Evangelicals hold sway among US Republicans
Washington - Christian evangelicals represent the US voting bloc that most strongly supports Israel, while among the general public, views in favour of a two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution and greater US impartiality are growing, a recent poll indicates.
Evangelicals comprise a minority of opinion among voters that the United States should veto any UN Security Council resolution to endorse a Palestinian state, the poll suggests.
The findings indicate the gap between Republicans and Democrats on Middle East policy begins to narrow when the evangelical factor is removed from the data.
“The issue of Israel in American politics is considered principally a Republican issue but, in fact, our results show, it’s principally the issue of evangelical Republicans,” Shibley Telhami, the poll’s principal investigator, told The Arab Weekly on the sidelines of a presentation of his findings at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Telhami’s poll, conducted in November, was sponsored by the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. A total of 1,738 people, randomly selected, completed the 50-question survey, giving the data a margin of error of 3.3%.
“There are, of course, partisan differences on Middle East policy in American public attitudes but what’s most striking is that much of the differences between Republicans and the national total disappears once one sets aside evangelical Republicans,” he said, adding that evangelicals comprise 10% of the general population, but 23% of Republicans. Almost no evangelicals claim to be part of the Democratic Party.
The survey shows that in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict overall, 77% of evangelical Republicans want the United States to favour Israel, compared to 29% of Americans overall and 36% of non-evangelical Republicans.
In contrast, 66% of all Americans and 60% of non-evangelical Republicans asked said they believe the United States should not favour either side. Half of Democratic respondents say Israel yields “too much influence” over US policy.
“That’s the big story, even if it’s more complicated than the numbers,” said Telhami. He added that the absence of previous data on this particular question makes trend assessments difficult but future data should shed some light on whether Democratic voters increasingly eschew Israeli influence over US Middle East policy.
And when it comes to a possible Security Council vote to endorse the establishment of a Palestinian state, six out of ten evangelical Republicans said they would want the United States to cast a veto, compared with almost four out of ten of non-evangelical Republicans. Among the general public, 26% said they favour a veto.
While it has been a given in US elections that a candidate’s position on Israel may sway the race one way or the other, Telhami’s poll shows that evangelical Republicans are twice as likely as their fellow Republicans to consider a candidate’s stance on Israel as a major deciding factor. Among the general public, 26% consider Israel a deciding factor.
Particularly interesting is the popularity among evangelicals of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu despite the diplomatic rows between Washington and Tel Aviv that embarrassed even the staunchest Jewish supporters. Before the Iran nuclear agreement, Netanyahu broke diplomatic protocol in bypassing the White House to publicly address the US Congress in an 11th-hour attempt to persuade US lawmakers to vote against it.
Despite the blunder, which was publicly condemned by some Jewish groups, two-thirds of evangelical Republicans polled said they hold Netanyahu in a favourable light, compared with 47% of non-evangelical Republicans and one-third of the general public.
One possible explanation for the unwavering support for Israel among evangelical Republicans is their apocalyptic religious views.
According to the survey, two-thirds of evangelical Republican respondents said they believe that, in order for the second coming of Christ to occur, current-day Israel must include all the land that was promised to Israel in the Old Testament. Three out of four Evangelicals also said that the unfolding violence across the Middle East is a sign that the end times are nearer and that world events will turn against Israel as the world approaches the end of days.
Even though evangelicals comprise a minority among Republican voters, candidates feel compelled to cater to them.
“It’s about the intensity of opinion, not about the exact size,” Telhami said. “Evangelicals who believe in the second coming, that’s an intense view. If you are the Republican candidate, you’re going to appeal to the minority who are most intense.”