The Middle East Policy Debate: U.S. Public Opinion

Presidential candidates supporting multilateralism over preemptive unilateralism and favoring a balanced approach to Middle East peace making will find strong support among U.S. voters. There were some of the conclusions from two recent polls conducted by Zogby International (ZI), a New York polling firm. Both studies surveyed over 1000 randomly selected voters nationwide, and had margins of error of ± 3.2 %.

The first poll, conducted for the Foreign Policy Association (FPA), asked voters for their views on a wide range of issues concerning the role of the U.S. in the world. When asked how they would characterize U.S. foreign policy, over 90% of the respondents agreed with the idea that "America is a good friend and ally of people who desire freedom and individual human rights." This is how they want to see America. However, almost 60% acknowledge the concern that "America is an imperial power that acts on its own, regardless of world opinion."

In response to several other questions, at least two-thirds of all American voters surveyed show strong preference for a foreign policy seeks "multilateralism and international cooperation." This is the case with regard to Iraq and to controlling the spread of nuclear weapons. By a margin of 60% to 34%, Americans also agreed with the proposition that the United Nations is "needed now more than ever is world affairs."

What the FPA/ZI poll establishes is that by a consistent margin of two to one, American voters reject the current unilateralist threat of U.S. foreign policy.

This same concern with the direction of U.S. policy is in evidence with regard to the Bush Administration’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When voters were asked in September 2003 ZI poll whom they felt the Administration should pressure in order to end the current violence, 77% said that both Israelis and Palestinians should be equally pressured. This follow from another interesting set of observations found in the poll.

When asked to evaluate how best to describe current Bush Administration efforts toward achieving Middle East peace, i.e., whether the Administration "leans toward Israel," "leans toward the Palestinians" or "steers a middle course between the two," 47.5% say the Administration favors Israel, 2% say the Administration favors the Palestinians, and 34% say the Administration "steers a middle course." When asked, however, how they feel the Administration should pursue Middle East peace, only 16% say that the Administration "should lean toward Israel," and 1% say it "should lean toward the Palestinians." A substantial majority of 73% says that the Administration "should steer a middle course between the two parties."

This decided tilt toward balance has been in evidence for a number of years, but has grown significantly in recent polling. For example, in April 1999, 56% of those polled indicated support for a "middle course." In September of 1999 this increased to 61%. By April of 1998 those favoring balance had risen to 64% and in April of 2000 the number had increased again to 71%, before reaching this year’s figure of 73%.

This pronounced movement toward desiring a more balanced Middle East policy can also be seen in the responses given to other questions. For example, while more voters still indicate that they sympathize with Israel more than with the Palestinians, one half of those polled now indicate that they "sympathize with both Israelis and Palestinians equally." And while more Americans blame the Palestinians for the current violence (19.5% as compared to 4.5% who blame the Israelis), 69% now blame both sides equally.

All of this raises an intriguing question: What if a candidate in fact called for a more "evenhanded policy?" Would such a stance win or lose support among voters?

With that in mind, the September 2003 ZI poll asked the following question:
"Recently there was a dispute between candidates for the Democratic nomination. Candidate A said that it is not the place for the United States to take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the U.S. should be even-handed to earn the trust of both parties in the dispute. Candidate B said that this is a mistake and a major break from a half-century of American foreign policy, which is based on a special relationship with Israel."

Among Democratic voters, the position of candidate A won by a margin of 57% to 35%. Similarly, when asked:

"Candidate A was challenged to change his views. If he sticks to his original statement for a more balanced U.S. Middle East policy, would that make you . . . in your support for him for President?"

48% of Democratic voters indicate that they would be more likely to support candidate A if he resisted pressure to change his views. Only 12% of Democrats said that sticking to a balanced position would make them less likely to support Candidate A.

What all of this data points to is quite clear. Voters are ready for a change in the way the U.S. conducts its foreign policy. Having witnessed the consequences of a unilateral preemptive foreign and military policy, the collapse of the Middle East peace process, and the decided tilt of the U.S. in support of Israel, American voters want a new approach. They want Americans to project its values through international cooperation and they want U.S. policy toward the Middle East to be balance in the pursuit of peace. And, as the polls indicate, they will support a candidate who stands behind such a change in direction.