The Tea Party and Israel: Dispersing the Smoke

December 4, 2013

The new Pew report on America's place in the world contains the usual mix of confusing public views that contradict one another. Americans in general complain that their country is doing “too much to solve world problems” while mourning the decline of “US global power and prestige” – without connecting the two and realizing that reversing the course of decline requires more, not less, involvement in world affairs. At this point in time, though, skepticism about greater involvement is clearly much more pronounced than the desire to restore American prestige and influence. “Currently, 52% say the United States 'should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.' Just 38% disagree with the statement. This is the most lopsided balance in favor of the U.S. 'minding its own business' in the nearly 50-year history of the measure”.

Somewhat surprisingly, there are relatively modest partisan differences when it comes to views about the US' role in the world. “Comparable percentages of Republicans (52%) and Democrats (46%) say the United States does too much to solve world problems; among independents, 55% express this view”. Within the Republican camp, one can be surprised yet again by the lack of difference between Tea-Party Republicans and 'Non-Tea Party' Republicans- “Tea Party Republicans hold about the same views as non-Tea Party Republicans about America’s role in solving world problems. About half of Republicans and Republican leaners who agree with Tea Party (54%) say the U.S. does too much to solve problems internationally, as do 52% of Republicans and GOP leaners who do not agree with the Tea Party.” The winds of detachment – “isolationism” is probably too strong a term for this – aren't confined to Tea Party quarters.

This fact makes it even more interesting to zero in on Tea Party views related to Israel. For the last couple of years, this movement has been a constant source of head-scratching and concern among pro-Israel activists in the US and Israeli policy makers, all trying to figure out if this movement portends a troubling trend of disconnection with Israel. You can see Israelis' bewilderment in an Israel Factor survey of Israeli experts from 2011, when members of our panel had a hard time reading the tea leaves. “What do Israelis make of the Tea Party movement? What do they know about it, and how do they think it will affect US-Israel relations?… We're confused, we don't yet know, we might not be as apprehensive as we were couple of months ago, nevertheless, we're still quite suspicious”.

It is no surprise that Israelis were – are – confused. The “tea party” sent mixed signals on Israel-related issues (it had relatively little interest in such issues to begin with). Some of its notable members were adamantly (and Hawkishly) pro-Israel, while others, notably Ron Paul and Rand Paul, were vague (I interviewed both). When I chased Ron Paul supporters in Iowa in 2012, I had to admit that “they were all very courteous and nice. If Ron Paul supporters – today we can start calling them voters – bear any grudge against Israel, for being such an annoying country, or for Israelis, for being so needy and apprehensive, or for anyone who might be suspected as being generally supportive of Israel, for being so sanctimonious about it – if they bear such ill will, they hide it well”.   

So supporters of Israel and Israelis are confounded by the possible implications of Tea Party sentiments on the Israel-related tendencies of the Republican Party – but that is because Tea Party supporters themselves are also somewhat confused, as the Pew study documents. If Americans in general want to have more impact on the world while also having less involvement – Tea Party supporters are no less entitled to have views that might seem contradictory.

Take a look at the numbers.

“Tea Party Republicans have especially positive views of Israel: 86% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who agree with the Tea Party view Israel favorably”, compared with 68% of non-Tea-Republicans and just 55% of Democrats (there's nothing new about the Republican-Democratic huge gap on Israel).

Yet when it comes to US involvement in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “Tea Party Republicans are considerably more likely than non-Tea Party Republicans to favor a greater role for the U.S.; 38% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who agree with the Tea Party say the U.S. should be more involved in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, compared with 21% of Republicans and GOP-leaners who do not agree with the Tea Party”.

Why is this surprising and why does it seem contradictory? Because wanting 'more American involvement' in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is often considered to be a code-expression used by those who are more critical of Israel. We know that voters who are less likely to be highly supportive of Israel are more likely to argue that the US should be tougher with Israel on the peace process, and we know that they are the ones who want the US to “lean toward neither side” as it attempts to resolve the conflict – namely, to be neutral. But apparently it is wrong to include 'more involvement in the peace process' in the category of phrases that imply a critical attitude towards Israel.

From earlier surveys we already learned that “when it comes to U.S. involvement in the peace process, there's agreement across religious, partisan and ideological groups (from 66 to 70 percent) that the two sides should handle negotiations themselves”. In simple words: most (or a plurality – depends on the poll) of the American public doesn't want more involvement in the peace process. 69% in the ABC\WP poll say “leave it to Israelis and Palestinians”, 39% in the Pew study want the US “less involved” (compared to 36% “as involved” and 21% “more involved”).

The surprise comes when we discover (Pew) that “Tea Party leaners” – presumably the group which is most apprehensive about US involvement in any foreign adventure – are so supportive of more involvement with resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, what we have here is a double refutation of two Israel-related myths: One – that the more one supports Israel the less one wants more US involvement in peace processing. Two – that the more one leans towards the Tea Party the more one would be reluctant to have American mediation in far-away conflicts.

The question is why, and my theory is as good as yours.

I would assume that Tea Party leaners are making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict an exception because of their high level of support for Israel. In other words: they fear US meddling in foreign affairs, but they are highly supportive of Israel, so they are in favor of seeing a US involvement with Israel that is even more intensive than it is today. When they are asked about involvement in the peace-process they don't ask themselves if such involvement is to Israel's benefit, they just assume that it is (rightly or wrongly, that's a matter worthy of debate). Their support of the American-mediated peace-process is an expression of their support for Israel. This is Interesting, especially as one wonders if they might be willing to make a similar exception when it comes to an issue as sensitive and dear to the Tea Party as foreign aid.

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