Carter vs. Israel: What the Polls Reveal
Even before the furor over the new Soviet-American declaration on the Middle East, there was considerable interest in the White House on the state of American public opinion on the Middle East conflict. For as the Carter administration was moving closer and closer to support of a separate Palestinian state which would probably be dominated by the PLO, it was also moving closer and closer to a confrontation with Israel and therefore also with the friends of Israel in the United States. What the administration has wanted to know is how great the political costs of such a confrontation would be. What would happen if Jimmy Carter appealed to public sentiment in an open conflict with Israel? Would public opinion rally behind him and against the Israelis, or would he lose more ground politically than he would gain?
National samples of Americans have been questioned by myriad organizations about their attitudes toward Israel and its Arab opponents from the founding of the state in 1948 down to the polls taken for the White House by Pat Cad-dell this past summer. These surveys show certain clear patterns. First, there has never been a poll which has found more support for the Arabs than for the Israelis, no matter how the question has been asked. Many Americans have on different occasions told interviewers they did not know enough about the situation to make a choice. But among those who felt that they did know enough to form an opinion, sympathy for Israel has always predominated. Various surveys taken between February 1948 and March 1949, at the time of the first Arab-Israeli war, indicated that more than a third sympathized with the Israelis, while between 11 and 16 per cent said they favored the Arabs. Again, during the crisis which led to the Sinai War in 1956, surveys found two to three times as many people blaming the Arabs generally or the Egyptians in particular as blamed Israel.
In the next ten years, there was comparatively little interest in the Middle East, but the outbreak of the Six-Day War in June 1967 led to a groundswell of sympathy for Israel among the American public. According to a Gallup poll taken during the war, 48 per cent said their sympathy lay more with Israel than with the Arab states, as compared with only 4 per cent who replied that their sympathies lay with the Arabs. The findings of the Harris poll during the same period were 41 per cent sympathetic to Israel and only 1 per cent to the Arabs. In the months following the Six-Day War, the American public evidently became even more pro-Israel, if their answers to questions dealing with the future of Jerusalem were any indication. The Harris survey found that the percentage saying, “Let Israel keep control of Jerusalem” increased from 10 in July to 43 in September, while those who favored making Jerusalem an “international city” dropped from 70 to 33 per cent.
Since 1967 questions concerning sympathy in the Middle East conflict have been asked on a fairly regular basis by several national polling organizations: Gallup (1967-77), Harris (1967-75), Roper (1974-77), and Yankelovich, Skelly, and White (1974-77). In the twenty-seven national polls which we have located, taken between 1967 and 1977, sympathy for Israel has ranged between 35 and 56 per cent, and sympathy for the Arabs between 1 and 9 per cent, with the remainder saying “neither side,” “both sides,” or “don’t know.”
Thus, support for the Arabs among the American people in the past ten years has been consistently low, averaging only 6 per cent. There has been considerably greater variation in pro-Israel sentiment. But whenever support for Israel has fallen, it has done so not because sympathy for the Arabs has increased, but because of a rise in indifference. Moreover, sympathy for Israel over the Arab states has been much greater since 1967 than before—despite the oil crisis which developed in tandem with the Yom Kippur War and despite the apparent increase in isolationist sentiment following on the American fiasco in Vietnam. Many friends of Israel feared that distance from the Holocaust and from the events that led to Israel’s founding, as well as the increase in opposition to Israel in other countries and the concern over oil supplies here, would lead to a decline in American sympathy for Israel. But this has simply not happened. On the contrary, support has greatly increased in recent years. The reason seems to be admiration for the way a small democratic nation, allied to the United States, has been able to stand off and defeat the massive onslaughts of Arab armies.
The quality or depth of feeling about Israel has also been tested by pollsters in a more extreme fashion by asking how people would react to Israel’s destruction. Thus Harris inquired in the winter of 1974-75: “If there were another war in the Middle East and Israel were overrun by the Arabs, would you be very upset, mildly upset, mildly pleased, or very pleased?” His findings were 44 per cent very upset and 34 per cent mildly upset, as against 2 per cent mildly pleased, and only 1 per cent very pleased. More recently, Yankelovich touched on similar sentiments when he asked in March 1977: “If Israel were destroyed by the Arabs and ceased to exist as an independent state, would this leave you indifferent, sorry but not personally affected, or feeling a deep sense of personal loss?” Only 13 per cent replied “indifferent,” 27 per cent said they would feel a “deep sense of personal loss,” while the remaining 60 per cent indicated “sorry but not personally affected.” Many of the latter group, however, were clearly pro-Israel, since 66 per cent of all those queried in the same survey agreed that “the continuation of Israel as a Jewish state is important to our country and people like yourself,” while only 27 per cent replied “not important.”
If large numbers of Americans feel warmly toward Israel, there is some evidence to suggest that a significant minority has negative, close to racist, attitudes toward the Arabs. This conclusion is suggested in the results of a poll taken by Pat Cad-dell’s Cambridge Survey Research organization in the summer of 1975. Caddell gave respondents a list of images and asked them: “Does each word apply more to the Arabs or more to the Israelis?” Nearly half or more said that the terms “greedy,” “arrogant,” and “barbaric” apply to the Arabs; relatively few described the Arabs as “peaceful,” as “honest,” as “friendly,” or as “like Americans,” while a majority used these terms to describe the Israelis.
Israel does even better in competition with the Palestine Liberation Organization. In surveys conducted by Yankelovich in 1975, 1976, and 1977, respondents were asked to react to a number of statements about the PLO and Israel, and their answers revealed overwhelming preference for Israel in every case. In the most recent survey (March 1977), 88 per cent said that “we can get along” with Israel, while only 23 per cent said the same for the PLO. Four-fifths replied that the PLO was “anti-U.S.,” while only a tenth had comparable opinions about Israel. Over 70 per cent believed that Israel was “democratic,” while only 7 per cent thought the same about the PLO.
Israel has steadily bettered its comparative standing in these three studies, while the PLO has steadily fallen. But what is even more significant, American opinion has grown more and more sympathetic to Israel’s refusal to negotiate with the PLO. When asked by Yankelovich in January 1975 whether “Israel is doing the right thing in refusing to negotiate with the PLO,” only 27 per cent said Israel was right, 36 per cent felt it was wrong, and 35 per cent were not sure. A year later, the responses were slightly more positive from Israel’s point of view, with 31 per cent saying Israel was right, 31 wrong, and 38 not sure. But in March 1977 Yankelovich found a plurality in Israel’s favor, with 40 per cent saying Israel is right in not negotiating with the PLO as compared with 21 per cent who think this policy is wrong.
There is some indication in recent surveys that Americans differentiate between the Palestinians as a group and the PLO or the Arabs. They are more likely to express sympathy for the Palestinians than for the Arabs or the PLO. For example, while sympathy for the Arabs runs between 5 and 9 per cent, Harris found 14 per cent voicing sympathy for the Palestinians in his winter 1974-75 Middle East survey. Respondents were evenly split over the statement, offered by Harris, that “Israel has mistreated the Palestinian refugees and that is wrong” (29 per cent agreed, 28 per cent disagreed, while even more—41 per cent—responded “don’t know”). In the Yankelovich survey taken in March 1977—before Begin’s election—the 61 per cent of respondents who said they had heard of the PLO were asked: “Do you think the Palestinian refugees have any legitimate complaints against Israel?” Over half of these—55 per cent—said yes, while only 18 per cent felt that the Palestinians had no legitimate complaints. Only 16 per cent of the same informed respondents, however, agreed that “the Arabs have a strong moral case against Israel which deserves more attention than we give it,” a finding in line with the other evidence that Americans distinguish between “Arabs” and “Palestinians.”
The point at which sympathy for the Palestinians ends is the PLO. In Harris’s winter 1974-75 Middle East survey, a plurality of Americans labeled Yasir Arafat as an “extremist” and a “terrorist” and a man “responsible for the outrageous slaughter of innocent children.” Americans tended to reject the notion that Arafat “has become more moderate in his demands lately” (29 to 19 per cent), that he “wants to work out a peaceful settlement in the Middle East” (30 to 19 per cent), that he made a good impression at the United Nations (32 to 17 per cent), or that he should be a permanent observer at the United Nations (35 to 18 per cent).
The record seems clear. By whatever measure or question one uses, and whatever opinion poll one consults, American sympathy for Israel has remained relatively constant since 1967, and many more Americans have been supportive of Israel than of the Arabs.
Sympathy for Israel does not, however, translate directly into support for U.S. military aid to Israel. A review of ten polls taken by the Gallup, Harris, and Yankelovich organizations between 1967 and 1977 shows opponents of military aid outnumbering supporters in six polls, and supporters outnumbering opponents in four. In most cases, the two sides were almost evenly balanced.
Yet however limited the support we find for U.S. military aid to Israel, support for U.S. military aid to the Arab nations is consistently lower. In October 1973, just after the Yom Kippur War, Gallup asked those who had heard or read about the conflict whether the U.S. should supply arms and materiel to Israel and, in a separate question, to the Arabs. While military aid to Israel was opposed by a margin of 49 to 37 per cent, military aid to the Arabs was opposed by the much more decisive margin of 85 to 2.
The issue here, then, would seem to be not Israel versus the Arabs, but military aid itself. Foreign aid is not a particularly popular program, and military aid is even less so. In the 1974-75 Harris survey Americans were overwhelmingly favorable (93 per cent) to “our giving emergency food and medical supplies to other nations in cases of natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes” and by a margin of 53 to 38 they also favored “our giving economic aid to other nations for purposes of economic development and technical assistance.” But when the survey turned to the issue of military rather than economic aid, public support collapsed. Asked “On the whole, do you favor or oppose our giving military aid to other nations?” (emphasis in questionnaire), only 22 per cent said they favored it, with fully 75 per cent opposed. Americans were even hostile (53-35) to the idea of selling arms abroad. In fact, when respondents were given a list of thirteen federal programs and asked whether each should be expanded, cut back, or kept the same, economic and military aid to other nations emerged as the two least popular policies: 70 per cent felt that military aid to other nations should be cut back and 56 per cent felt that foreign economic aid should be cut back.
Another piece of evidence that Americans are against military aid in general rather than aid to Israel is the finding that those who oppose military aid to Israel tend to oppose military aid to other countries as well, including the Arab countries. Thus, in October 1974 the Yankelovich poll asked respondents whether they thought the United States should send arms to each country in a list of ten. Those who opposed military aid to Israel were also likely to oppose it for South Korea, Greece, Italy, South Vietnam, Turkey, Ireland, and Yugoslavia, as well as for Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
In its winter 1974-75 survey, the Harris organization interviewed a sample of over 3,000 Americans for an average of 73 minutes each on the subject of Israel, the Middle East conflict, and anti-Semitism. The Harris survey included four questions relating to U.S. military aid to Israel. Two of these questions were worded in a “positive” way, that is, offering cues favorable to U.S. military aid: “In general, with the Russians arming Egypt and Syria, do you think the U.S. is right or wrong to send Israel the military supplies it needs?”; and “If war broke out again in the Middle East between the Arabs and Israel, would you favor or oppose the U.S. continuing to send military supplies, not troops or personnel, to help Israel?” On both questions, 65 per cent of the sample favored military aid, with only 21-24 per cent opposed, an unusually high level of support for Israel. One might suppose that such strong support was due to the bias in question-wording (“with the Russians arming Egypt and Syria,” “the military supplies [Israel] needs,” etc.). But the survey included two other questions which were worded with a negative bias toward Israel: “We need Arab oil for our gasoline shortage here at home, so we had better find ways to get along with the Arabs, even if that means supporting Israel less”; and “If it came right down to it and the only way we could get Arab oil in enough quantity and at lower prices were to stop supporting Israel with military aid, would you favor or oppose such a move by this country?” Sixty-eight per cent opposed cutting off military aid to Israel in order to get more Arab oil at lower prices. Thus, on all four questions, the winter 1974-75 Harris survey showed a consistent 63-68 per cent of Americans in favor of U.S. military aid to Israel.
These figures are considerably more favorable to Israel than those obtained in other surveys taken at about the same time. Inspection of the Harris questionnaire reveals the likely explanation. Virtually the entire interview dealt with Israel and the Middle East, thus establishing a definite context in the minds of the respondents. Moreover, the first question concerning support for U.S. military aid was asked after a sequence of questions dealing with sympathy in the Middle East conflict (53 per cent for Israel); estimated chances for a Middle East peace settlement (only 16 per cent “excellent” or “pretty good”); blame for starting the October 1973 war (Arabs 42 per cent, Israel 10 per cent); assessment of which side won the 1967 war (Arabs 5 per cent, Israel 43 per cent) and the 1973 war (Arabs 10 per cent, Israel 27 per cent); and a guess as to who would win “another war in the Middle East” (Arabs 20 per cent, Israel 35 per cent). This sequence of questions clearly established Israel, rather than military aid, as the focus of attention. Moreover, the questions leading up to the one on military aid suggested a pattern of increasing Arab military success, from the 1967 war to the 1973 war to a possible future war.
On the other hand, whenever military aid to other countries is the focus—as in the Yankelovich poll of October 1974—support for aid to Israel falls considerably. Yet even in the Yankelovich interview, more Americans supported military aid to Israel than to any of the other nine countries listed.
A similar pattern is apparent in a November 1976 Roper survey which asked respondents whether they thought the U.S. should sell arms to each country in a list of eleven. Americans were favorable to selling arms only to two countries, England and France. Next came Israel and West Germany, where support and opposition were about even (37 per cent in favor, 42-43 per cent opposed). By contrast, rather strong pluralities opposed the sale of arms to Japan, Spain, South Korea, Turkey, and Greece, while the greatest opposition was expressed in the cases of Iran (55 per cent opposed) and Saudi Arabia (61 per cent opposed).
Thus, the data indicate positive public sentiment toward Israel, negative public sentiment toward military aid, and, when the two are combined, stronger public support for military aid to Israel than for military aid to other countries, with the exception of our major West European allies.
If there is one idea more negatively regarded than military aid, it is the involvement of American troops. “Suppose it looked as though the Arabs, with the help of the Russians, were going to take over Israel in the Middle East. Would you favor or oppose sending U.S. troops to keep Israel from being taken over?” Opposed, 52 per cent; in favor, 25 per cent (Harris, 1971). “If it looked as though Israel were going to be taken over by the Russians and Arabs, do you feel that the United States should do everything to save Israel, including going to war, or do you think the United States should avoid getting involved with our own troops, even if Israel were going under?” Avoid involvement, 51 per cent; favor involvement, 34 per cent (Harris, 1973). The two winter 1974-75 Harris polls, which differed widely in public support for military aid to Israel, showed quite similar results in questions involving the use of American troops. In the survey primarily concerned with Middle East issues, 55 per cent felt that the U.S. should not send troops even “if it looked as though Israel were going to be overrun by the Arabs in another war” (23 per cent supported the use of U.S. troops). In a general foreign-policy survey carried out by Harris on behalf of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, 50 per cent opposed U.S. military involvement, “including the use of U.S. troops,” “if Israel were being defeated by the Arabs” (27 per cent favored U.S. involvement).
But opposition to U.S. troop involvement is not limited to Israel or the Middle East. The Harris poll for the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations listed twelve circumstances which “might justify U.S. military involvement, including the use of U.S. troops.” Only one circumstance called forth more support for than opposition to the use of American troops—“if Canada were invaded.” Opinion was about evenly divided over the use of U.S. troops “if Western Europe were invaded.” Opposition to U.S. military involvement outweighed support by about 10 per cent “if the Russians took over West Berlin” and “if Castro’s Cuba invaded the Dominican Republic.” Opposition outweighed support by 23 per cent “if Israel were being defeated by the Arabs,” and by 35 per cent “if the Arabs cut off the oil supply to Western Europe.” In the other six circumstances, support for U.S. troops ranged between 10 and 20 per cent and opposition varied between 58 and 73 per cent: “if Communist China invaded Taiwan,” “if Communist China attacked India,” “if the Arabs cut off the oil supply to Japan,” “if North Korea attacked South Korea,” “if the Soviet Union attacked Yugoslavia after Tito’s death,” “if North Vietnam launched a major attack against Saigon.”
Clearly, Americans are willing to fight for the security only of neighboring Western Hemisphere countries and of our principal allies in Western Europe. Gallup found in polls taken in 1971 and 1975 that a plurality of Americans favored sending U.S. troops if either Mexico or England were attacked “by Communist-backed forces.” This sentiment did not apply, however, to West Germany, Israel, Japan, India, Thailand, Brazil, Taiwan, or Turkey.
In the first eight months of his Presidency, Jimmy Carter has pressured Israel on a number of issues—the occupied territories, the legitimacy of the Palestinians’s claim to a homeland, negotiations with the PLO. To what extent do President Carter’s positions find support in the public as a whole?
Just this past August, Pat Caddell’s Cambridge Survey Research asked a national sample of Americans to react to the Carter peace package in the following terms: “The President has outlined several key elements of a Middle East Peace Agreement: an expressed willingness by the Arabs to recognize Israel’s sovereignty and to normalize relations with Israel; phased Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, combined with effective security measures; a homeland for the Palestinians. Do you think this represents a fair basis of settlement?”
This question referred in general terms to all the elements that have been demanded by each side of the other. Not surprisingly, a plurality of Americans agree that obtaining all this would be desirable. Almost half, 48 per cent, said “Yes,” 13 per cent replied “No,” while 39 per cent were “Not sure.”
It is, of course, impossible to tell what the respondents felt about any given element of the proposed agreement, whether they most favored recognition of Israel, phased Israeli withdrawal in return for “effective security measures,” or a Palestinian homeland. We do, however, know from other surveys what Americans think about some of the individual parts of the President’s package. On the question of the occupied territories, for example, there is very little public feeling that Israel is holding them unfairly and should simply give them up. The most straightforward question was asked in the Harris Middle East survey of December 1974-January 1975: “Israel should give back the territory it gained from the war of 1967.” Americans disagreed with this proposition by a ratio of two to one. Support for Israel’s hold on the occupied territories became even stronger when these same respondents were offered a slightly different proposition: “Israel should just give up the occupied Palestinian Arab territory and let Arafat rule it.” In this case 54 per cent disagreed and 11 per cent agreed—a ratio of five to one.
Most relevant to the current situation, perhaps, was the public’s response to the proposal that “The U.S. should not pressure Israel to give back all the Arab lands that were obtained in the 1967 Middle East war and in the latest war.” Americans agreed with this position, 54 to 19 per cent, although it is possible that, the specification of “all” the Arab territories may have seemed extreme to many Americans (Jerusalem, for example, would have been included). In March 1977, Yankelovich presented respondents with a proposition that was more moderate in scope: “The United States should reduce its support of Israel unless the Israelis are willing to compromise and give back some of the land they took from the Arabs during the recent wars.” Still, 45 per cent of Americans were opposed to a reduction of American support and only 26 per cent favored it.
The essence of American opinion on the occupied territories is revealed by a question which the Roper poll has asked every year since 1973: “Ever since the Six-Day War, Israel has occupied territory that formerly belonged to the Arab nations. Which one of these statements comes closest to expressing how you feel about this?” The results show a remarkable stability of opinion over the last four years. Only a small percentage of respondents (6-7) have felt that “The territory Israel has taken in the last two wars didn’t belong to her and she should not be allowed to keep it under any circumstances.” The most hard-line position, “Israel should keep all of the territory she has won in the last two Arab-Israeli wars,” is not very popular either; it is endorsed by only 13-16 per cent of the public. In all four polls, a majority of Americans took one of the two “intermediate” positions. About a quarter of the respondents endorsed the “soft” intermediate position, that “Israel should give up all or most of the territory she has taken in the last two wars—but only if a satisfactory treaty can be negotiated with the Arabs that will guarantee her existence as a state.” The “hard” intermediate position—“It is time for Israel to make some concessions, but it is important that she keep what territory is essential for her defense”—is somewhat more popular, with about 30 per cent of Americans favoring that option. This last position was the one most frequently chosen in all four polls.
The only trend one can detect in the answers to the Roper question over the past four years is a slight increase in the percentage of Americans taking the two harder-line positions. Since the latest Roper figures were obtained from a survey administered after the Begin election, the data gave no indication of impatience with the new Israeli government on the part of the American public.
On the issue of a “Palestinian homeland,” both Yankelovich and Roper have found considerable support for a position similar to the President’. Thus, in the March 1977 Yankelovich survey, 52 per cent agreed that “the Palestinians have a right to a homeland as much as the Jews do.” But when the PLO is brought into the picture, support for the idea of a Palestinian homeland falls precipitously. In July, Roper asked: “As you may know, the Palestine Liberation Organization in the Middle East, known as the ‘PLO,’ wants to establish a homeland for Palestinian refugees in territory once held by the Palestinians but now held by Israel. Do you think the PLO is right or wrong in wanting to establish a Palestinian homeland in Israel, or haven’t you paid much attention to it?” To this question 21 per cent said that the PLO is right in wanting to establish a Palestinian homeland and 20 per cent said that it is wrong. An additional 9 per cent volunteered the response that the goal of a Palestinian homeland is right, but the methods of the PLO are wrong. (On this, as on most other questions dealing with the Palestinian issue, a large proportion of respondents, here 50 per cent, said that they “didn’t know” how they felt or “hadn’t paid attention” to the issue.)
In addition to pressuring Israel, the administration has been making no secret of its belief that Israeli “intransigence” is the major obstacle to peace. Does the public agree? All extant survey data suggest that it does not. Thus the March 1977 Yankelovich poll indicated that a majority viewed both sides as obstreperous, but over 70 per cent felt that the Arabs’s refusal to recognize Israel and to sit down at a negotiating table with it was a major obstacle to peace, as contrasted with 55 per cent who believed that “Israel’s refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians” was an obstacle. In earlier Yankelovich surveys, a majority of Americans said that “the Arab nations are not interested in making peace but rather in destroying Israel” (53 per cent in 1975, 56 per cent in 1976, with only 17-19 per cent expressing the opposite view). A poll taken by Cambridge Survey Research in the summer of 1975 showed three times as many Americans blaming the Arabs for the Middle East crisis (32 per cent) as blamed Israel (10 per cent). When asked to rate six Middle Eastern countries in terms of their “sincerity” in looking for a peaceful solution to their problems, Israel was ranked as very sincere by 26 per cent, followed by Egypt with 12 per cent, Jordan with 11 per cent, and Saudi Arabia with 10. And finally, Yankelovich surveys asked a key question relating to purported Israeli intransigence: “In the current situation, do you feel that the Israelis are doing everything possible to achieve a peace settlement or do you feel that their attitudes and demands are unreasonable?” In August 1975, Yankelovich showed 37 per cent of Americans claiming that Israel’s demands were unreasonable, with only 23 per cent saying that Israel was doing everything possible to achieve peace. By March 1977, however, that attitude had reversed. Thirty-nine per cent now said that Israel was “doing everything possible to achieve a peace settlement,” and only 29 per cent felt that Israel was being unreasonable.
On this issue, as on others, the evidence points to a trend in Israel’s favor. Unfortunately, there have been no major polls dealing with this question since the new Israeli government took office. We have no basis, therefore, for assuming that the trend has continued. All the data suggest is that at the time of the May 1977 vote, American public opinion continued to see the Arabs as more intransigent, more reluctant to come to the peace table or to agree to the necessary conditions, than Israel.
In assessing the implications of these data, one has to take into consideration not only how many can be counted for and against, but also who they are. Which groups in the population are strongest in their support for, and opposition to, Israel? Our review of the distribution of public opinion reveals a persistent relationship: in virtually all surveys, support for Israel has tended to increase with higher levels of education, income, and occupational status.
The winter 1974-75 Harris survey found 65 per cent of those who had attended college sympathetic to Israel, compared with 51 per cent among the high-school-educated and 47 per cent among those whose education had not gone beyond grammar school. Over half the college-educated, 54 per cent, agreed that the United States has a special stake in seeing that Israel is not overtaken militarily, while only 38 per cent of those who had not gone beyond high school and 30 per cent of the grade-school-educated felt the same way. In Gallup’s 1976 survey of national ratings, 77 per cent of those who had been exposed to higher education gave Israel a favorable rating, while 62 per cent of those with a high-school education were of the same opinion, but only 50 per cent of the grade-school-educated felt the same way. In January 1977, Roper reported that 54 per cent of those in executive and professional occupations were sympathetic to Israel compared with 50 per cent of white-collar and 46 per cent of blue-collar workers. By income, the range of sympathy for Israel ran from 55 per cent pro-Israel among those earning $18,000 a year or more to 41 per cent among those with family incomes of $6,000 or less. The March 1977 Yankelovich poll found that 75 per cent of college graduates regarded Israel as a friend and ally of the United States, compared with 46 per cent among high-school graduates and only 34 per cent of those with less than a high-school diploma. Sympathy for the Arabs on these and other questions varied little by socioeconomic status and education: all groups were equally unenthusiastic, with the less advantaged more likely to give “don’t know” responses.
These findings, consistently showing greater support for Israel among the better educated, the more affluent, and those in executive and professional positions, suggest that Israel has strong backing among the elite sectors—those who are more active politically and presumably more influential. The results of a number of studies of such groups confirm this assumption.
Thus, in winter 1974-75, Harris compared the opinions of a national sample of 3,377 persons with those of 491 “leaders,” selected from among people who “have impact within their community.” The leaders’ sympathies were more with Israel than the Arabs by a ratio of over eleven to one, 56 to 5 per cent, as contrasted with the general public’s seven-and-a-half to one, 52 to 7. Three-quarters of the leaders favored sending military supplies to Israel if war breaks out, a position taken by 66 per cent of the general public. When asked how they would feel if “Israel were overrun by the Arabs,” 44 per cent of the general sample said “very upset” in contrast to 65 per cent of the leaders. The leaders and the public both overwhelmingly disagreed with the statement that “We need Arab oil for our gasoline shortage here at home, so we had better find ways to get along with the Arabs, even if that means supporting Israel less.” The leaders, however, felt this way by a ratio of 78-15 per cent, while the public took the same view by a somewhat lower one, 68-20. In a January 1977 survey, Roper found that fully 60 per cent of the 12 per cent of his respondents who were classified as “high” on a scale of political and social activism were sympathetic to Israel, as compared with 40 per cent of the sample as a whole. Both groups showed little sympathy for the Arabs, 6-7 per cent.
There is little doubt, then, that most Americans support Israel, and that support is strongest among the well-educated, activist, and influential social strata. But even knowing something about the distribution of public opinion does not give us everything we need to assess the political effectiveness of an issue. We have to make some estimate of the salience of opinion among those on both sides of an issue: is the attitude measured by the polls a “mere opinion” with little intensity of conviction, or is it a passionate conviction which dominates the respondent’s political activity?
It is hardly news that for Jews, Israel is just such a salient issue. In the past, there have been several sources of anti-Zionist sentiment within the Jewish community: socialist anti-Zionism, which rejected Zionism as a species of bourgeois nationalism; religious anti-Zionism, which saw no theological justification for reestablishing the state of Israel at this time; and assimilationist anti-Zionism, which feared that the charge of “dual loyalty” would retard the full acceptance of Jews by the larger secular society. Nevertheless, in the winter 1974-75 Harris poll, fully 95 per cent of the national Jewish sample proclaimed a sympathy for Israel in the Middle East conflict (0.2 per cent—precisely one Jewish respondent out of 506—favored the Arabs). Ninety-four per cent agreed that “The Arabs are determined to destroy Israel, so Israel is justified in building itself up militarily to defend itself.” The same percentage—94—said that they would be “very upset” if there were another war in the Middle East “and Israel were overrun by the Arabs.” Fully 96 per cent favored the U.S. sending military supplies to Israel, and a similar percentage opposed the U.S. lowering its aid to Israel in order to obtain more Arab oil at lower prices. “Israel,” as Nathan Glazer has said, “has become the religion of American Jews.”
It is difficult to gauge passion in the relatively dispassionate atmosphere of a survey interview, but several questions indicate the intensity of this Jewish commitment to Israel. Fully 81 per cent of the Jewish sample felt that “Jews who live in the United States have a special obligation to support Israel with funds and other aid” (17 per cent disagreed). And an astonishing 83 per cent said that they had given “financial contributions to [an] organization which is supporting Israel” during the previous twelve months; only 15 per cent of the Jews said that they had failed to contribute. And while only 37 per cent of the Jews had relatives living in Israel and 45 per cent had friends there, 71 per cent said that they felt a “special desire” to visit Israel because they were Jewish.
Are there any anti-Israel constituencies as intense in their antagonism as the Jewish community is in its support? If one looks through survey data for the single “simply defined group” which is least supportive of Israel, the answer one finds, in most cases, is the blacks. In twelve of the thirteen different surveys taken between 1970 and 1977 asking respondents whether they sympathized with Israel or the Arabs, blacks were less sympathetic to Israel than whites—by an average of 13 per cent. Black support for Israel was, moreover, lower than that of whites at every level of education and at every age level.
Generally, across the whole range of questions asked about Israel in the 1974-75 Harris survey, white Protestants were the most supportive (58 per cent) and blacks the least supportive (31 per cent), with white Catholics (47 per cent), and Hispanic-Americans (49 per cent) in between. While most surveys use samples that are too small to allow for any analysis of Hispanic-Americans as a group, the Catholic-Protestant difference was fairly consistent across thirteen different surveys. On the average, Catholics were 7 per cent less sympathetic to Israel than Protestants. Finally, it is important to point out that for blacks and His-panics, relatively low support for Israel was accompanied by relatively high levels of “domestic” anti-Semitism, even after educational differences had been taken into account.
These ethnic effects are interesting, but they do not amount to evidence that blacks, Hispanic-Americans, or Catholics constitute a “veto group” passionately committed to a program of anti-Zionism and organized to help or hurt a politician depending on how he stands on this issue. The relative differences among the major racial and religious groups are noticeable and consistent, but one must also look at their absolute levels of support for Israel or the Arabs. Very few claim actually to sympathize with the Arabs: pro-Arab sympathy in the 1974-75 Harris poll was expressed by 5 per cent of white Protestants, 9 per cent of white Catholics, 11 per cent of Hispanic-Americans, and 12 per cent of blacks—hardly a passionate commitment. The same thirteen surveys that showed blacks, on the average, 13 per cent less favorable to Israel than whites did not show a comparable difference on the pro-Arab side; blacks were on the average only 3 per cent more pro-Arab than whites. The rest of the difference consisted of more black respondents saying “don’t know,” or favoring “both sides” or “neither side” in the conflict. When offered the statement, “Israel is a small, courageous, democratic nation, which is trying to preserve its independence,” agreement was expressed by 89 per cent of whites but also by 72 per cent of Hispanic-Americans and 68 per cent—two-thirds—of blacks.
In comparison with whites (46 per cent for Protestants and 41 per cent for Catholics), fewer blacks (35 per cent) and Hispanic-Americans (37 per cent) said they would be “very upset” if Israel were overrun by the Arabs. But very few said they would be “pleased” by such an eventuality—only 4 per cent in each group, compared with about 2 per cent of whites. Again, the major difference was the higher proportion of blacks and Hispanics who said “don’t know.” Opposition to U.S. military aid to Israel was expressed by 22 per cent of white Protestants, 28 per cent of white Catholics, 22 per cent of Hispanic-Americans, and 31 per cent of blacks. But more blacks (47 per cent) favored military aid than opposed it. Similarly, a reduction in U.S. military aid to Israel in return for lower oil prices was favored by 16 per cent of white Protestants, 22 per cent of white Catholics, 25 per cent of blacks, and 26 per cent of Hispanics. But blacks opposing such a measure outnumbered those who favored it by 41 to 25 per cent, with Hispanic-Americans rejecting the same measure by 52 to 26.
In short, while the evidence does indicate a higher level of anti-Israel feeling among blacks, Hispanic-Americans, and (to a lesser extent) white Catholics, it does not indicate anything close to a passionate anti-Israel conviction among any of these groups.
Another source of anti-Israel sentiment is often said to consist of ideological liberals and radicals. But survey research does not confirm this much-publicized impression. Thus, a Yankelovich survey carried out in October 1974 showed self-described liberals as slightly more sympathetic to Israel than self-described conservatives (by a difference of 6 per cent), even though these liberals were considerably (15 per cent) less supportive of U.S. military aid to Israel—or to any other country tested. In the winter 1974-75 Harris poll, liberals were only slightly less likely than conservatives to support U.S. military involvement, including the possible use of troops, “if Israel were being defeated by the Arabs.” Some 1975 results reported by Cambridge Survey Research show self-described conservatives more pro-Israel than liberals, but only marginally.
The March Yankelovich survey revealed some interesting and suggestive age differences. The young—those under thirty-five—were less likely to claim a strong identification with Israel, less likely to agree that “the Israelis are doing everything possible to achieve a peace settlement,” and more likely to say that Israel’s demands are unreasonable. Using the raw data from the winter 1974-75 Harris survey, we decided to determine whether these positions were really connected with age. The Harris survey did not include a question asking respondents to classify themselves as liberals, moderates, or conservatives, but respondents were asked how they had voted in the 1972 presidential election two years before, for Nixon or for McGovern. We looked at whites only, in order to remove the major confounding effect of large numbers of blacks and Hispanic-Americans voting for McGovern and at the same time expressing anti-Israel attitudes for—possibly—different reasons.
What we found was illuminating. McGovern voters were somewhat less supportive of Israel and a good deal less supportive of U.S. military aid to Israel than were Nixon voters—but this was true only among younger voters, that is, voters under the age of forty. Among those forty years of age or older, there was no consistent ideological difference between Nixon voters and McGovern voters; if anything, the older Nixon voters were slightly less supportive of military aid to Israel than were the older McGovern voters. On five questions eliciting sympathy toward Israel, younger McGovern voters averaged 5 per cent less sympathetic than younger Nixon voters, but there was no difference between Nixon and McGovern voters over the age of forty. On questions dealing with U.S. military aid to Israel, McGovern voters under forty averaged 21 per cent less favorable to such aid than Nixon voters under forty. Again, there was no consistent difference between Nixon and McGovern voters over the age of forty.
All this suggests that disaffection with Israel is more characteristic of younger liberals (New Politics, New Left) than of older liberals (New-Deal, Fair Deal). Older liberals grew up convinced that support of Israel was a legitimately liberal policy, given the experience of the Holocaust and the predominance of the socialist movement in Israeli politics. Younger liberals tend to doubt the legitimacy of Israel’s liberal credentials—and they certainly tend to challenge the motivations behind American military aid to other nations.
Suggestive though these differences are, they do not point to the existence of a significant body of opinion hostile to Israel, and they give no evidence of a “passionate conviction” in any sense comparable to that of the Jewish community on the other side. One would have to go to a very fine level of detail—probably among younger blacks and radicals—to find deep-seated anti-Zionist convictions. To pursue the analysis at this level would require the tools not of survey research but of investigative reporting.
There can be little doubt, then, that the only “veto group” in the American electorate concerned with the Middle East is composed of those dedicated to the survival of Israel. This group, which includes almost all Jews along with many non-Jews, has been ready to bombard Congressmen and the administration with letters, telegrams, phone calls, and personal visits to present their case. Many of them have been willing to contribute generously to the campaign funds of politicians who support Israel. Conversely, they will vote against those who oppose Israel, a fact of which officeholders are well aware.
It may, of course, be argued that Jews constitute only 3 per cent of the population and that they can therefore be ignored by politicians who are not in areas of high Jewish concentration. In fact, however, Jews have a much higher rate of electoral participation than other groups. Close to 90 per cent of them vote in national elections, compared with 53 per cent of the electorate as a whole. Last summer, in a discussion, Pat Caddell estimated that outside of the South, Jews constitute not 3 but 7 per cent of the voters. If one adds to this figure the additional 20 per cent or so of non-Jews whom the opinion polls show to be as passionately pro-Israel as the Jews, it is clear that Israel enjoys the backing of one of the largest veto groups in the country. Hence, actions which antagonize or attract this body of opinion can affect the electoral fortunes of many candidates, including those running for President.
How important is public opinion, as revealed by the various national-opinion surveys, in the making of foreign policy? So far as the Middle East goes, in a recent piece in the New York Times, Terence Smith concluded: “In the final analysis, Pat Caddell, the President’s pollster, and his other domestic political advisers may have a decisive voice in determining whether Mr. Carter takes on the Israelis. They will assess the political cost of such a campaign and advise Mr. Carter whether public concern at the possibility of another Arab oil embargo is enough to justify a confrontation with Israel.”
If Mr. Smith is right that Jimmy Carter’s policies on the Middle East will be deeply affected by judgments about public opinion, we would hope that the President examines the entire body of evidence, not simply the few questions asked by Caddell. For Caddell’s most recent query is presented in the context of conditions for peace, an outcome fervently desired by most Americans, and it is worded in a manner bound to elicit support for the President’s position. But examining all the evidence in hand, “public concern at the possibility of another Arab oil embargo” is not great enough “to justify a confrontation with Israel.” The polls on the oil crisis suggest that the American public is still sanguine (overly so in our judgment) about the energy situation. Most of them do not feel that a genuine crisis exists. They believe that the oil companies and the government are exaggerating the problem.
Israel, it is fair to say, is still seen as a brave, small state, composed of people “like us,” surrounded by wealthy, powerful, hostile neighbors, some of whom cooperate with the Communist world. And the past use by the Arabs of the oil weapon and their forcing up of the price of oil have reinforced the negative image held of them by most Americans. Overt pressure by the United States against Israel could very well be perceived by many as a form of bullying one of America’s closest friends in order to appease states which have hurt us and helped our enemies.
Beyond whatever opinion the majority holds on specific issues like oil, Israel is fervently backed by a politically potent minority, including a very large number of non-Jews, who are prepared to punish at the ballot box those who seek to undermine the unique America-Israel relationship. Already, according to a Harris poll taken in late September, President Carter’s popularity in the country at large has slipped for the first time below 50 per cent. Most of this decline is surely attributable to factors other than the administration’s Middle East policy, yet just as surely that policy plays a part—especially for Jews, among whom Carter has fallen from July’s standing of 57-37 per cent positive to a low of 60-37 per cent negative. (Jews, normally among the Democrats’ most loyal supporters, were less favorable to Carter in this poll than blacks, Catholics, and unions, and over 10 per cent less favorable than the public as a whole.) But again, it is not only Jews who are concerned with the President’s recent record on Israel and the Middle East. George Meany, interviewed on Face the Nation (October 2), warned that “I don’t think the American people as a whole want to see Israel . . . compelled through strong diplomatic pressure.” When asked what the consequences of such a policy might be for President Carter’s reelection prospects in 1980, the labor leader replied, “Well, I don’t know what it’s going to do to him in 1980, or 1978, or any other time, but I know politically it’s going to be a great big minus for him. I’m sure of that.”
What our examination of the opinion polls reveals, then, is that a confrontation with Israel will create a deep conflict within the United States, one that could very well parallel the Vietnam controversy in its bitterness, and that could have a devastating effect on the popularity and the chances for reelection of those responsible.