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June 01, 2011 Edition 12

American public opinion and the Middle East peace process
John Zogby

Zogby International has been polling American opinion on the Arab-Israel dispute and the path to peace since the early 1990s. This is the one foreign policy issue that engages Americans, and policymakers would be wise to listen to the public. The overall responses point to a fundamental sense of fairness and balance and the trend lines offer more hope than the headlines suggest.

Articles in this edition
American public opinion and the Middle East peace process - John Zogby
The real issue is political leadership - David Pollock
Consistent support - Ghassan Khatib
The iron wall - Tamar Hermann
In our March 2010 poll, commissioned by the Arab American Institute, when asked whether they agreed with the proposition that "both Israelis and Palestinians are entitled to equal rights," 84 percent of Americans agreed. And by a margin of 67 percent to 17 percent, Americans continued to support the notion that "there should be an independent Palestinian state."

A plurality agreed that Palestinians should be guaranteed "the right of return". Similarly, a plurality agreed that Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land in the West Bank "should be torn down and the land returned" to the Palestinians. And on the sensitive issue of Jerusalem, Americans are evenly divided as to whether the city should be partitioned or remain under Israeli control. Further, when asked straight out, "Should the US government get tough with Israel?"--a slight plurality agreed. And when we posed whether "US support for Israel makes the US more or less respected in the world," 44 percent responded "less respected", as opposed to only 13 percent who felt that support for Israel made the US "more respected".

What should the president and administration do about Israel's settlement policies? Half said "get tough with Israel and attempt to stop the expansion," while only 19 percent said that the US should "do nothing and allow the settlements to continue". (The remaining 31 percent were not sure.)

Similarly, in a separate poll of American Jews and Arabs, 80 percent of those surveyed in both communities agree with the finding of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group that "the United States will not be able to achieve goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict." In addition, 70 percent of American Jews and 82 percent of Arab-Americans voiced support for the Arab Peace Initiative as the "basis for negotiations".

While there were some areas of bipartisan agreement, on most critical issues we have seen a deep partisan divide. This divide has serious consequences for US policy and explains in many ways why President Barack Obama's recent speech on renewing the Middle East peace process will help his re-election efforts in 2012. In 2008, Obama won the presidency with an historic coalition of key demographic groups--young voters, African Americans, Hispanics and moderate suburbanites. These groups, all growing in numbers within the electorate, tend to favor a more balanced view of the conflict and the peace process.

Americans support Israel. But, are the interests of the two countries identical, and does its support for Israel strengthen or weaken the US? Three-quarters of voters who supported Republican candidate John McCain's election in 2008 believe that the interests of the US and Israel are identical. Nearly as many believe that the US is strengthened by its support of Israel.

Obama voters, however, strongly disagree with both propositions, with more than one half disagreeing that the interests of the two countries are the same. Similarly, half of Obama voters believe the US is weakened by its support for Israel, with only one in five seeing the US as strengthened. Do you believe that US support for Israel strengthens the US? Overall, 45 percent said it strengthens it and 32 percent said it weakens the US. But Democrats split between 24 percent strengthens, 45 percent weakens, while 72 percent of Republicans said US support for Israel strengthens the US and only 14 percent said it weakens it. Young voters split 29 percent to 40 percent.

When asked which is more important to the US--relations with Israel, the Arabs, or both--only seven percent of Obama voters say Israel, 17 percent say the Arabs, and 68 percent say both. On the other hand, 46 percent of McCain voters say that the US relationship with Israel is most important, only three percent emphasize relations with the Arabs, while 48 percent say both.

Predictably, McCain voters saw former President George W. Bush as an honest broker (by an 84 percent-eight percent margin). Obama voters disagreed by an equally overwhelming margin. But what should President Obama do? When asked, 73 percent of those who voted for President Obama said he should "steer a middle course", with only ten percent saying he should support Israel and six percent saying support the Palestinians. Wildly different responses came from the McCain voters, 60 percent of whom say the current president should support Israel! Only 22 percent of McCain supporters say the president should be balanced in his approach to the conflict.

Engage with Hamas? By a 67 percent-16 percent margin Obama voters said yes, while 79 percent of McCain voters say no. And should the US get tough with Israel? Eighty percent of Obama voters offered that it is time to get tough, with 73 percent of McCain voters disagreeing--including 66 percent of Democrats saying time to get tough and 74 percent of Republicans disagreeing.

On final status issues: do Palestinians have the right of return? Obama voters agreed they do by a margin of 61 percent-13 percent, while McCain voters disagreed, 21 percent-51 percent. On Jerusalem, Obama voters prefer the "divided" and "two capitals" option with McCain voters overwhelmingly supporting Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.

Similarly, a majority of Obama voters believe Israel should be made to remove its settlements from occupied Palestinian lands, while a majority of McCain voters believe the settlements should stay.

The depth of this partisan divide is instructive on many levels. In fact, as the two parties have evolved over the past 30 years, and as the issue itself has evolved--since the Oslo agreements--the two parties have moved in different directions.

By a margin of 40 percent-34 percent, Americans say Israel's settlements in occupied territories are wrong. By a margin of 40 percent-26 percent, Americans say the president should get tough with Israel to stop settlements. And, 51 percent worry that when the US is unable to stop Israeli settlements it weakens the stature of the US in the world.

While these numbers show both Democrats and independents in support of a tougher US stance, two observations must be made.

First, there is the presence here of a deep partisan divide, with two-thirds of Democrats opposed to Israeli policies compared to two-thirds of Republicans in support of whatever Israel does. The partisan split is not merely a function of leadership, it is also demographics. The pro-Israel bent of the Republican side is largely due to the preponderance of Christian fundamentalists in its coalition, while the Democratic side is increasingly made up of young voters (America's "First Global Citizens"), women and minorities (African Americans, Hispanics and Asians-who together form about one-third of the US electorate). They are also more inclined to consider a broader view of international issues.-Published 1/6/2011 © bitterlemons-api.org

John Zogby, an independent pollster, is chairman and chief insights officer of Zogby International Research, and author of "The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream" (Random House).
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