyone not squarely in the Israel-right-or-wrong camp, that suggestion is difficult to reconcile with searing pictures and videos from Gaza, such as the clip of four young boys being killed by Israeli missiles as they were running on a beach. It went viral on social media but apparently had not much impact on American public opinion – the poll that showed 57 percent support for Israeli military actions was taken after the beach incident.
Bernd Debusmann is a former Reuters world affairs columnist. This article was written for The Daily Star.