The annual AIPAC conference now taking place in Washington is the year’s flagship display of American support for Israel, so it’s an appropriate time to consider the roots of this support. To that end, a recent Gallup poll offers some strikingly counterintuitive data: In contrast to the conventional wisdom, which holds that support for Israel depends on its willingness to pursue peace with the Palestinians, it turns out that support for Israel has historically been lowest precisely when it pursues peace most vigorously.
The Gallup data includes a graph displaying 25 years of responses, from 1988 through 2012, to the question of whether Americans’ sympathies lie more with Israel or the Palestinians. It turns out the all-time peak for pro-Israel sympathies, 64 percent, was hit in 1991 – two years before the Oslo Accord was signed. Granted, that was the year of the Gulf War, when Palestinians outraged Americans by backing Saddam Hussein. But it was also the era of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who flatly refused to talk to the PLO or even consider territorial concessions, and expanded settlements at a pace no subsequent government has approached. If pursuit of peace were the defining factor in mobilizing American support for Israel, pro-Israel sentiment should have soared after Yitzhak Rabin signed Oslo. Instead, it remained 20 to 25 points below the peak throughout Rabin’s term, and only during the last three years – with peace talks frozen and much of the world blaming Israel – has it once again surpassed 60 percent.
Even more stunning is a comparison of the pro-Israel trend line with the “both/neither/no opinion” line. For 25 years, pro-Israel sympathies consistently exceeded pro-Palestinian ones. But they didn’t consistently exceed the “both/neither/no opinion” category. In fact, pro-Israel sentiment was consistently below “both/neither/no opinion” throughout the Oslo period (1993-2000), aside from a brief flicker in 1999. This was true at all the high points of the peace process: the Oslo Accord itself (1993), the Gaza-Jericho agreement that created the Palestinian Authority (1994), the interim agreement that expanded the PA from Gaza into the West Bank (1995), and the Camp David final-status talks (2000).
In contrast, pro-Israel sentiment was higher than “both/neither/no opinion” throughout the pre-Oslo years of 1989-93, as well as all the years after the second intifada erupted in 2000, during which not a single Israeli-Palestinian agreement was signed. In short, it turns out that Americans were least pro-Israel during moments of greatest progress in the peace process and most pro-Israel during periods of impasse.
This may seem counterintuitive, but it actually shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Oslo years were when Israel most enthusiastically endorsed the Palestinians’ narrative that they, not Israel, are the ones with a “right” to the territories. Because the Palestinians, not being public-relations morons, never reciprocated the favor, what Americans essentially heard from both sides was that Israel is a thief, depriving Palestinians of the land and statehood they deserve. Unsurprisingly, that caused pro-Israel sympathy to decline.
Certainly, Americans care about peace. But they care even more about justice. So if Israel is to maintain America’s sympathies, it must resume pushing the justice of its cause – from its historic and legal claim to the territories to the international guarantees of defensible borders it has received over the years – rather than that of the Palestinians. As the Gallup data shows, downplaying its own rights for the sake of “peace” turns out to be the worst strategy Israel can pursue.