Three quarters of highly educated, high income, publicly active US Democrats — the so-called “opinion elites” — believe Israel has too much influence on US foreign policy, almost half of them consider Israel to be a racist country, and fewer than half of them believe that Israel wants peace with its neighbors. These are among the findings of a new survey carried out by US political consultant Frank Luntz.

Detailing the survey results to The Times of Israel on Sunday, Luntz called the findings “a disaster” for Israel. He summed them up by saying that the Democratic opinion elites are converting to the Palestinians, and “Israel can no longer claim to have the bipartisan support of America.”

He said he “knew there was a shift” in attitudes to Israel among US Democrats “and I have been seeing it get worse” in his ongoing polls. But the new findings surprised and shocked him, nonetheless. “I didn’t expect it to become this blatant and this deep.”

A prominent US political consultant known best for his work with Republicans, Luntz is meeting with a series of high-level Israeli officials this week to discuss the survey and consult on how to grapple with the trends it exposes.

Frank Luntz (photo credit: Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0. / Wikipedia)

Frank Luntz (photo credit: Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0. / Wikipedia)

“Israel has won the hearts and minds of Republicans in America, while at the same time it is losing the Democrats,” he said. On US politics, “I’m right of center,” he added. “But the Israeli government and US Jews have to focus on repairing relations with the Democrats.”

Luntz put a series of largely Israel-related questions to 802 members of the opinion elites and his findings have a 3.5% margin of error. The survey, sponsored by the Jewish National Fund, was conducted last week. Among the key findings:

• Asked about Israeli influence on US foreign policy, an overwhelming 76% of Democrats, as compared to 20% of Republicans, said Israel has “too much influence.”

• Asked whether Israel is a racist country, 47% of Democrats agreed it is, as opposed to 13% of Republicans. Another 21% of Democrats didn’t know or were neutral (as opposed to 12% of Republicans), and only 32% of Democrats disagreed when asked if Israel is a racist country, as opposed to 76% of Republicans. (Overall 32% of those polled said Israel is a racist country.)

• Asked whether Israel wants peace with its neighbors, while an overwhelming 88% of Republicans said it does, a far lower 48% of Democrats agreed. Another 21% of Democrats didn’t know or were neutral (as compared to 7% of Republicans). And 31% of Democrats did not think Israel wants peace (as compared to 5% of Republicans).

• Asked whether they would be more likely to vote for a local politician who supported Israel and its right to defend itself, an overwhelming 76% of Republicans said yes, but only 18% of Democrats said yes. Meanwhile, only 7% of Republicans — but 32% of Democrats — said they would be less likely to support a local politician who backed Israel.

• Asked whether they would be more likely to vote for a local politician who criticized Israeli occupation and mistreatment of Palestinians, 45% of Democrats said yes, compared to just 6% of Republicans. Asked whether they would be less likely to vote for a local politician who criticized Israeli occupation and mistreatment of Palestinians, a whopping 75% of Republicans said yes, compared to just 23% of Democrats.

• Asked whether the US should support Israel or the Palestinians, a vast 90% of Republicans and a far lower 51% of Democrats said Israel. Another 8% of Republicans and 31% of Democrats were neutral. And 18% of Democrats said the Palestinians, compared to 2% of Republicans. Overall, 68% of those polled said the US should support Israel, and 10% said the US should support the Palestinians.

• Asked about which side they themselves support, 88% of Republicans and 46% of Democrats said they were “pro-Israeli” while 4% of Republicans and 27% of Democrats said they were “pro-Palestinian.”

• Asked if settlements are an impediment to peace, 75% of Democrats and 25% of Republicans agreed.

A specialist in finding and testing the language that can impact public opinion, Luntz was vehement that Israel’s “messaging” has to be different if support for Israel among US Democrats is to be revived. “Obviously, policy has something to do with it, but the messaging is critical,” he said. “And the Republicans have to realize that their rhetoric is part of the problem: It’s not security that needs to be highlighted, but [Israel’s] social justice and human rights.” Underlining Israel’s role in protecting human rights and promoting equality could be particularly resonant, he said.

The “words that work best” among Republicans, he said, are those along the lines of, “Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East, and attempts to destroy the country economically and politically could do direct harm to the United States.” By contrast, the “words that work best” among Democrats are those to the effect that, “We should be encouraging more communication and cooperation, not less. We should be encouraging more diplomacy and discussion, not less.”

There has to be an ‘end to the [use of the] word Zionism,’ Luntz said. ‘If you are at Berkeley or Brown and start outlining a Zionist vision, you don’t get to make a case for Israel because they’ve already switched off’

More specifically, when it comes to the most effective messaging, Luntz found that the statement “Women in Israel have exactly the same rights as men. No other Middle Eastern country offers women fully equal rights” was particularly well received among Democrats, as was the declaration, “Everyone in Israel is free to practice their religion and worship their God. No other Middle Eastern country offers similar religious protections.” By contrast, responses were markedly less positive to statements about the need for a Jewish homeland after the Holocaust, Israeli claims to the Holy Land, and Israel’s start-up technology prowess.

Widely resonant among all those polled, he found, was the statement that “Despite the ongoing conflict with Gaza, Israel still donates tens of millions in humanitarian aid to Palestinians and opens its hospitals to treat them.”

“They don’t care about the ‘Start-Up Nation,'” he said flatly of American opinion elites in general. “It’s tragic that so much effort has been devoted to selling an image of Israel that many aren’t interested in buying.”

Still more drastically, Luntz said the word “Zionism” could play no part in messaging designed to repair relations with US Democrats. There has to be an “end to the [use of the] word Zionism,” he said. “You can’t make the case if you use that word. If you are at Berkeley or Brown and start outlining a Zionist vision, you don’t get to make a case for Israel because they’ve already switched off.”

He also predicted that Israel is in for “a lot more trouble” from the BDS (Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions) campaign. Once they had been informed about the BDS campaign, 19% of respondents supported it — 31% of Democrats and 3% of Republicans. And, stressed Luntz, 60% of America’s opinion elites said they were not familiar with BDS. “Israel is already having trouble with BDS, and Americans don’t even know what it means. Can you imagine how bad it will get?”

He also foresaw a looming battle in the US over foreign aid to Israel. Some 33% of Democrats and 22% of Republicans, his poll found, were upset that “Israel gets billions and billions of dollars in funding from the US government that should be going to the American people.”

Luntz also asked whether respondents see anti-Semitism as a problem in the US. Overall, 58% agreed with the idea that anti-Semitism is a problem in America (57% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats), compared to 28% who disagreed. “Non-Jews recognize the problem, even if some Israelis want to minimize it,” he said.

Ironically, the poll also found, 50% of Democrats and 18% of Republicans (and 36% of all respondents) agreed with the proposition that “Jewish people are too hyper-sensitive and too often label legitimate criticisms of Israel as an anti-Semitic attack.”