By Shibley Telhami
Previous polls have shown a wide gap between Democratic Party constituents, on the one hand, and the positions of elected congressional Democrats and the Biden administration, on the other, regarding U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As our new University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll shows, this includes a split on the question of boycotting Israel. But is the public aware of the gap? And does it matter for electoral politics?
In a May 2022 Critical Issues Poll of 2,091 respondents, fielded by Nielsen Scarborough, we asked how respondents perceived the position of the Biden administration on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, compared to their own. Not surprisingly, a little over half (54%) didn’t know. But most Democrats who expressed an opinion said that the administration’s positions leaned toward Israel more than their own, while most Republicans said the Biden administration was leaning more toward Palestine than they were. Overall, 44% of Republicans said the administration was leaning more toward Palestine, and 9% said it was leaning more toward Israel, while 26% of Democrats said the Biden team was leaning more toward Israel, and 3% said it was leaning more toward Palestine.
Similarly, we asked about the positions of the respondents’ elected congressional representatives. Here too, a majority, 56%, said “don’t know,” but a majority of those who expressed opinions said their representatives were leaning toward Israel more than they were personally. Strikingly, about half of Republicans — who have been shown on average to express strongly pro-Israel views — with an opinion (23%) said their representative were leaning more toward Israel than they were. Only 15% said the representatives leaned more toward the Palestinians (15%). Among Democrats who had an opinion, 33% said their representatives were leaning toward Israel more than they were, while 3% said their representatives were leaning more toward the Palestinians.
Attitudes toward the BDS movement
Our poll also found that two-thirds of Democrats wanted the United States to lean neither toward Israel, nor toward the Palestinians; among those who wanted the U.S. to take sides, more Democrats, especially young Democrats, wanted the U.S. to take the side of the Palestinians than Israel’s. One of the most controversial issues in American political discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been the question of boycotts of Israel, especially the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement. We sought to probe attitudes on this issue.
Recent polls about BDS have been consistent: A large majority of Americans have not heard of BDS. Among the minority of those who have heard of it, more Republicans oppose it than support it, while more Democrats support it than oppose it.
In our newest Critical Issues Poll conducted June 22-28, 2022 among 2,208 respondents, we asked a single question about BDS to all participants, without probing first to see who had heard of it and who had not, while providing respondents with the option of “don’t know.” In fact, that is typical of polling in general, as one assumes that those who don’t know about the issue would be provided the option of “I don’t know.” The possible advantage of asking everyone is that the answers may give additional hints about the direction of opinion. For example, even someone who had not heard of the movement may surmise from the question that BDS is likely about boycotting Israel and provide an instinctive answer. To test this idea, we asked: “What is your position, if you have one, on the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement aimed at Israel?”
The answers were telling. Only 34% said they didn’t know, while another 18% said they neither supported or opposed BDS. Nearly half provided supportive or opposing opinions. The breakdown along party lines was similar: 50% of Republicans strongly or somewhat opposed BDS, while 9% supported it; at the same time, 33% of Democrats supported BDS while 10% opposed it.
A month earlier, in our May poll, we had followed a different approach, similar to that of the Pew Research Center in a poll fielded in March and released in May, with similar results. Though the questions and categories were not identical, allowing for exact comparisons, they were close enough to suggest similar trends. Like Pew, we first asked respondents if they had heard of BDS: “How much have you heard about BDS, or the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement aimed at Israel?” We then asked only those who said they had heard of it at least “a little” about their opinion: “Based on what you have heard, do you support or oppose BDS, or the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement?”
We too found that a large number, 70%, had not heard of BDS. Measured attitudes also reflected similar trends: Among those who had heard of BDS, more Republicans, 77% (strongly or somewhat), opposed it than supported it, 5%; while more Democrats, 43%, supported it than opposed it, 15%.
In short, different polls, with varying methodologies, have been consistent in suggesting that, while large numbers of Americans have not heard of BDS, far more Republicans oppose it than support it, and far more Democrats support it than oppose it.
Americans strongly oppose laws criminalizing boycotts of Israel
Regardless of whether they support or oppose boycotts of Israel, do Americans support laws criminalizing the boycott of Israel? This question has become especially relevant as a number of American states have passed laws doing just that. Some of these actions have been challenged in court, and one case is on its way to the Supreme Court. But how do Americans feel?
In our May poll, we fielded the following question: “regardless of whether you personally support or oppose the boycott of Israel. Which of the following is closer to your view?
- We should SUPPORT laws that penalize people who boycott Israel
- We should OPPOSE laws that penalize people who boycott Israel
The results were striking: Two-thirds of Americans — including 52% of Republicans, 82% of Democrats, and 74% of independents — oppose such laws, while 32% support them.
On this issue, the Biden administration does not deviate much from the public sentiment as it has said that, while it opposes boycotting Israel and would oppose BDS efforts in Congress, it supports the right of Americans to do so. Internationally, however, the administration has taken a more aggressive posture, where it has vowed to “combat all efforts to boycott or de-legitimize Israel,” including at the level of the United Nations.
Whatever the causes, the gap on Israel/Palestine between the public and elected congressional officials remains high but had somewhat narrowed after the 2018 and 2020 elections that resulted in the election of a few members of Congress who appeared more reflective of Democratic public opinion on this issue. In Democratic politics, the relevant arena on this issue is the primaries, given that Republicans overwhelmingly favor Israel, and even Democratic voters strongly supportive of Israel are unlikely to vote for a Republican candidate in the general election if the Democratic contender’s position on Israel/Palestine does not match their own. This may explain why the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has been spending millions of dollars in the current primary cycle to defeat candidates deemed not sufficiently pro-Israel, while working to elect others who are. And given that the Democratic public wants the U.S. to be more even-handed on Israel/Palestine, in most cases, the pro-Israel super PACs playing in these races don’t mention the rationale in their mission or ads.
The gap between the Biden administration and the Democratic public on Israel/Palestine remains wide — and the public perceives it. The Israel-Palestinian issue is not currently a priority in American politics. Even priority foreign policy issues, such as the Russia-Ukraine war, have been shown to have little impact on the American partisan divide. But that does not mean that these issues have no consequence for the popularity of the administration. It is notable that in an era of deep political polarization, much of the drop in President Joe Biden’s popularity since spring 2021 has come from Democrats. Sure, most Democrats will not vote for a Republican opponent, even if they are not excited about the president. But the extent to which they see the president’s values and policies as corresponding to or conflicting with their own matters for the degree to which they are energized. And the overall drop in popularity consequently impacts the evaluations of non-Democrats. As I noted after the May 2021 Gaza war, Biden’s decidedly pro-Israel position was at odds with his Democratic constituents, many of whom disapproved of his handling of the issue. The simultaneous drop in his popularity came mostly from Democrats (as did the recent drop). There are many reasons for the drop in popularity, most of which have little to do with foreign policy. But Biden’s divergence from his Democratic constituents on Israel/Palestine surely won’t help.