Wednesday, June 15, 2011

American Exceptionalism and Israel

In my last post, I mentioned the claim that support for Israel was deeply connected to prevailing American values.  I found it in a Wall Street Journal piece, which quoted  Walter Russell Mead:
As the stunning and overwhelming response to Prime Minister Netanyahu in Congress showed, Israel matters in American politics like almost no other country on earth. . . . the people and the story of Israel stir some of the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the American soul. The idea of Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism is profoundly tied to the idea of American exceptionalism. The belief that God favors and protects Israel is connected to the idea that God favors and protects America.
That's a plausible argument, since many Americans do seem to think that the country has a special relationship with God, but his only evidence is the Congressional response to the speech.  It's hard to decide exactly which survey questions are relevant, but the immediate issue between Obama and Netanyahu involved Israel's borders, so let's start there.  There are very few direct questions on the topic, but here is one, from a McLaughlin and Associates survey in 2004:

Do you agree with the position that in any future peace agreement, Israel should be entitled to defensible borders or do you agree with the position that Israel should be forced to return to the boundaries of 1967, when Israel was eight miles wide at its narrowest point and came under attack?  54% defensible; 16% 1967 borders; 30% don't know.
Of course, the language used in the question is not exactly neutral, and what strikes me is that almost half of the people didn't choose "entitled to defensible borders."

On how much Israel matters to Americans, there's a Gallup survey of February 2011 that goes through a list of countries and asks "how important do you think what happens in each of the following countries is to the United States today--would you say it is vitally important, important but not vital, not too important, or not at all important?"  Here are the nations, ranked by the percent saying "vitally important"
                        Vitally important
China                      70%
North Korea                59%
Iran                       57%
Israel                     54%
Afghanistan                51%
Mexico                     50%
Pakistan                   48%
Egypt                      45%
Canada                     39%
Russia                     36%
India                      31%

Of course, saying that what happens in a country is "vitally important" is not the same as valuing that country.  Still, Israel isn't exceptional here--the numbers are similar for other countries in the middle east.

Maybe the most relevant question is:  "Overall do you favor or oppose the United States putting more pressure on Israel to make compromises with the Palestinians?"  Unfortunately, this was asked a while ago (2002, by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland), but 56% said they favored more pressure and 35% opposed.

Then a very general question:  "In the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which side do you sympathize with more, Israel or the Palestinians?"  (Pew, May 2011)  48% Israel, 11% Palestinians, 4% both, 15% neither, 21% Don't know.

So overall, American opinion is favorable to Israel, but there's no sign of a profound connection to the depths of the American soul.

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