A new poll on American attitudes toward a core conflict in the Middle East finds about half of Democrats want the U.S. to do more to support the Palestinians, showing that a growing rift among Democratic lawmakers is also reflected in the party’s base.
The poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds differences within both the Democratic and the Republican parties on the U.S. approach toward Israel and the Palestinians, with liberal Democrats wanting more support for the Palestinians and conservative Republicans seeking even greater support for the Israelis.
The survey also examined Americans’ opinions on the Biden administration’s handling of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The survey was conducted about three weeks into a cease-fire following a devastating 11-day war last month between Israel and the Gaza Strip’s Hamas militant rulers. The fighting killed at least 254 Palestinians and 13 people in Israel.
The poll shows Americans overall are divided over U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. It also shows more Americans disapprove of President Joe Biden’s approach to the conflict than approve of it.
Among Democrats, 51 percent say the U.S. is not supportive enough of the Palestinians. The sentiment jumps to 62 percent among Democrats who describe themselves as liberal. On the other hand, 49 percent of Republicans say the U.S. is not supportive enough of the Israelis, a number that rises to 61 percent among those who say they're conservative.
Paul Spelce, a 26-year-old Democratic-leaning independent voter and supporter of Palestinian statehood, is a member of a heavily religious Texas Republican family whose support for Israel is ingrained with their Christian faith. Spelce, of Austin, says he followed news of last month's Gaza war and the U.S. response closely on the radio as he helped deliver mail.
“I started paying a lot more attention," said Spelce, who said he disapproved of Biden's handling of the conflict and thinks the U.S. is too supportive of Israelis and not supportive enough of the Palestinians. “I don't think Biden's word was that strong," Spelce said. “And I don't think, you know, this administration ... can actually do anything” regarding the conflict.
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Overall, the poll shows that 29 percent of Americans say the U.S. is too supportive of the Israelis, 30 percent say it’s not supportive enough and 36 percent say it’s about right. In its approach toward the Palestinians, 25 percent say the U.S. is too supportive, 32 percent say it's not supportive enough and 37 percent say it's about right.
Broad but not unvarying support for Israel has been a tenet of U.S. domestic politics, as well as its foreign policy, for decades. Biden refrained from publicly criticizing Israel over civilian deaths and waited until the last days of fighting last month to openly press Israel to wind down its airstrikes on heavily populated Gaza.
The war highlighted differences among Democratic lawmakers and between some Democratic lawmakers and Biden on Israel policy. Dozens of Democrats in Congress called for Israel and Hamas to cease fire immediately, days before Biden openly did.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a progressive Vermont independent, urged the U.S. to be more even-handed in its approach to the conflict.
The poll found 56 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Biden is handling the conflict, compared with 40 percent who approve. While 75 percent of Republicans disapprove of how Biden is handling the conflict, so do 35 percent of Democrats.
“The new administration’s policies, its posture toward Israel, it’s totally different” to President Donald Trump’s, said ChrisTina Elliott, a 57-year-old Republican in the northeast Texas town of Atlanta. She said she disapproves of Biden’s approach to the conflict and thinks the U.S. should be more supportive of Israelis and less of Palestinians.
“The Palestinians need to put just as much effort as Israel is” into peaceful relations, Elliott said, and added of Israel, “My God, they’re surrounded by enemies.”
Forty-two percent of liberal Democrats say they disapprove of how Biden is handling the conflict, compared with 31 percent of moderate and conservative ones.
That's compared with just 9 percent of Democrats who disapproved of how Biden is handling his job in general. Overall, Biden’s job approval rating stands at 55 percent.
Since the cease-fire, Israel has transitioned to a new government that says it wants to repair relations with Democrats and restore bipartisan support in the U.S. for Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu, the former longtime prime minister, had openly challenged both Biden and President Barack Obama on U.S. policy in the Middle East and was seen as allying himself to Trump.
Some of the respondents in the survey, both Democratic and Republican, cited the comparatively limited timespan of the war — in comparison, 50 days of fighting in 2014 killed more than 2,200 Palestinians and 73 people on the Israeli side — in saying they approved of Biden's handling of the conflict.
The poll also shows just 19 percent of Americans think the U.S. should play a major role in finding a solution to the conflict, while 50 percent say it should play a minor role and 28 percent say it should play no role. Democrats and Republicans are largely in agreement on the size of the U.S. role in the conflict.
A majority of Americans, 57 percent, say they think there is a way for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully, compared with 39 percent who say there is not a way. About 2 out of 3 Democrats think there is a way. Republicans are closely divided, with 50 percent saying there is and 45 percent saying there is not.
Patrick Diehl, another Democratic-leaning independent, cited U.S. offers to help rebuild Gaza buildings leveled by Israeli airstrikes, “so, I guess, they can be destroyed again. This seems to me kind of hapless.”
“You know, we need a stronger position taken by the administration — pushing for actual change rather than continuation of this wretched situation," said Diehl, 74, of Tucson, Arizona.