The surveys indicate that there are no deep social processes in the American public backing the trend of reconcilement between the political leaderships in Israel and the US

Trump Administration Policy and American Public Opinion: Implications for Israel

By -- Avner Golov —— Bio and Archives--February 19, 2018

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Trump Administration Policy and American Public Opinion: Implications for Israel
United States policy underwent significant changes during the past year under President Trump, as the administration’s national security strategy documents indicated that the shift toward the “America first” strategy was not merely about rhetoric. Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center enable evaluating whether these policy changes correspond to trends in public opinion. If so, one would expect the positions among the public to be long term and continue even after the current administration ends. If, however, the changes are not in line with prevailing public opinion, then the next elections could prompt a return to the American agenda that preceded the current administration. This analysis is important to both Washington’s adversaries and its allies, as it enables them to comprehend the significance of the current change. For Israel, the analysis is especially important, in view of the dramatic change in the ties between the countries since President Trump entered the White House.

Survey Results

The results of the surveys indicate two trends that contravene the assumption of American isolationism: first, the magnitude the American voter attaches to issues linked to the economy and jobs has weakened (from 80 percent who saw these as preferred issues in 2010, to 71 percent for the economy and 62 percent for jobs according to the last survey); and second, the consolidation of the terror threat at the top of the priorities. This result, which spans various political parties and identities, challenges the traditional assumption that the American voter is guided primarily by domestic issues. Another interesting finding is the drop in the support for policy that focuses on “domestic affairs” (from 60 percent in late 2014 to 47 percent today). This reflects a weakening of the isolationism trend that had typified America during the past decade; today, the American public is split on the question of whether to focus on domestic affairs or involvement in international politics.

The administration’s strategy documents place the competition with its rival powers, China and Russia, at the top of its list of national threats  above the threat posed by terror organizations. However, the survey shows that the three prime threats as perceived by the public are North Korea’s nuclear program (most people believe that Pyongyang would be willing to implement its threats to attack the US with nuclear weapons), cyberattacks by other countries, and the Islamic State.

While the American public recognizes the threat to American interests by the rival powers, less than half the respondents defined China and its influence as a major threat, and just over half defined the threat from Russia and its international influence as such. Regarding the threat posed by Russia, there is a sizeable gap between the political camps: 38 percent of Republicans defined Russia as a major threat, as against 63 percent of the Democrats. This gap has developed over the past year. It bespeaks the President’s success in convincing parts of his political base to perceive Russia as a potential partner. In contrast to his advisers, Trump would like to explore possibilities of cooperation (currently a non-viable goal, due to the investigations underway on the “Russia-gate” affair).

Regarding the Middle East, the surveys show an inter-party gap on the perception of the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program: about 63 percent of the Republicans define it as a major threat, as against 45 percent of the Democrats. Overall, the perception of the Iranian threat is on the decline among all sectors. In contrast, the gap between the political groups is widening with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: 79 percent of those identifying themselves as Republicans showed relative sympathy toward Israel, as against just 27 percent of the Democrats. This gap is the highest it has been since 1978 and in effect constitutes a continuation of the prevailing trends, i.e., growing Republican support for Israel, alongside a decline in the Democratic support for Israel. Another finding buttressing the growing rift between the Democrat public and Israel is that about half of the Democrats claim that President Trump favors Israel too much, while a fifth of them believe that he has adapted a balanced approach in his attitude toward the conflict.

Implications for Israel

The policy changes pursued by the Trump administration, both in the domestic arena as well as in foreign policy, do not fully reflect the positions of the American public. While the strategy documents aim at a focus on rivalries with competing powers, the survey indicates that the North Korean nuclear threat and the terrorist threat are those causing the American public most disquiet. At the same time, the results reinforce the message of the American strategy documents, whereby Washington is not embracing a policy of isolationism and separating itself from the international theater, but aspires to focus on threats to its interests, while playing down the importance of threats of a collective international nature. Interestingly, the importance of domestic issues, traditionally high up on the public agenda, is now on a downward trend.

According to the survey results, since the Middle East constitutes the breeding ground for the terrorist threat against the US, it will likely retain its high position on the list of subjects important to the American public, though relegated to second place after North Korea. The concern about terror in general and the Islamic State threat in particular will not let any American president neglect the Middle East, since these threats shape the prism through which the public view the American interests.

At the same time, the results indicate a drop in how Americans perceive the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program. This fact is critical in view of President Trump’s threat to withdraw from the nuclear deal reached between Iran and the powers in July 2015. If such a move were adopted, it might compel the administration to allocate considerable resources and risk a military confrontation with Iran. These developments would necessitate public support, which the administration might find hard to muster considering the current public focus on North Korea. The American public’s focus on North Korea, instead of the Iranian nuclear program, presents a significant challenge to Israel, whose leadership would like to see the Iranian nuclear issue placed at the top of America’s priorities.


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An interesting development is the drop in the perceived threat from Russia amidst the President’s political base in the Republican Party. This trend is indicative of political flexibility, which might help Trump foster cooperation with Russia after the Russia-gate investigations end. Such cooperation could enhance Israel’s ability to promote its interests in Syria and drive a wedge between Iran and Russia.

An important warning light is a trend whereby Israel finds itself at the hub of the inter-party political controversy in American society. As regards subjects relating to Israeli policy – the Iranian issue and the Palestinian issue – there is a clear gap between the respective parties’ supporters. This phenomenon is not new, but it has been exacerbated over the past two years, against the backdrop of the open contention between the Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Obama administration, and the tightening of the ties between the governments since the advent of the Trump administration.

The surveys indicate that there are no deep social processes in the American public backing the trend of reconcilement between the political leaderships in Israel and the US. This insight underscores the need to take advantage of the administration’s support of Israel and to work with it to promote objectives achievable during the Trump administration’s current term.

The main challenge facing Israel now is how to do so while containing the distancing of the liberal American public and how to improve its image among this sector, in order to regain the status of an ally enjoying bi-partisan support. To this end, Israel would do well to avoid advancing initiatives that could arouse sharp opposition on the part of the Democratic camp. If the need arises, Israel should act in conjunction with the Democratic leadership attentive to Israel’s interests, and with a low public profile. Israel should also hold an open dialogue with various liberal publics in order to understand their criticism of Israeli policy. This would enable Israel to explore ways to improve its standing, or at least prevent a situation whereby a decline in its support for Israel is translated into support for policies contrary to its interests.

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