17 November 2012

Is US Public Support for Palestine Underestimated?

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:26 am

My cardboard GET OUT sign is still in the garage, where I left it after the last local protest against the Israeli blockade of Gaza fizzled out in the summer of 2009. Every February Gallup conducts a survey of American opinions regarding the conflict. In 2012 Israel beat Palestine by a score of 61% to 19%, a margin that’s held consistent over at least the last ten years. But there is evidence to suggest that US public support for Palestine might be under-reported in the surveys.

In my last post (and in my comments to myself on that post) I looked at US public opinions about the Vietnam war. According to surveys public support dropped in half over a 3½-year interval, from 61% in 3/66 to 32% in 10/69. After analyzing the survey data in greater detail, political scientist Adam Berinsky concluded that the early pro-war results were systematically overestimated:

“In the early years of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, individuals who on balance held considerations that conformed to pro-war rhetoric would be more likely to be heard in opinion polls. Conversely, respondents who possessed considerations that did not fit with the dominant pro-war message should have been under-represented in aggregate public opinion. To use the language introduced above, in the first portion of the war, public opinion should have suffered from a pro-war exclusion bias. That is, on balance, anti-war sentiment would have been excluded from aggregate opinion.1 Over the course of the war, as the balance of the volume and salience of elite rhetoric changed and both pro-war and anti-war views were represented in public discourse, the size of exclusion bias should have reduced and eventually disappeared.” (Berinsky, pp. 12-13)

Berinsky found that respondents who claimed to be more knowledgeable about the war were more likely to express an opinion. Much of their information was derived not from fact-checking but from “elite rhetoric” provided in the media by politicians and professional commentators. Before 1968 most of the elite rhetoric was pro-war. Those who opposed the war but who felt uninformed were reluctant to express an opinion that didn’t jibe with either the rhetoric they heard or the majority view, which until 1968 was supportive of the war. In consequence,  the “true sentiment towards American policy in Vietnam was, in fact, more anti-interventionist than opinion polls indicated” (p. 14).

1968 was a pivotal year. By the beginning of 1968 less than half of survey respondents supported the war. In February 1968 the Tet Offensive tilted elite rhetoric in a markedly antiwar direction. This rhetorical shift became stronger with the subsequent assassinations of Martin Luther King in April and Robert Kennedy in June. As a consequence the antiwar “exclusion bias” largely disappeared from survey results: even antiwar respondents who acknowledged not being particularly well-informed became more likely to state their opinion that the war was a mistake.

Is “exclusion bias” underestimating American pro-Palestinian sentiment? Probably. Is anything likely to neutralize the bias anytime soon? Probably not.

Surely there is an imbalance of elite rhetoric about the Palestine-Israel conflict, with Democrats and Republicans alike seeming to show no restraint in supporting Israel’s right to defend itself from Palestinian aggression. Those who express an opinion support Israel 3 to 1, so only people who regard themselves as well-informed are likely to express a contrary opinion, even in an anonymous survey. Over the past ten years the percentage of undecideds in the annual Gallup survey has declined from 29% to 19%, most of them shifting into the pro-Israeli column. Israel’s successful pounding of targets in Gaza isn’t likely to shift support toward the Palestinians. After all, US public support for the Vietnam War dropped not because so many Vietnamese were being killed but because it was becoming clear that America was losing the war. Israel is regarded, and with strong justification, as a firm ally of the US government, whereas Hamas, the governing party of Gaza, is officially condemned as a terrorist organization by the US government.

In short, it’s hard to see what could shift the strong pro-Israeli support among the American public. When Gallup trots out the annual survey in February 2013, the results are likely to stay the same as they have for the past ten years: 3 to 1 in favor of Israel.



  1. The Israelis are a wretched people but there are some prophets amongst them and it is from this quarter that change will come. http://www.jeremiahhaber.com/ is one of them. We may now look forward to an attack on Iran with a nod from Obama and some ritual hand washing, blockage of the Straits of Hormuz and treble dip recession. It could happen at Christmas while the public is distracted.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 17 November 2012 @ 1:14 pm

  2. Here are responses to a September survey of American public opinion:

    “If diplomacy and sanctions fail, would you support or oppose the United States taking military action against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons?” 64% support, 34% oppose

    “If diplomacy and sanctions fail, would you support or oppose Israel taking military action against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons?” 73% support, 26% oppose

    “Elite rhetoric” was successful in persuading the US public on the soundness of invading Iraq despite lack of concrete evidence of WMDs and assurance from the UN that diplomacy had not failed. In the two hypothetical Iran scenarios the rhetoric need only claim that Iran is developing nuclear capability, not that they’d actually succeeded.


    Comment by ktismatics — 17 November 2012 @ 2:46 pm

  3. “If we see a further escalation of the situation in Gaza, the likelihood of us getting back on any kind of peace track that leads to a two-state solution is going to be pushed off way into the future,” Obama said. To which side is that supposed to be regarded as threat or incentive? Per Wiki, of the 193 member states of the United Nations, 131 (67.9%) have recognized the State of Palestine as of November 2012, representing 80 percent of the world’s population. Maybe Obama is reassuring Israel: keep the pressure on and we’ll maintain the status quo from our side. In similar situations — Kosovo, South Sudan — the US has condemned this sort of one-sided internecine dominance as genocidal and enforced militarily the establishment of separate states, overriding the stronger party’s objections.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 November 2012 @ 6:56 am

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