Do Americans truly want sanctions on Israel?

December 5, 2016


” target=”_blank”>not a huge fan of Shibley Telhami’s annual survey on American attitudes on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. In my view, it raises heavy suspicion of being ideologically driven. Reading last year’s survey I warned my readers to “” target=”_blank”>summary of answers. The questions tell you how the spin is developed and marketed.” I’d urge you to do the same this year (questions ” target=”_blank”>high favorability numbers of Israel in America, this could seem surprising – maybe a sign that Israel does not have as much support as we thought.

So, is that really surprising?

No, it is not.

Let me explain by first reminding you that when Donald Trump was still running for President he promised to be evenhanded in mediating talks between Israel and Palestine, but also vowed to be more supportive of Israel than most of his predecessors. That is to say that in Trump’s eyes – as in most Americans’ eyes – these are not contradictory declarations.

In handling negotiations, a mediator has to be fair – that’s almost obvious, and any other suggestion runs contrary to the basic sense of fairness that most Americans share. So how, then, will the fair mediator come around to supporting Israel? There’s a simple answer to this question: a fair mediator would look at the facts impartially and conclude that Israel has the better argument and that the Palestinians have the lesser argument. A fair mediator, facing such conclusions, would have no choice but to support Israel. Not because he deceitfully leans towards Israel – but rather because he is objective.


The numbers in this poll are useful when we compare questions from previous years to questions from this year. These are often bad questions, but still the fact of a developing trend remains.

Here is an example. The bad, clearly leading question: “One of the issues of tension between the United States and Israel has been its construction of Israeli settlements in the territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. These settlements are considered illegal by most of the international community and have been opposed by every U.S. administration, both Republican and Democratic. The Israeli government has continued to build settlements arguing that they have the right to do so, or that these are not obstacles to peace. How do you believe the U.S. should react to new settlements?”

Why the question is lousy: because it leads the interviewee to an almost unavoidable conclusion. If these settlements are illegal, if both Democratic and Republican administrations have opposed them – what would you expect an American to say? 24% say “do nothing.” A minority. 28% say “limit US opposition to words.” 33% say “Impose some economic sanctions” and 13% want even “more serious action.”

Here – you got the headline that this poll was supposed to provide: almost half of Americans want economic sanctions or worse imposed on Israel because of the settlements. I think this is nonsense, but maybe I’m biased too. Moreover, some things cannot be ignored even if you agree with me that the way this question is framed is ridiculous. The most important of these is that the trend is against Israel. In 2014 60% of Americans were for “do nothing” or “use words” and 38% were for sanctions or worth. In 2015 the number of those wanting sanctions increased, and in 2016 it increased once more.

Where does the increase come from? The answer is right there in the poll. There is barely a change in the way Republicans answer this question from 2014 to today, but there is a sharp change in the way Democrats and Independents answer this question from 2014. Among Democrats the “do nothing, use talk” camp decreased 14% in two years, and the “impose sanctions” camp increased by 11%. Among Independents it’s 13% decrease and 12% increase.

As much as I dislike the question – I cannot ignore the trend.


There is a simple way with which American pollsters examine the view of Americans toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They have been doing this for many years, so we have a track record of public opinion. They have been doing this by asking a simple question – whom do you sympathize with, or whom do you support more, Israel or the Palestinians. It must be simple, as most Americans barely know to locate Israel on a map, let alone explain the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When the simple question is asked, Israel’s position is hardly as grim as it could seem from the new poll. You can ” target=”_blank”>growing political and generational gap concerning Israel-Palestine in America, and this is hardly good news for Israel. The Trump era threatens to make these gaps – like all other gaps – even more pronounced.

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