President Biden is preparing for a high-profile trip in mid-July to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia – a trip that has sparked debate about its purpose, wisdom and usefulness. The president called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state after the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi – and now risks angering many Americans by traveling there.
Biden’s planned visit to Israel and the West Bank also risks playing into the hands of critics, who have accused the United States of not pushing hard enough to end Israel’s decades-old occupation of Palestinian territories, while by mobilizing significant efforts to counter Russia’s occupation of parts of Ukraine.
The visit to oil-rich Saudi Arabia comes as Russia’s war in Ukraine has disrupted energy prices, suggesting that oil is the real reason for the president’s visit. But Biden pushed back, saying the real focus is the broader Arab leaders’ summit in Saudi Arabia, a meeting he sees as advancing Israel’s national security interests. Last week, Biden noted that Israeli leaders pressured him to attend, likely because they wanted his help in making peace with Riyadh.
The president may be hoping to temper expectations that his visit could lead to lower US oil prices. But Biden’s invocation of Israel as a catalyst for the trip is somewhat curious, and perhaps based on the hope that it would help him garner public support for the trip.
What do Americans really think of Biden’s visit?
To answer this question, I designed a set of questions for the University of Maryland Critical Issues Survey, which I co-lead with Professor Stella Rouse. The poll was conducted online by Nielsen Scarborough from June 22-28, to a national sample of 2,208 adults, with a margin of error of 2.09%. We split the sample group into three subsamples, asking whether respondents approved, disapproved, or neither approved nor disapproved of the president’s visit – but we started with different presentations.
For the first group, we provided minimal information: “As you may have heard, President Biden is planning a high-level visit to the Middle East region, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.”
In the second group, we highlighted Biden’s message on aid to Israel: “As you may have heard, President Biden is planning a high-level visit to the Middle East region, including in Israel and Saudi Arabia. Explaining his visit to Saudi Arabia, President Biden said, “It just happens to be a bigger meeting that’s going on in Saudi Arabia.” That’s why I go there. And it has to do with national security for them – for the Israelis. ”
For the third group, we noted what Biden said about Saudi Arabia: “As you may have heard, President Biden is planning a high-level visit to the Middle East region, including including in Israel and also in Saudi Arabia, an important country for the global energy market, but one that Biden had pledged to “make them, in fact, the pariah that they are”. ”
In all three versions, there was no mention of the Palestinian and Israeli occupation, nor of Khashoggi’s murder.
Mentioning Israel or Saudi Arabia calls for less support
However we introduced the question, respondents showed little enthusiasm for the president’s trip to the Middle East – less than a quarter of Americans approved of the president’s trip overall. For respondents who saw the first question, with a minimal/neutral introduction, nearly 24% approved and 25% disapproved of Biden’s trip. In the second group, with the introduction mentioning Israel, nearly 25% approved and 31% disapproved of the trip. And in the third group, with the introduction that focused on Saudi Arabia and oil, almost 23% approved and 33% disapproved of the trip.
The mention of Israel boosted disapproval of the trip, from around 25% in the first intro/neutral group, to nearly 31%. And disapproval jumped to nearly 33% when the intro focused on Saudi Arabia.
Predictably, Republicans we polled disapproved of Biden’s trip more than Democrats. But Republican disapproval of the trip is highest when the question focuses on Saudi Arabia – from around 41% in the neutral sample group to nearly 54%.
Democratic disapproval was highest when Israel is invoked, rising from around 10% in the neutral control group to 17%. The rise in disapproval among younger Democrats (under 35) was noticeable: from around 8% in the neutral group to 30% in the second group, where the introduction mentions Israel.
What explains these results?
Despite the American public’s concern about high oil prices, Americans also seem concerned about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Perhaps that’s why the mention of Saudi Arabia produced higher disapproval numbers, as that option included a reference to Biden’s “pariah” claim, but without elaboration. And whatever Biden’s intent in stating that his trip is to advance Israeli security, that doesn’t seem to be helping him sell his trip. In fact, it may hurt him in his Democratic constituency.
This last point may seem surprising, but this divide has become increasingly evident. While Republicans’ affinity for Israel has grown over the years, the reverse has happened among Democrats. Our March poll, for example, included an open-ended question asking respondents to name the two countries that are the United States’ closest allies. As the top pick, many Republicans cited Israel, second only to the UK and ahead of key NATO allies such as Canada, France and Germany. For Democrats, Israel was more of an afterthought, coming in ninth place (see figure).
In our June 22-28 poll, we also found that most Republicans (nearly 59 percent) wanted the United States to lean toward Israel — less than 2 percent wanted to lean toward the Palestinians. By contrast, most Democrats (about 68%) wanted the United States to lean neither side, while more Democrats (19%) wanted to lean toward the Palestinians than Israel (nearly 13%). Young Democrats (under 35) lean heavily toward supporting the Palestinians — nearly 27 percent want the US to lean toward the Palestinians, compared to about 10 percent who want to lean toward Israel.
These survey results suggest that Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East is not generating much public excitement, even among Democrats. Invoking Saudi Arabia and Israel seems to increase public disapproval, especially among young Democrats.