Commentary Magazine


Do We Want to Get Involved in Gaza?

International pressure is mounting for the U.S. administration to engage itself more actively in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even as their future Secretary of State pledges to commit herself to this goal, the American people themselves don’t seem so enthusiastic about getting involved. According to a Gallup poll from last week, not even the violence in Gaza bolstered American support for greater action:

Israel’s military action in the Gaza Strip after recent Hamas rocket fire into southern Israel has put international pressure on the United States to advocate an immediate cease-fire; but only 33% of Americans, according to a Jan. 6-7 Gallup Poll, say the Bush administration should be doing more to end the conflict than it already is doing.

Attitudes toward active engagement — and specifically, toward a cease-fire — fall largely along partisan lines, with Democrats demanding more of it on average compared to Republicans — a political divide reflected in several polls. Since liberals are generally less supportive of Israel, Gallup concludes that “it is likely that liberals favor an immediate cessation of the Gaza hostilities, even if that doesn’t serve Israel’s security interests.”

Interestingly, there’s also a new Rasmussen poll on Israel and Gaza offering material for a comparative analysis. Generally speaking, American support for the Gaza operation is still very high — even slightly higher than it was two weeks ago:

Forty-five percent (45%) say Israel should have taken military action against the Palestinians, little changed from 44% two weeks ago. Thirty-eight percent (38%) say that the Jewish nation should have tried harder to find a diplomatic solution, down slightly from 41% in the earlier survey.

In an earlier Rasmussen survey, 52% of Americans said, “it is possible for Israel and the Palestinians to live in peace, but just 35% thought Obama is likely to help end the conflict during his presidency.” According to this new survey, “[f]ifty-three percent (53%) are at least somewhat confident in Barack Obama’s ability to deal with the situation in Gaza, including 25% who are Very Confident in the President-elect.” Perhaps they ought to read Rick before making up their minds.

What might seem puzzling in the Rasmussen poll is this conclusion:

Looking ahead, 50% say Israel should agree to a truce now while 26% disagree.

Why would 50% of Americans — most of whom are supportive of Israel’s military action — want Israel to agree to a cease-fire now? The wording of the question is straightforward:

Should Israel agree to a truce now and seek a diplomatic solution to the fighting in Gaza?

A plausible explanation may be Americans’ inability to reasonably asses the implications of a truce, and their assumption that the “diplomatic solution” mentioned in the survey is viable. I’m not sure whether we would get the same statistical response to a differently framed question, such as:

Should Israel agree to a cease-fire which would be trumped as a victory by Hamas and which would signal internal weakness to the Arab world, or should Israel continue fighting until it achieves a unilateral victory over Hamas?

Perhaps Americans’ elusive wishes are best captured by last week’s Gallup poll:

Public opinion about U.S. involvement in resolving the Gaza conflict is reminiscent of how Americans reacted to the hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. A Gallup Poll conducted in July 2006 found only a third of Americans saying the United States should press for an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, 20% saying it should wait before calling for a cease-fire, and 43% saying it should not get involved at any point.

Gallup analysts use the example of 2006, and draw conclusions they think apply today:

[In 2006] Given several options for the role the United States should play in bringing about peace between Israel and Hezbollah, only 14% of Americans said the United States should take the leading role. More than half (56%) said the United States should be involved but that the United Nations should take the leading role, and another 29% said the United States should not be involved at all.

That sentiment may very well apply to how Americans perceive the Gaza conflict today. While the public may believe the United States should have a place at the diplomatic table, it may not want to see the United States leading the Palestinian-Israeli peace effort, or expending time and other resources on it that may be needed closer to home.

This might explain the discrepancy between Rasmussen finding 50% wanting a cease-fire now, and Gallup finding only 33% to want more engagement in brokering a cease-fire. While Americans wish for a cease-fire, most of them don’t want it to be a direct result of American intervention, but rather an internal truce among the warring parties which would void the need of any further American involvement. The Gallup poll iterates the finding that liberals statistically favor direct U.S. intervention and a cease-fire more strongly than other political denominations.

What’s most interesting: Gallup asked half the sample about involvement of “the Bush administration” and the other half about involvement “of the United States”; when the “Bush factor” was eliminated from the question’s wording, the partisan differences in attitudes waned significantly:

This difference [between the samples] is largely because Democrats and independents are significantly more likely to favor greater action when the question is framed in terms of the Bush administration rather than the country, generally.

In other words, it’s not even action most liberals truly want; it’s having another, probably last, shot at criticizing the Bush administration.

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