Americans Divided On Palestinian Statehood

The Palestinian president is set to make a bid for statehood on Friday at the U.N., but President Obama said he'll veto the effort. A new Pew study shows some Americans strongly sympathize with Israel while others strongly support a Palestinian state. Michel Martin explores American public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we are going to continue our musical celebration of Hispanic heritage. The co-hosts of NPR Music's Alt.Latino Podcast are going to give us a taste of the diverse musical flavors of Brazil. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to turn to the international controversy that has taken center stage at the United Nations in New York. On Friday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is said to ask the UN to recognize Palestine as a state.

President Obama says he will veto that effort if it comes before the UN Security Council. He talked about it in a Wednesday speech before the General Assembly.

BARACK OBAMA: I am convinced that there is no shortcut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace is hard work. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations. If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.

MARTIN: Throughout those decades, American officials and American aid money and American activists have all played important roles in trying to negotiate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But we were wondering what the American public says about all of this, so we've called upon Carroll Doherty. He's associate director of the Pew Research Center. Pew just released a poll on this topic and he's here with us in our Washington, DC studios, once again, to explain what they found out.

Welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

CARROLL DOHERTY: Good morning.

MARTIN: Now, you study found that more than 40 percent of Americans favor the US recognizing Palestine as a state, but you also found that almost the same percentage of Americans sympathize more with Israel.

DOHERTY: That's right. That's a two-edged finding. There is support for a Palestinian state, certainly more support than opposition. Not a majority, but 42 percent, as you said. Yet we find this consistent and long running support for Israel, more sympathy for Israel than Palestinians in the Middle East dispute, generally.

MARTIN: Do you think that the Arab Spring and all the news about the Arab Spring, has influenced these findings?

DOHERTY: Not so much. The public's been a little cautious in its approach towards the Arab Spring. It certainly tuned in to the Egypt demonstrations early on and there was a great deal of interest in these changes, but it hasn't fundamentally altered the public opinion.

MARTIN: And it has to be said that only 10 percent of the respondents said that they are following the news closely on this issue. Were you surprised about that?

DOHERTY: Not really.

MARTIN: I have to say I was a little surprised by that, given that it's so heavily covered.

DOHERTY: It is covered, but not to the extent that unemployment, the jobs crisis, the deficit negotiations - these are all overshadowing this issue.

MARTIN: Now, your study also found that there is a major partisan divide on opinion, on this issue. Could you lay that out for us?

DOHERTY: Well, for many years, we've been seeing a partisan divide in terms of support for Israel, with Republicans saying they sympathize with Israel more than Democrats. And you also see this reflected in the Palestinian state question where Democrats, 54 percent to 14 percent, say they favor the US recognizing an independent Palestinian state. Among republicans, it's only 27 percent saying this, so it's about half that number. Republicans are very skeptical about this idea.

MARTIN: And independents?

DOHERTY: And independents are about to where the public is, which is 45 percent thinking it's a good idea and 28 percent opposing.

MARTIN: Now, why do you think that is? What do you think accounts for that partisan divide?

DOHERTY: Well, I think it goes back to our findings on Israel where we've seen Republicans, particularly in the last 10, 15 years, really coming to support Israel in big numbers.

MARTIN: Do you have any idea why that is?

DOHERTY: Well, there are a couple of factors. I mean, the number of white evangelicals in the republican base and there's certainly a religious feeling about this. The idea that Israel was granted to the Jews, the biblical injunction on that.

But there's also the security issue that the US has a strong alliance with Israel and even non-evangelical Republicans are very supportive of Israel.

MARTIN: And do you know what underlies the Democratic support for recognizing Palestine as an independent nation? What do you think underlies that?

DOHERTY: Well, I mean, it's important to point out that Democrats aren't more sympathetic to the Palestinians. They - even in this poll, they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, and that's been a consistent finding for many years. They just don't support Israel at the same high numbers as Republicans.

But I think what Democrats are saying is that independents - the idea of independents - is something worth supporting.

MARTIN: Do you think ? And is there a finding on whether the people - as we noted earlier, only 10 percent of those surveyed said that they are following the news closely on this issue. Do the 10 percent who are following closely tend to lean one way or the other?

DOHERTY: Well, they're more skeptical of a Palestinian state than people who are just following it, marginally, or not hearing anything about it all. And this group tends to be a little bit more Republican. I mean, this is a group that is more Republican, and so they're dubious about this.

MARTIN: Given that, that their sympathy for Israel, but their support, kind of middling support for a Palestinian state - particularly among those who are President Obama's base. But the people who are not in love with him, anyway, who tend to be Republicans, are opposed to it, does this issue cut one way politically - one way or another? And I'm not trying to imply that that's the most important thing about it, but one does want to know. Is there a political consequence to this?

DOHERTY: Well, I think we've been hearing a lot about the politics of Israel in the last few weeks, with the special election in New York and various other issues -Rick Perry's criticism of the president.

I mean, it's important to point out that, in 2008, Barack Obama, as have most recent Democratic nominees, won an overwhelming percentage of the Jewish vote. It's unclear now. The data's - there's no suggestion among the data that Gallop organization has compiled, that there's been a disproportionate loss of Jewish support for the president. So the political implications are a little unclear, but I suspect it will be an issue to come, because it's a foreign policy issue that matters to activists and advocacy groups. And, you know, it's a way for Rick Perry to differentiate himself from the president on an important issue.

MARTIN: And just, can you give us some sort of a perspective on how these opinions have or have not changed over time? The findings that we're seeing now - as I mentioned, this is very much in the news right now, at least for those who are paying attention. But what's the history, you know, on this question? Are you seeing - is what we're seeing now, pretty much what we've seen in the years past?

DOHERTY: I think it's pretty consistent with what we've seen. One of the interesting things, from a polling perspective, about this Israel sympathies question, is that it goes back decades. And it really hasn't moved all that much through war and peace negotiations in the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt. It really hasn't moved all that much. The public sympathies have been very solidly with Israel through this whole period.

MARTIN: Carroll Doherty is the associate director of the Pew Research Center. He was kind enough to join us today in our NPR studios in Washington, DC.

Carroll Doherty, thank you so much for joining us.

DOHERTY: Thank you.

MARTIN: And if you'd like to read these findings for yourselves, we'll link to them on our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

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