The poll question is faulty because sympathy for Palestinians should not imply hostility to Israel, nor should sympathy for Israel require disregard for the fate of Palestinians. A solution to their conflict enshrining two states for two peoples is the outcome most preferred by Americans regardless of party, and administrations of both parties have sought to help both Israel and the Palestinians achieve their goals in a two-state solution. In fact, as the efforts of President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush attest, successful U.S. mediation of the conflict requires empathy with both sides, and understanding of their narratives.
Despite these realities, though, the strong push in the poll question’s construction is toward dichotomy: Which side are you on? Thus the responses, by design, suggest greater polarization than perhaps exists in reality. In fact, the answers really don’t show us how divided Americans are.
Even if you are among those who find the Pew survey valuable to the extent it shows changes in attitudes over time, it’s important to understand what trend you’re seeing. Looking at the underlying data from the survey responses, we see that 34 percent of this year’s sample identify as independents—more than identify as Republicans (26 percent) or Democrats (33 percent). The gap between independents and Republicans remains large and trending larger, but the independents’ trend tracks the Democratic trend—both moving toward less sympathy with Israel relative to the Palestinians in the conflict between them. That’s the pattern that should worry Israelis, because independents and Democrats together represent more than two-thirds of Americans.
The deeper problem with the poll question is that the results are marketed by Pew, covered by the media, and used by political partisans to indicate American attitudes toward Israel, when what the question measures (albeit badly) is attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This misleading framing reinforces an existing problem: that “Israel” is conflated in the public mind with “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Of course the conflict is a major policy issue for the United States, although arguably less central to U.S. security interests, and less demanding of U.S. policy makers’ time today, than it has been since the 1970s. But we think pro-Israel Republicans and Democrats should agree that the conflict is not, and should not be, the totality of what Israel means to Americans.
The reality of U.S. policy for years has reflected a broader understanding. President Barack Obama, like his predecessors, pushed hard for progress toward a two-state solution—an effort in which one of us was directly involved as U.S. ambassador to Israel. Obama’s push sometimes created tension or disagreements with Israel’s leadership (although he hardly spared the Palestinians the same). At the same time, like other presidents of both parties, he celebrated the shared values at the heart of the U.S.-Israel partnership; encouraged U.S.-Israeli trade, investment, and scientific cooperation; and upheld U.S. commitments to Israel’s security. He won praise from Israeli leaders for increased military assistance, investment in lifesaving missile-defense technologies, and expanded intelligence cooperation to deal with regional threats. And he did all this with strong support from the American public.