Commentary Magazine


Is Israel Losing Popular Support?

Perhaps the clearest lesson of the Yom Kippur war is that Israel is now almost absolutely dependent on the United States for its very existence. Europe, the old charnel-house which created the practical necessity of an Israel, has abandoned her. While token Asian pilots flew overhead for the Arabs, African nations defaulted one by one, dramatizing Israel's isolation from the politically new continents. Given the Russian involvement, only the military and diplomatic resources of the United States stood between Israel and possible extinction. The firmness of the American commitment to Israel has, then, become more crucial than ever. How firm is that commitment?

According to one Congressman, echoing a widely held judgment: “Attitudes toward support of Israel are ‘softer’ than they were in 1967. My colleagues feel it among their constituencies.” By “softer,” of course, he meant less supportive. Yet at the moment he was making that statement, an overwhelming number of Congressmen and Senators, including himself, were signing a resolution for military support to Israel. Nor did the public-opinion polls show any slippage in favorable American attitudes toward Israel since 1967. In October 1973 the polls reflected the same pattern of opinion as in 1967, 1969, or 1970: 47 per cent sympathetic to Israel, 6 per cent sympathetic to the Arabs, the rest uncommitted or opinionless. Such a polling ratio among people holding an active opinion on any issue is normally considered a landslide.

On the other hand, while the American people wish Israel well, they are evidently not willing to risk very much to save her. This was even true in 1967. In June of that year, only 16 per cent of those who said that they had followed the events in the Middle East advocated supporting Israel with economic aid and military supplies, and only 5 per cent with American troops. In March of 1970, when 44 per cent of the public expressed sympathy for Israel (against 3 per cent for the Arabs), only 14 per cent favored direct American aid. In making such choices, the respondents were also possibly making some judgment of Israel's need. But when faced point-blank with the question of sending troops in case Israel was about to be swallowed up, the majority of Americans still said no. Nor was this merely a reflection of a general reluctance to send troops anywhere. For whereas only one-third of the American population was willing to send troops to prevent Israel from completely “going under” to Russia and the Arabs, two-thirds were willing to send troops to fight in Berlin, in case Russia and East Germany closed approaches to West Berlin.

The sum of such indicators is to place Israel in an ambivalent position on the scale of American public opinion. In the gross, Americans sympathize with Israel, but not so intensely that they are ready to sacrifice a great deal to save her. In an atmosphere of such relatively weak salience, situational factors which have nothing to do with Israel itself can have a dominant influence. An illustrative analogy is the classic poll question which asked Americans whether they would vote for an overtly anti-Jewish Congressional candidate. About one-third of the sample said that the candidate's anti-Jewish stance “wouldn't make any difference.” In other words, situational factors would prevail. If the candidate were going to lower taxes, and if that was their primary interest, then they would vote for him—thereby accepting his anti-Semitic platform, even if they weren't anti-Semitic themselves. The parallel in this case is to be found not only in the relatively low intensity of the favorable opinion toward Israel, but in the level of indifferentism which shadows this favorable opinion. Over half of the poll samples have consistently been either uncommitted or opinionless, even in periods of high Middle East crisis. Together, these suggest the potency of factors extrinsic to Israel itself in affecting attitudes toward Israel—a fuel shortage, for example.

Another factor affecting the significance of the gross statistical sympathy for Israel among the American people is suggested by V. O. Key's definition of an effective public opinion: “Those opinions held by private persons which governments find it prudent to heed.” That is, the principle of “one man, one vote” does not apply to the assessment of effective public opinion. In political practice, opinion is normally weighted according to intensity, which usually carries with it some dimension of informed attentiveness. The “public opinion” which “governments find it prudent to heed” is often, and especially in foreign policy, the opinion of selected publics.

On the subject of Israel and the Middle East, the conventional population groups (except, of course, for the Jews) turn out to have the same attitudes as the population in general. Whether young or old, Democrat or Republican, Catholic or Protestant, Eastern or Western, Americans are favorable toward Israel, but not very intensely so. There are, however, two special publics, fairly amorphous elite groups, who do differ on Israel from most other American groups. Because these groups are highly “attentive,” they have to be taken seriously as potential symptoms of, if not necessarily influences on, the future course of American policy.

The first, and no doubt the less influential of these publics, is the Christian clergy. On the two flash occasions when Israel's life seemed to have been in peril—1967 and 1973—official American Christian leadership was gaudily silent. Some leading individual clergymen spoke out on behalf of Israel, but a number of individual clergymen who had been considered “friendly,” and with whom the Jews had had much concourse, said nothing or were uncommitted, as were most of the formal establishments of both the Protestant and Catholic churches. This past October, for example, at a time when the Soviet Union was pouring arms into the Arab countries, and Israel's existence depended on munitions replacements from the United States, the official response of the National Council of Churches was, in substance, to call for both the Soviet Union and the United States to halt arms shipments to the belligerents. That would be roughly equivalent to calling for an “impartial” six-month food embargo on both Biafra and California. In one way or another, such “even-handed” lack of sympathy for Israel marked establishment Christian responses throughout the country.

This checkered response from Christian clergy and leadership bodies is not significant as an indicator of general public opinion. The current effect of the clergy on the political attitudes of their constituencies is, by all accounts, slim. Various surveys in recent years have found yawning gaps, of up to 40 per cent, between the opinions of clergymen and the people who attend their churches on such questions as Vietnam and civil rights. Moreover, the chief preoccupation of the clergy in the Middle East—the plight of the Arab refugees and of the Palestinian Arabs in general—is peripheral to the main consideration of the general public. For American public opinion on the Middle East has not been shaped by moral judgments about the needs or rights of the Arabs. In 1970, when more Americans than not believed that “Arab refugees are treated badly in areas occupied by Israel,” public opinion was at the same time overwhelmingly sympathetic to Israel.

Yet neither, on the other side, has American public opinion been shaped by moral judgments about the needs and rights of the Jews. Back in 1948, when a moral obligation toward the remnant of European Jewry might have seemed un-arguable, only a small minority of Americans said they favored the creation of Israel because “Jews have been persecuted,” or because “Jews are entitled to a home.” The fulcrum of popular American support for Israel has nothing to do with Israel as a Jewish state; it is, rather, the belief that “Israel is a small democratic nation which is trying to preserve its independence.” And American public opinion has become more sympathetic over the years as it has become more apparent that the Soviet Union, in its drive for influence in the Middle East, is the main force attempting to violate that independence.

The clergy, then, is not likely to be a major factor in reversing the generally favorable American attitude toward Israel. But it could exercise a disproportionate influence on people in government who—remembering that significant elements of the clergy anticipated widespread shifts of opinion on civil rights and Vietnam in the 60's—might take the clergy's lukewarm stand on Israel now as an augury of changes in public sentiment to come.

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So too with the second special public which might eventually touch a counter-nerve in American public opinion. This group, as a representative of the Committee for New Alternatives in the Middle East (coname) recently described it, is “made up of some elements of the anti-war movement [whose] concern is that America might get into another Vietnam involvement in the Middle East.” While many members of the old anti-war movement see a distinction between Vietnam and Israel, there are others who see none. For such people, the United States remains a force for evil in the world, and Israel, as an ally and client of the United States, shares in its vicious character. Thus Daniel Berrigan only last October told a meeting of the Association of Arab University Graduates in Washington that Israel is “a criminal Jewish community . . . stamped with the imperial faces whose favor she has courted: the creation of an elite of millionaires, generals, and entrepreneurs.”

The influence of people like Berrigan, and that of the New Left generally, has of course suffered a spectacular decline in the past few years. This is not the case with another tendency within the old anti-war movement—the neo-isolationist current. Unlike the Americaphobes of the New Left, the neo-isolationists are not themselves in the main hostile to Israel. Some of them, however, may well be open to a certain kind of appeal from forces hostile to Israel. For example, an array of pro-Arab groups from around the country sent a telegram last October to a long list of Congressmen warning against a new Vietnam and condemning massive economic aid to Israel at a time when “our people need economic aid here at home.”

Such an appeal, in addition to its attractions for all those who believe that the United States cannot attend to its domestic problems while pursuing an active foreign policy, is also thought to be especially enticing to the black electorate. Now the poll data show that while almost half of the black population is without opinion on the Middle East, black Americans who do have an opinion are four times more sympathetic to Israel than to the Arabs. Furthermore, blacks who are favorable to Israel are at least as willing to send troops to save Israel from disaster as are whites. Nevertheless, the black intelligentsia tends to be more sympathetic than most other blacks to the Arabs as part of the “third world,” and it was presumably in response to this pressure that several black Congressmen who signed the original Phantom-jet resolution in Congress later asked that their names be removed from newspaper ads replicating the resolution.

Neo-isolationist sentiment is particularly strong on the issue of sending troops to Israel. To be sure—as Senator McGovern pointed out in explaining why he was prepared to endorse Senator Hatfield's resolution prohibiting American troops from being sent to Israel—the Israelis neither need nor want American troops. Yet the Hatfield proposal is more than merely pro forma. It is an explicit statement of the limited nature of America's commitment to Israel, the limited importance of Israel to American interests. And unlike the anti-Israel sentiments of Father Berrigan and his friends, this fear of an American “over-commitment” to Israel has a wide echo in public opinion. Thus in late October, a Harris poll found an overwhelming majority of Americans saying that we “should not become overcommitted to Israel or we will find ourselves involved in another Vietnam.”

It is not that Americans have simply returned to the kind of philosophical isolationism which marked the 1930's. On a scale developed by the Institute for International Social Research, the percentage of Americans rated as completely or predominantly “internationalist” dropped from 65 to 56 per cent between 1964 and 1972, while the percentage of those completely or predominantly “isolationist” rose from 8 to 9 per cent. But in response to individual statements like: “The U.S. should mind its own business and let other countries get along as best they can,” and “We shouldn't think so much in international terms but concentrate more on national problems here at home,” the percentage opting for the domestic emphasis rose from a little more than half in 1964 to about three-quarters in 1972. And 9 out of 10 Americans in 1972 agreed with the statement that “The U.S. should continue to play a major role internationally, but cut down on some of its responsibilities abroad.” In other words, despite general American sympathy for Israel, and general recognition that Israel is good for America, a coalition of sentiments could develop to push the American line of commitment back to a point which becomes less and less meaningful for Israel's continued existence.

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However, there is also reason to believe that the “softness” of public opinion on Israel is being overestimated in some quarters. It is noteworthy that the American public has not yet balked at any action actually taken by the government in support of Israel. The American public in 1973 was more favorable toward the idea of sending aid to Israel than it was in 1967. Over three-quarters of Americans polled in late October approved of the aid that had been sent to Israel, as against only 4 per cent who disapproved. It is also noteworthy that after the energy crisis had become front-page news, the American public said by a ratio of two to one that we did not have to “go along with the Arabs” because of the need for their oil.

In all, the design of American public opinion on support to Israel suggests that it will in the end be shaped by the actions and opinions of official political leadership in Washington. For public opinion tends to be much less influential in the shaping of foreign policy in America than it is in the making of domestic policy. Foreign affairs seem rather remote and technical to most people. They do not feel the competence which their daily experience gives them to judge many domestic issues, and would prefer, if possible, to leave foreign policy to more skilled hands. As one consequence of this phenomenon, public opinion on foreign policy is particularly vulnerable to the law suggested by Hadley Cantril: “When an opinion is not solidly structured, an accomplished fact tends to shift opinion in the direction of that accomplished fact.” The somewhat ambivalent state of public opinion toward Israel could be described as “not solidly structured.” This means that the elite actions of political leadership, of government, could be decisive in either strengthening or weakening general public support for Israel. In the days of controversy about the specific partition plans for Palestine, American public opinion, as measured by the polls, dramatically followed the shifts of the U.S. government position. When the United States approved the late 1947 UN plan for partition, 65 per cent of the American people said they approved. When the United States then developed and stated objections to the plan, American public opinion at one point dropped to a 24-per-cent approval of that same plan. The American governments increased concern about Russian involvement in the Middle East, and its increased support of Israel in recent years, have apparently been reflected as well in public opinion.

In foreign affairs, then, policy-makers are automatically influential opinion-makers as well. They are still, of course, subject to long- and short-range public moods which have become “solidly structured.” National political leadership has often bent unwillingly to such moods, as in the early demobilization of troops after World War II, or in recent Vietnam policy. Roosevelt's administration fought the isolationist mood of the country up to the very morning of Pearl Harbor. But when—as in the case of Israel—prevailing moods are less certain, leadership in Washington is normally determinative for public opinion.

Consequently, if the national leadership pulls back, the American public will not demand support for Israel. If the leadership continues to insist on the crucial connection between Israel's survival and basic American interests, then the American public will support, however reluctantly, the perceived imperatives of American foreign policy. The decisive consideration here is and will remain the strength of Washington's will.

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