January 13, 2009

Modest Backing For Israel in Gaza Crisis

No Desire for Greater U.S. Role in Resolving Conflict

Overview

Americans have a mixed view of the war in the Gaza Strip, and see it in much the same way as they viewed Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah in 2006. While continuing to express strong general support for Israel, the public offers limited approval of Israel’s decision to take military action in Gaza. However, Hamas is largely seen as primarily responsible for the outbreak of violence.

These are the principal findings of the latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Jan. 7-11 among 1,503 adults reached on landlines and cell phones. Overall public support for Israel has been undiminished by the war: 49% now say they sympathize with Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians while just 11% sympathize with the Palestinians. This division of opinion largely mirrors public attitudes in August 2006 during the Hezbollah war.

As to the situation in Gaza itself, more than three times as many people blame Hamas for the outbreak of violence there than blame Israel (by 41% to 12%). Nonetheless, just 40% approve of the military action Israel has taken in Gaza; 33% disapprove. Half of Americans say Israel’s response to the current conflict with Hamas has been about right, while 24% believe Israel has gone too far. These views also are almost identical to those expressed about Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006.

There is little support for a greater U.S. role in resolving the Gaza crisis. Just 17% believe the United States should be more involved than it is currently, 27% say the United States should be less involved, and nearly half (48%) say it is about as involved as it should be. Again, these opinions closely replicate views of U.S. involvement in the war in Lebanon in 2006.

Partisan Gap Over Gaza

There are sizable partisan differences in opinions about the Gaza conflict and in overall support for Israel. By nearly three-to-one (55% to 20%), Republicans approve of the military action Israel has taken in the Gaza Strip. Independents, by a smaller margin (44% to 29%), also approve of Israel’s actions. However, a plurality of Democrats (45%) disapproves of Israel’s military campaign, while just 29% express a positive opinion.

Nearly two-thirds of Republicans (65%) say that Israel’s response in Gaza has been about right, while very few (8%) believe Israel has gone too far. Fewer than half of Democrats (45%) say that Israel’s response has been about right and more than a third (36%) say it has been excessive.

These divisions extend to attitudes about the proper U.S. response to the crisis. A majority of Republicans (56%) say that the United States should publicly support Israel, compared with 37% of independents and 34% of Democrats. The plurality view among independents and Democrats, shared by roughly four-in-ten in each group (42% of independents, 40% of Democrats) is that the United States should say or do nothing in this conflict.

There are smaller partisan differences in views about the U.S. role in resolving the conflict. Fewer than one-in-five Democrats (18%), independents (17%) and Republicans (15%) say that the United States should be more involved than it is now in resolving the conflict. However, more Democrats (31%) and independents (26%) than Republicans (20%) say the United States should be less involved than it is now.

And in Mideast Sympathies

The public has long sympathized more with Israel than the Palestinians in the Middle East conflict and that continues to be the case. More than four times as many people say they sympathize with Israel rather than the Palestinians (49% to 11%); 15% say they sympathize with neither side, while a sizable proportion offers no opinion (20%).

There has been a wide partisan gap in Mideast sympathies in recent years. Currently, 69% of Republicans say they sympathize more with Israel in the Middle East conflict, compared with 47% of independents and 42% of Democrats. Partisan differences in basic Mideast sympathies have been about that large since 2006.

Nearly one-in-five Democrats (18%) and 10% of independents currently say they sympathize more with the Palestinians than Israel in their dispute; just 5% of Republicans say they sympathize more with the Palestinians.

There also are substantial ideological, religious and age differences in views of the Middle East conflict. Three-quarters of conservative Republicans (75%) say they sympathize more with Israel while just 3% say they sympathize more with the Palestinians. The balance of opinion is closer among other ideological groups. Liberal Democrats express the most sympathy for the Palestinians: 34% of liberal Democrats say they sympathize more with Israel while 26% say they sympathize more with the Palestinians.

White evangelical Protestants are far more likely to express greater sympathy for Israel than are members of other religious groups. Fully 70% of white evangelicals say they sympathize more with Israel while just 5% say they sympathize more with the Palestinians. About half of white mainline Protestants (48%) and white non-Hispanic Catholics (50%) side more with Israel, while about one-in-ten sympathize more with the Palestinians (13% of white mainline Protestants, 10% of white non-Hispanic Catholics).

Fewer than a third of the religiously unaffiliated (32%) expresses greater sympathy for Israel in the Mideast dispute, while 15% sympathize more with the Palestinians. A relatively large minority of the religiously unaffiliated (23%) sympathizes with neither side.

Those who are younger than 30 are less likely to sympathize with Israel than are older Americans. By 42% to 17%, more young people say they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians. Roughly half or more of those in older age groups sympathize more with Israel, while only about one-in-ten or fewer sympathize more with the Palestinians.

Major Threats: al Qaeda, Iran

Large majorities of Americans believe that al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups (77%) and Iran’s nuclear program (65%) represent major threats to the well-being of the United States. Other international concerns are viewed as less threatening. Fewer than half (45%) see the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as a major threat to the United States, which is comparable to the percentages that view political instability in Pakistan (47%) and China’s emerging power (46%) as major threats.

The public perceptions of major international concerns have changed little over the past year. Somewhat fewer Americans view Russia’s tensions with its neighbors as a major threat to the United States than did so last September 37% now, 44% then), shortly after Russia’s conflict with neighboring Georgia.

Nearly eight-in-ten Republicans (77%) view Iran’s nuclear program as a major threat to the United States, compared with 65% of Democrats and 63% of independents. There are comparable partisan differences in concerns over China’s emerging power (12 points) and Islamic extremist groups like al Qaeda.