January 29, 2009

Ideological Gaps Over Israel on Both Sides of Atlantic

The American public has long expressed strong support for Israel. In a survey conducted earlier this month during the conflict in the Gaza Strip, 49% of Americans said they sympathized more with Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians, while just 11% sympathized more with the Palestinians and 15% said they sympathized with neither side. These findings reflected the typical support that Americans have expressed for Israel over the years.

In contrast, polls in Western Europe have frequently found more support for the Palestinians than the Israelis, as was the case in a 2007 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. In France, 43% said they sympathized with the Palestinians — the highest percentage of the six Western European countries surveyed at that time. About a third of the French (32%) said they sympathized more with Israel, while 16% said they sympathized with neither side in the conflict.

In Sweden, Great Britain, and Spain, somewhat greater percentages sympathized with the Palestinians than Israel. By contrast, about a third of Germans (34%) said they sympathized more with Israel, 21% said they sympathized more with the Palestinians, while a relatively large minority (34%) said they sympathized with neither side.

In Italy, however, fully half of respondents volunteered that they sympathized with neither side; by contrast, 16% of Italians said they sympathized with the Palestinians and just 9% with Israel. More Italians said they sympathized with neither side than in any of the 47 countries surveyed in 2007.1

While Americans and Europeans generally take different sides in the conflict, ideology matters on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, self-described conservatives sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians by greater than seven-to-one (60% to 8%). Far more moderates also sympathize with Israel rather than the Palestinians (50% to 11%). More liberals sympathize with Israel than the Palestinians, though by a much smaller margin than do moderates or conservatives (33% Israel vs. 21% Palestinians).

There was a similar ideological pattern in opinions about the Mideast dispute in the 2007 Global Attitudes survey in Western Europe. Looking at combined data from six Western European countries, in every ideological group there was far less sympathy for Israel and far more sympathy for the Palestinians than in roughly comparable groups in the United States.2

Among Western European respondents who rated themselves on the political right on a six-point scale, 29% said they sympathized with Israel, 22% the Palestinians and more than a third (34%) said they sympathized with neither side. Western Europeans who placed themselves in the political center were evenly divided: similar percentages sympathized with the Palestinians (27%) and Israel (24%), while 31% sympathized with neither side.

Western Europeans who placed themselves on the left expressed strong support for the Palestinians: more than twice as many sympathized more with the Palestinians than with Israel (41% to 19%); 22% said they sympathized with neither side in the Middle East dispute.

 

U.S. Views of Middle East Conflict

In the United States, ideological and political differences in Middle East sympathies have increased in recent years. In a survey conducted in early September 2001, shortly before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 47% of conservatives said they sympathized more with Israel than the Palestinians, compared with 39% of liberals and 36% of moderates.

In August 2006, following Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon, 64% of conservatives said they sympathized more with Israel, compared with 49% of moderates and 42% of liberals. In the most recent Pew Research survey, conducted Jan. 7-11 among 1,503 Americans, nearly twice as many conservatives as liberals said they sympathize more with Israel (60% vs. 33%).

The gap between conservatives and liberals is much wider than it was in 2001, but the differences between moderates and liberals have increased as well. Moderates and liberals were about equally likely to sympathize with Israel in 2001; currently, 50% of moderates say they sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, compared with 33% of liberals.

Partisan differences in Middle East opinions also have grown dramatically since 2001. Nearly seven-in-ten Republicans (69%) now say they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians; just 42% of Democrats agree. In early September 2001, 50% of Republicans sympathized more with Israel, compared with 38% of Democrats.

Religion has long been a major factor in opinions about the Middle East, with white evangelical Protestants consistently expressing greater support for Israel than members of other religious groups. Yet those differences are not substantially larger today than in early September 2001.

  1. For full results from the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, see "Global Unease with Major World Powers," June 27, 2007.
  2. For this analysis data from six Western European countries were combined. In the combined data set 27% of West Europeans said they sympathized more with the Palestinians, 22% more with Israel, and 32% volunteered they sided with neither side.