Polling shows Americans remain supportive of Israel in Gaza conflict

Israeli soldiers stand by an artillery piece near the Israel Gaza border, Thursday, July 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
Israeli soldiers stand by an artillery piece near the Israel Gaza border, Thursday, July 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov) AP

Public support for Israel among Americans has remained strong through the most recent outbreak of conflict in Gaza, new surveys have shown, though attitudes among younger Americans and Democrats are less pro-Israel than they have been during previous fighting. 

Four weeks of nearly ceaseless rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli military actions there that have killed more than 1,500 Palestinians and at least 65 Israeli soldiers and civilians have produced only a slight variation in public views that historically have favored Israel. 

According to a Pew Research Poll released Monday, 40 percent of Americans blame Hamas for the fighting, while 19 percent blame Israel. Those percentages are similar to a poll conducted by Pew in January 2009, during a previous Israeli incursion into Gaza, when 41 percent blamed Hamas and 12 percent blamed Israel. 

“It’s a pro-Israel public,” said Alec Tyson, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center who worked on the most recent survey of American opinion. “And so as these conflicts flair up, that is the background for the disposition Americans . . . bring.” 

Research does show, however, that support for Israel is becoming increasingly partisan. Another Pew poll, released earlier this month, found that the gap between Republicans and Democrats on sympathy with Israel is at its widest since the 1970s. The number of Republicans who said they sympathized more with Israel was much higher, 77 percent, than the number of Democrats, 44 percent.

Democrats were roughly split on placing blame for the current conflict, with 29 percent saying Hamas was more responsible, 26 percent saying Israel was at fault, and 27 percent saying they were unsure. Among Republicans, support for Israel was stauncher, with 60 percent saying Hamas is responsible. 

As a whole, the number of people who think Israel has gone too far has remained the same as in 2009 _ about a quarter. But Americans in general are less likely today to say Israel’s response to Hamas has been appropriate than they were during Operation Cast Lead in 2009 _ down to 34 percent this year compared with 50 percent then. More Americans said they were unsure of the appropriateness of the Israeli response, 24 percent, than in 2009, 19 percent. The number of people who thought Israel should be more aggressive toward Hamas has increased, up to 15 percent from 7 percent in 2009.

Young Americans, ages 18 to 29, were the most likely to report they were unsure if Israel’s response was appropriate, 32 percent, and more blamed Israel, 29 percent, than blamed Hamas, 21 percent.

Alan Elsner, vice president of communications for J Street, a Washington-based Jewish advocacy that describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” said he believes many politically liberal Jews are weary of Israel’s bellicose stand toward Palestinians.

“There is a viewpoint in the past few days that enough is enough,” he said.

Recently, J Street has been criticized by other Zionist organizations for its support of a two-state solution and condemnation of Israeli practices such as building settlements in Palestinian territories. But its leaders argue that J Street supports a growing voice among the pro-Israel community that supports the Jewish state while not backing all the decisions of its leaders.

“The growth of our organization shows the demand that needed to be filled,” Elsner said. “A new generation is growing up in the United States whose support for Israel is twinned by what it means to be Jewish, and what it means to support democratic values.”

While the Pew Center study found slightly shifting attitudes toward the conflict among so-called millennials _ people born in the late 1980s and 1990s who are now in their 20s _ researchers cautioned that those attitudes are likely to change as the people age.

“There’s potential for them (young people) to drive change, but there is also a potential that their own views will change,” Pew’s Tyson said.

David Bernstein, the executive director of the David Project, a nationwide college Zionist organization, said that as casualties mount during any crisis, public support wanes. But he did not predict that the current crisis would have a lasting effect on pro-Israel feelings among millennials. 

“We know there is going to be a diversity of opinions on Israel” among young people, Bernstein said, noting that many believe Israel has a right to defend itself from Hamas rocket attacks. “I haven’t seen any evidence that suggests Americans are losing support for Israel’s war efforts.”

While the polls show Democrats to be more questioning of Israeli policies, even liberal lawmakers in Congress have been cautious to avoid the appearance of not supporting Israel. Both houses passed resolutions this week with overwhelming majorities condemning Hamas. 

The office of Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., one of the few congressional critics of Israel’s actions the body’s only Muslim representative, declined to comment for this story about how constituents have responded to the conflict in Gaza. 

When approached by a Daily Beast reporter, the congressman reportedly adopted a harsh tone, saying, “Look man, I’m a politician with multiple constituencies. Why should I alienate one just so that you can write a story?” 

Ellison’s office declined to comment on the quote. 

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a staunch Israel supporter who co-sponsored the House resolution condemning Hamas, said in a statement that the majority of the messages she’s received from constituents have been in support of Israel. 

The office of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a libertarian and possible 2016 presidential candidate whose pronouncements on foreign policy have been denounced by many members of his own party, did not respond to requests for comment.