Authors: Kate Hart, Aurora Speltz, Kerby Gilstrap, Timothy S. Rich*
The United States was the first country to formally recognize the state of Israel in 1948 and has been one of its strongest allies, both politically and militarily. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. has vetoed at least 53 UN resolutions that condemned Israel. The U.S. has also provided considerable military assistance. To put this in perspective, according to the arms transfer data from SIPRI, Israel ranks fifth among all recipients of US military funding since 1950, behind only Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Germany.
In 2016, the U.S. and Israel signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that pledged a total of $38 billion USD to Israel from 2019 to 2028. This was an increase from the previous MOU that was signed in 2007 and pledged $30 billion USD. The current MOU is distributed yearly as $3.3 billion in foreign military financing and $500 million in missile defense funding. U.S. missile defense funding to Israel totals $1.3 billion USD since 2011 and has largely covered Israel’s production of their Iron Dome system, which was one of the key factors in preventing Israeli casualties both in the 2014 and 2021 wars with Gaza.
Such ties also extend to the American public. While official ties certainly suggest a strong relationship, Gallup polls show that over the course of the last 20 years, the lowest overall ranking of Israel by the public was recorded in 2002 and still had 58% of respondents ranking their impression of Israel as “very” or “mostly positive;” that number hit its peak in early 2021 with 75% of respondents ranking their impression as positive (this data was collected prior to the May 2021 conflict). While the American public’s general view of Israel has remained positive over the years, a division can be seen along party lines with Republicans showing stronger support for Israel and Democrats support divided. Recent trends suggest a decline in support for Israel (and an increase in support for the Palestinian Authority) among younger adults and progressive Democrats.
May 2021 saw a new round of violence in the ongoing conflict. In April, tensions rose due to the impending decision of the Israeli courts about the eviction of six families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Raids took place on the Al-Aqsa mosque by the Israeli police on the 7th and 10th of May, where they used tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. Decades of tensions, feelings of discrimination, and perceived injustices boiled over into violence. The first rocket was fired from Gaza by Hamas around 6 pm on May 10th. After 11 days of fighting, during which the Israeli military said it fired 1,500 rockets and Hamas fired 4,300, a ceasefire was called on May 21st. According to Gaza’s health ministry, at least 243 people were killed, 100 of whom were women and children, while Israel’s health ministry says that 12 people were killed, including two children. Despite a clash at the Al-Aqsa mosque later on May 21st, the ceasefire held. The May conflict is being compared by many to the 2014 conflict in Gaza, which lasted from July 8th to August 26th. Hamas used more rockets in the 2021 conflict than in the significantly longer 2014 conflict, though both sides experienced much higher casualties in 2014, with Israeli losses totaling 73, six of whom were civilians, and Palestinian losses totaling 2,251, 1,462 of whom were civilians.
We wanted to see how views of Israel had changed, if at all, due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this year. We conducted an original web survey of 625 American citizens on June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. After a series of demographic and attitudinal questions, we asked “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Overall, respondents scored Israel on average 6.19, with Republicans evaluating higher on average than Democrats (6.79 vs. 5.98).
To test whether public support for aid to Israel shifts when mentioned in the context of recent conflicts, we randomly assigned respondents to one of three prompts
The prompts were:
Version 1: The U.S. provided Israel with $3.8 billion in foreign aid in 2020. Should future aid to Israel be decreased, stay about the same, or increase?
Version 2: The U.S. provided Israel with $3.8 billion in foreign aid in 2020. In light of recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should future aid to Israel be decreased, stay about the same, or increase?
Version 3: The U.S. provided Israel with $3.8 billion in foreign aid in 2020. In light of recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict which has included disproportionate Palestinian casualties, should future aid to Israel be decreased, stay about the same, or increase?
Our data suggests that the American public support for aid to Israel is not systematically affected by recent events or framings as we see little variation across the versions of the survey question received. At best we see small partisan shifts. Democrats were more supportive of decreasing aid if they had received Version 2 priming to consider recent conflict, but those receiving Version 3 were more likely towards staying the same. In contrast, Republican views differ marginally between Versions 1 and 2, with support for aid increasing in Version 3.
Regression analysis further suggests little difference across the three versions once accounting for partisanship and other demographic factors (age, gender, income, education), none of which were statistically significant. Of particular surprise, initial feelings on the 10-point scale also were not statistically significant.
Admittedly most respondents are unlikely to have much knowledge of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor did we directly ask about knowledge of recent conflicts or historical conflicts. However, the results suggest that recent actions are unlikely to generate calls for tying aid to Israel to peaceful resolutions of recent conflicts.
Based on the evidence from this survey and actions from the Biden administration thus far, we do not anticipate significant shifts in US policy towards Israel. Our data shows that Israeli actions, even when framed within the context of the recent Palestinian conflict, do not have significant impacts on future aid to Israel. This is despite both a Gallup Poll from March 2021 finding that the majority of Democrats want the U.S. to pressure Israel to compromise more with the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, progressive Democrats in Congress increasingly have called for greater Israeli accountability. As of now the Biden administration has not used U.S. funding as leverage to change Israeli policies, but absent of a major shift in public opinion, such efforts are unlikely to be motivated by public pressure.
Kate Hart is a Western Kentucky University honors alumna who graduated with degrees in International Affairs and Asian Religions and Cultures. She is currently pursuing her MA in Conflict Resolution and Mediation at Tel Aviv University in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Aurora Speltz is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Arabic, International Affairs, and Spanish.
Kerby Gilstrap is an honors undergraduate student at Western Kentucky University. She is majoring in International Affairs, Arabic, and Sustainable Development.
Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL).
Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.