The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the U.S. and his speech before Congress on Tuesday has underscored, if not exacerbated, the abundant political differences in elected officials' views of the prime minister and of Israel and the Middle East situation. Netanyahu was invited to speak by the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, who did not clear this visit with the White House and State Department ahead of time. President Barack Obama has protested the invitation and will not be receiving Netanyahu at the White House before his speech, the Vice President will be out of town and will miss the speech and about 30 Democratic members of Congress will also boycott the speech on Tuesday. One of the major issues behind the political differences are views about how the U.S. should go about attempting to deal with Iran and its current or potential development of nuclear weapons.
What is also abundantly clear is the fact that these differences in how elected representatives and other officials in Washington view Israel and Netanyahu are strikingly mirrored in the views of rank-and-file partisans across the country. Recent Gallup research has shown a significant difference between Republicans and Democrats in their views of Netanyahu, in their sympathies for the Israelis versus the Palestinians in the Middle East conflict, in perceptions of whether the development of nuclear weapons by Iran represents a critical threat to the U.S., and in support for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Additionally, as seen in the accompanying table, Republicans and Democrats differ in their opinion of the Palestinian Authority and in their views of Iran. In all instances, the views of Republicans and Democrats across the country differ in the same ways that the pronouncements and positions of prominent leaders from the two major parties differ.
Presumably this synchronicity between constituent and representative means the system of representative democracy in the U.S. is working. We don't know whether representatives picked up their cues on the Israel and the Middle East from their constituents back home, or if the constituents picked up their positions from their representatives' stance. But we do know that the two are in general sync.
The differences at the rank-and-file level are not absolute, of course. Netanyahu himself said on Monday, "My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds. I have great respect for both," and the data show that although Democrats are half as likely as Republicans to have a favorable image of Netanyahu, their favorable views are still as high as their unfavorable views (both are at 31%). Plus, although Democrats are 21 percentage points lower than Republicans in their favorable opinion of Israel, the majority of Democrats still have a favorable image of that country.
The origin of these partisan differences in views of Israel has historical roots and is complex, and to some degree produces alliances that one might not expect. For example, American Jews skew Democratic in their political orientation and a majority typically vote for Democratic candidates (69% voted for Obama in the 2012 election according to exit polls), and yet Democrats, taken as a whole, are less supportive of Israel than Republicans. Worth noting is the fact that even with their Democratic orientation, less than 2% of the overall adult U.S. population is Jewish, including just over 3% of Democrats. Republicans on the other hand are significantly more religious than Democrats, and 90% of Republicans are Christian, well above the population average or the Democratic average. The tie between Christianity and the Holy Land of Israel is a deep one, and this religious connection may be part of the explanation for Republicans' more positive views of Israel and that country's prime minister.
All in all, views of Israel and its prime minister can be added to the long list of issues and attitudes that are divided by partisan orientation in the American population today.