Jewish Journal


March 7, 2013

Washington Diary: Why did Americans Suddenly Decide that Obama isn’t Supportive of Israel?



photo by Reuters

Two new polls from the last two weeks examine US public opinion on Israel. And while both don’t fundamentally change the overall picture we present in our J-Meter Israel Favorability tracker, they do merit a second look. One is an NBC/WSJ poll from late February, and the other one is a poll by The Hill. One asks the traditional question about support for Israelis/Palestinians, the other is more specific and examines how Americans view Obama’s support for Israel. Both polls were quoted by several press reports, and in both cases the quotes often lacked context and proper explanations of the results, context and proper explanations which we would like to provide here.


Let’s begin with the NBC/WSJ poll: there are two different questions in the poll – one is about US policy, the other is about personal preferences.

The one about policy asks: “When it comes to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, do you think that the United States should support the Israelis more than the Palestinians, support the Palestinians more than the Israelis or should the U.S. treat both the same and not support one more than the other?” 55% of Americans would like the US to “treat both the same” (31% would favor Israel).

However, when the question turns to personal preferences, or feelings – “In the Middle East situation, are your sympathies more with the Israelis or more with the Palestinians?” – is becomes much clearer that Americans favor Israel. 45% were for Israel, 13% for the Palestinians, and a meager 6% who (voluntarily) said “both”.

So – Americans believe that the “policy” should not favor anyone, probably because they 1. Think it’s not fair to devise a policy that isn’t evenhanded, and/or 2. Believe that an evenhanded policy is the one with which one gets the best results. But when they are asked about their own feelings, it becomes clear why having an evenhanded policy is difficult: the voters have much more positive feelings about Israel, and a policy that might seem hurtful to Israel isn’t likely to get their support.


Still, the 45% who sympathize with Israel mark a low point for such a question. Gallup has been asking a similar question for many years, and Israel’s favorability numbers in it tend to be much higher, as you can see here:



The question is identical; the support for Israel in the new poll is much lower. This is true compared to Gallup polls, but also to PEW polls of recent years, including a poll from last December in which 50% said they sympathize more with Israel, compared with just 10% who said they sympathize more with the Palestinians; almost a quarter (23%) do not give an opinion while 13% said that they sympathize with neither side, and 4% say both”.

The analysis of PEW researchers emphasizes the fact that “attitudes on this question have been stable over the past six years”. One needs to wonder whether the NBC/WSJ poll is an outlier, or maybe it is the first sign of decline in support for Israel (compared to the Palestinians). One also has to get over the fact that such a trend seems contradictory to the trend one detects in the poll that we’re going to discuss next. If Americans are less supportive of Israel, why would they want it to get more US support?


So we now turn our attention to the second new poll, the one by The Hill. The headlines quoting this survey were quick to announce that the American public feels that Obama “doesn’t back Israel enough”, or that American voters “want more pro-Israel Obama”. The general feeling one gets from these headlines is one of a policy which the public doesn’t support and of a President not in line with the voters on Israel. Is this the case though?

The numbers are pretty unambiguous: 30% of the American public defines Obama as “anti-Israel”. When asked “is the Obama administration's policy toward Israel too supportive, not supportive enough or about right?” 39% said it isn’t supportive enough. This might seem as a clear condemnation of the President’s policies. But again, it is worth comparing the Hill poll to similar polls from recent years (most notably the recent PEW poll that also asked if the US has been “too supportive”, “not supportive enough” or “about right”). Here’s a comparison in a table:



Bottom line: one can clearly see that the number of Americans who think that the US supports Israel “too much” has decreased significantly, the number of Americans who think it isn’t supportive enough has increased dramatically, and less Americans believe that the level of support is about right.


One thing seems clear: Obama has a problem with Israel. One can deduct one of two conclusions: either the public sees through the President’s propaganda and doesn’t believe that he is truly supportive of Israel; or the pubic buys the anti-Obama propaganda and doesn’t understand that he actually is supportive of Israel. In any case, his PR machine didn’t do a good enough job pushing away the Obama-is-bad-for-Israel allegations. Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, the public’s view of the policy is much worse today than it was two years ago, even though the relations between the Obama administration and the Israeli government are better today than they were then. Here are seven possible explanations for this deterioration in Obama’s 'performance sheet':

  1. The Hill was the only organization asking about “Obama” and not about “US policy" – hence, it might have something to do with Obama’s general approval ratings. In such case, there’s little significance to the differences between the Hill survey and the surveys of other outlets. There’s one problem with this explanation though: In previous Hill surveys – asking the same “Obama” question – the President was still doing better than is today, so we still need to explain the significant change in numbers. Here are three Hill surveys:
  2. The latest Hill survey is an outlier. It doesn’t make any sense. It certainly doesn’t seem reasonable considering the bettering of the relations between the governments and considering the announcement of Obama's visit; it’s also not compatible with previous polls – in fact, it is completely anomalous compared with previous polls.
  3. Maybe we’re still in post-election mode: the campaign to portray Obama as not supportive of Israel was at its peak during the months leading to election day. The latest Hill survey is the only post-election survey, and might reflect the success of Obama opponents in conducting this campaign (of course, they failed their broader goal of unseating the President). One sign that this might be the proper explanation: the PEW survey form October 2012, right before the election, also shows a relatively higher number of respondents saying that Obama isn’t supportive enough of Israel compared to previous polls.
  4. Another possible explanation: events-driven change of mood – notably the instability associated with what we used to call the Arab spring. It’s possible that the more the American public becomes aware of the actual – rather than hoped for – happenings in the Middle East (Syria, Egypt and the rest of them), the more it isn't satisfied with the level of support Israel is getting.
  5. The Hagel nomination and confirmation process might have alerted Americans and made them look unfavorably at the way Obama handles matters concerning Israel – the timing fits such a theory.
  6. Ironically, it might be the news about the coming Obama visit that made American voters aware of the fact that Obama has an 'Israel Problem', and reminded them of the many differences he has had with the Israeli government over the years. If that’s the case, the question is whether the visit will be powerful enough to eradicate the widely-held impression that Obama isn't just not supportive enough but actually “anti-Israel” (30%).
  7. This was a long time in the making. Obama had contentious relations with the Israeli government for four years, and suddenly, reality dawned on the voters’ minds.


Let's put this all in proportion, though: the campaign to convince voters that Obama isn’t supportive enough of Israel has clearly worked, but it also failed to sway Americans to vote against Obama. We must remember that, after all, the Israeli Factor isn’t important enough to make the difference for most American voters. In fact – as I’ve demonstrated at length – it isn’t even important enough to make the difference among Jewish voters.

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