Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, leads the conversation on public opinion on Israel and Palestine.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to the final session of the Fall 2023 CFR Academic Webinar series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
Today’s discussion is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/Academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We’re delighted to have Shibley Telhami with us to discuss public opinion on Israel and Palestine. Dr. Telhami is the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development and distinguished scholar-teacher at the University of Maryland, and director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll. He is also a nonresident senior fellow with the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is an expert on U.S. policy in the Middle East and on Arab politics, and regularly conducts public opinion polls in the Arab world, Israel, and the United States. He has advised every U.S. administration, from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama. And Dr. Telhami is the author and editor of numerous books. His most recent is a coedited book with contributions volume entitled The One State Reality: What is Israel/Palestine?, published by Cornell University Press in March 2023.
So, Dr. Telhami, thank you very much for being with us today. I thought you could start us off by talking about how the Israel-Hamas war has affected American public attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue more broadly.
TELHAMI: Well, first of all, thank you, Irina, for hosting me. And thank you all for attending. Let me just do maybe a little bit of a background about shifts in public opinion even before the war, and then talk about what happened after the Hamas attack October 7. I think it’s important to put this in historical perspective, because I had been doing polling on this issue for decades, literally, with some tracking questions about whether the public wants the U.S. to lean toward Israel, toward the Palestinians, or toward neither side.
So historically, it used to be the case when we first started doing polling on this issue that the majority of the public wanted the U.S. to be neutral, to take neither side. That, by the way, has not changed. But what used to be the case is that a significant minority wanted to take Israel’s side, and very few wanted to take the Palestinians’ side. And that used to be the case across the partisan divide, Democrats and Republicans held it across the board, and independents. Over the past fifteen years, there has been a shift. It is still the case that the majority of Americans want to take neither side. And even during the war, and even after the first week of the war after the Hamas attack, still a majority of Americans want the U.S. to take neither side.
But what happened among those who want to take a side, has been a shift. More and more on the Republican side wanted to take Israel’s side, to being close to almost half of the Republican constituency. And among Democrats, what happened is that more and more started being either evenhanded among Israelis and Palestinians or, increasingly in recent years, a slight majority, particularly among young Democrats, wanting to lean toward the Palestinians. In fact, right before the before the Hamas attack, there were many polls that showed—including Gallup polls in the past year—that showed that there was more sympathy among Democrats to the Palestinians than for the Israelis.
So there has been a shift that has taken place over time. That shift is really a function of four things that might be useful to think about. One is demographic, in the sense that the Democrats became less and less white and more diverse. And we know that typically African Americans, Hispanic Americans, young Americans, women, Asian Americans tended to be somewhat more sympathetic with the Palestinians. So we’ve had that demographic shift take place. We have also had been the media sources. So we know that more and more young democrats, particularly, have shifted to social media. So the sources of information coming to young Democrats is different from the general public, the establishment media, the establishment TV, and newspapers. That source has really impacted the way people form opinions.
The third reason is that the democratic constituencies have become more and more focused on social justice when they view Israel-Palestine. And we’ve seen them look at Israel-Palestine less through the prism of strategic interests of the U.S. or, unlike many of the Republicans who are Evangelical who look at it through a biblical lens, they look at it through the view of social justice, like Black Lives Matter. And we’ve seen sympathy increase for the Palestinians through that prism across the board. I would also add the fact that in the past decade and a half, Israel has had a right-wing government, mostly headed by Netanyahu. And that has seemed to be aligned with the Republicans in American politics, which alienated Democrats further, especially young Democrats.
So we’ve seen this shift take place all before—well before the October 7 attack. We’ve also seen that more people, more Democrats, had a somewhat negative—young Democrats, people under thirty-five, have a negative opinion of Israel. It used to be that Israel—and many Americans still have a positive view of Israel across the board. But young Democrats increasingly had a negative view of Israel. And, remarkably, I did a poll a few months ago asking—and this obviously is before the attack in October. We did this in March of last year—in March of this year, I mean. Last March. We did a poll asking whether Americans thought Israel is a vibrant democracy, a flawed democracy, a state with restricted minority rights, or state was segregation similar to Apartheid.
And the remarkable thing is that slightly over half of Americans said they don’t know whether Israel is a democracy or not. This kind of by itself is a big shocker, because you think the talking points about what Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and shared values. And a slight majority of Americans say they don’t know whether it—of those who said they know, the plurality of Democrats, 44 percent, said it is a state with segregation similar to Apartheid. More people said that among Democrats than said it is a democracy or flawed democracy. So there is a perception, obviously, already before this war that had shifted in terms of views of Israel and Israel-Palestine.
When the war happened, when Hamas had its horrific attack—and we know how horrific it was. There was a lot of publicity around the Israeli victims, the depth of that attack, the shock, and also a lot of official support from the U.S. —our White House, Congress, establishment organizations, community organizations, and local leaders all expressed a lot of support. So we did a poll within two weeks of that to see whether there has been a shift. And there was, in fact, a shift. There was a spike in sympathy for Israel, of increasing the number of people who want the U.S. to lean toward Israel two weeks after the war, across the board. Meaning among Republicans, among Democrats, among independents.
The only group that was unaffected, even after the first couple of weeks, were young Democrats who are under thirty-five, who didn’t change their view from prior to the war. We then did another poll. And remember, while I say there’s a spike in the support for Israel, it’s still the case that a majority—the majority of Democrats and independents—wanted the U.S. to take neither side. So that hadn’t shifted. They still, even after—immediately after the attack a majority wanted the U.S. to be neutral, not to take Israel side. But among the minority who wanted to take sides, more people wanted to take Israel’s side than the Palestinians’ side.
Two weeks after that, after the kind of the media shifted to the Israeli attack in Gaza and with all of the destruction and death that we’ve seen, we did another poll. And we found that most of the gains that Israel had made in the poll that we conducted two weeks before had disappeared. But the most important impact was really among young Democrats, who more and more of them wanted to lean toward the Palestinians, not to lean toward Israel. And we also found that a plurality of those who gave opinions thought that—among Democrats and independents—thought that Biden was too pro-Israel. Very few thought he was too pro-Palestinian. And more importantly, when you ask them whether the posture on Israel-Palestine made them less likely to vote for Biden, we found that young Democrats, like 21 percent, said that they’re now less likely to vote for Biden compared to only about 9 percent who said they’re more likely to do it.
Now since then, there have been some striking polls that indicated further deterioration, particularly in terms of criticism of Israel, people who said Israel has gone overboard. Particularly the NBC poll that was done November 10 to November 14. And a substantial percentage of people who have disapproved of the way Biden handled, meaning his overwhelming support for Israel—including, remarkably, 70 percent of voters ages eighteen to thirty-four, some constituents that he needs. And a majority of Democrats— that included a majority of Democrats overall. And also, we found a majority of Democrats who wanted to withhold military aid from Israel.
So we have a really significant shift that has taken place in the past few weeks in a way that has undermined the posture of the Biden administration. And there is every indication that the posture that Biden has taken, of wholehearted support for the Israeli bombings in Gaza particularly over the first few weeks, has hurt him politically. It certainly has hurt him in the Middle East and elsewhere internationally. But we know that some of the decline in his popularity and approval ratings in the U.S. has been a direct function of his posture on the war. So I’ll stop here and just open it up for discussion.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you so much, Shibley. We’re going to go to all of you for your questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
There is a written question. Monica Byrne asking about if these polls are available. Yes, they are. And we will send after this event. We’ll send the link to the video and transcript as well as links to some of the polls that Dr. Telhami referenced, so that people can access them. OK, let’s see. We’re going to go now to raised hand from Jonathan Van Hecke, who’s at the Indiana University Bloomington.
Q: Hi. This is actually—it’s David Bosco with the Hamilton Lugar School of Global International Studies at Indiana University, with a group of students.
But we had a question about perception of what happened on October 7. There’s been a kind of video circulating on the internet of some pro-Palestinian activists kind of essentially saying that what happened on October 7, or what seems to have happened, didn’t happen or questioning, you know, the accounts. And I wonder if that’s kind of—you mentioned social media. And I wonder if that’s something that you’re able to ferret out from the polling, is kind of what trust there is in information about what is actually happening on the ground.
TELHAMI: Yeah, thanks for the question. But also, I have a soft spot for both Hamilton and Lugar. So—(laughter)—so I have to say that I worked for Lee Hamilton. This is—he was my teacher on American politics, in a way, when he was the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I advised him. And guess what, Irina? That was a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellowship, when I advised Lee Hamilton and became close to him for years. And Lugar, Senator Lugar, who was one of the finest bipartisan, in a way, voices who—the kind of American politics we don’t really see now, unfortunately. But it was much more common. I had the pleasure of traveling with him and spending a week with him in Finland, at a conference and got to know him very well. And so I have a very soft spot for those two men, and therefore for the school that’s named after them. So thank you for the question.
Of course, there’s a lot of stuff going on. And, frankly, part of—even within Israel itself, there are conspiracy theories among even people who are supportive of the government, who are blaming the security forces, that this is a way of kind of attacking the prime minister, and the prime minister is using that against the security services, the establishment. So there are conspiracy theories even in Israel itself. That’s not unusual, in a way, when we have an event of this sort, because it was honestly shocking. The shock wasn’t that it took place. I mean, Hamas was capable of doing it. That was not the thing. The main thing is that it was shocking, given the perception of Israeli security and given their perception of the limitation of Hamas, that they were able to do something on this scale, was shocking to everyone. And so I think it was bound to create all kinds of conspiracy theories.
I don’t think that most people that I’m polling, and I’m talking to, and following on social media, and people who are communicating with me, who are very, very opposed particularly to the Biden administration policy, are mostly doing it because they’re questioning the fact that it happened. They might be questioning a little bit about the reporting about casualties on the Palestinian side. There was disbelief about some of the reporting of civilian casualties. People wanted to dismiss that. You see that on both sides. And when the Israelis say, well, it’s Hamas numbers. I don’t trust them, even the president said that initially.
So you find that kind of narrative more or less. But I believe that the bulk of the opposition that you see, particularly among young people, is mostly based on a preexisting sympathy with the Palestinians. Meaning that they have become sort of—they look at it through the narrative of occupation. They don’t condone what Hamas did, but they don’t think that history started on October 7. And that is the more common source of opposition people, who have preexisting views that blamed Israel for the occupation or called Israel an apartheid state. And they don’t condone what Hamas did, but they don’t think that justifies what transpired afterwards.
FASKIANOS: And, just to follow up that, a written question from Carolyn Ford, who’s an undergraduate at Georgia State University: Is the shift in attitude among young Democrats related to specific events prior to October 7?
TELHAMI: That’s really a good question. I think that the multiple Gaza wars, because I’ve traced those. For example, the 2014 Gaza war, when Obama was president, that generated quite a bit of attention among young Democrats. I do think that during that period, the Obama administration, we started finding a lot of shift. Part of that shift was based on confrontation between President Obama, which was admired by a lot of, obviously, Democrats, but especially young Democrats. His confrontation with Benjamin Netanyahu, right-wing prime minister who was kind of—had a very confrontational relationship with President Obama. And then he came to the U.S. behind the president’s back, in order—working with Republican opponents of the president trying to undermine the president’s most important deal in his second administration, the Iran nuclear deal.
It created a lot of tension and resentment, certainly, in that relationship. But we also saw it in my polling, for example, after—during the Trump years. Because obviously Trump is not exactly liked by young Democrats, or any Democrats for that matter. But he was seen also to be particularly anti-Palestinian, particularly pro-Israel. That generated—that polarization also played into the hands of young Democrats. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement put more focus on—at the same time, on the suffering of the Palestinians. We saw after Biden was elected in the 2021 Hamas war that was much more limited—I did a lot of polling. I wrote actually two pieces, I reviewed them recently, in which I showed that Democratic public opinion became critical of Biden. In fact, Biden’s drop in approval rating started right there with that war, and most of it came from Democrats. And at a time when Democrats, a good percentage of them, was disapproving of his policy of support for Israel during that war as well.
So it’s more than one thing. And I do think that the fact that many young Democrats go to social media for news, rather than, let’s say, watching CNN or MSNBC or any of the major news media or Fox, or read the New York Times or the Washington Post, they will principally go to the bubbles in the media that they have.
FASKIANOS: And there’s a follow up question from Thomas Ferguson, who’s a professor emeritus in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston: What can you say about perceptions of antisemitism over time? And, secondly, have you tried any questions involving Biden that include Trump in their framing?
TELHAMI: First of all, with regard to Trump and just the framing, I try to avoid that to the extent possible, because we don’t want to bias the kind of the answers, by referring to names. We did have lots of questions about Trump policy and Biden policy separately over time.
On antisemitism, we did a poll on antisemitism last year. We found that a majority of Americans think—a slight majority of Americans think that antisemitism is on the rise in the U.S. So there’s that impression. Most do not consider criticism of Israel to be antisemitism. Most, obviously, consider bias against Jews to be antisemitism. Many also consider criticism of Zionism to be—though not a majority—to be antisemitism. But a majority don’t consider criticism of Israel to be antisemitism. That is available on our website. You can go there and find it. We have done it. In fact, it is—actually, at the same time we ask questions about Israeli system of government, whether it’s a democracy or something else.
FASKIANOS: And on the other—a corollary question from Ahad Din, who comes from Dallas College: Has your work uncovered a shift in sympathies for Muslims as people, societies, or nation, that correlates with the uptick among younger American voters who are also being targeted by Islamophobic violence?
TELHAMI: Well, this is really an interesting story, actually. Thanks for asking that. I have—and the answer might really surprise you, in a way, because I have actually been tracing attitudes towards Islam and Muslims for years. And I started doing it more intensively with the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign, because of the rise of Trump and his anti-Muslim kind of speech, even before he became president. And then I did, like, multiple polls per year, not just one. Maybe sometimes two or three per year throughout the Trump presidency, well into the Biden presidency, trying to trace a shift that is taking place.
Let me tell you what we found that is really remarkable. From the moment Trump began his anti-Muslim campaign, attitudes among Americans improved toward Muslims—improved, incrementally. Every poll we did was more favorable than the poll before. And in fact, you see, graphically, it’s remarkable. I have a couple of articles on it. I did one for the Washington Post, one for Politico, one for Brookings over the years. They are all on our website. You can see it. But it’s really, really interesting. And the reason for it is that it mostly came from a kind of a rallying behind Muslims, mostly among Democrats and independents who didn’t like Trump. So it was kind of like, Trump dislikes Muslims. Therefore, we like Muslims.
And so we had this kind of interesting trend. Obviously, that was more true of young Democrats, for sure, but across the board we have seen this remarkable shift that has taken place, even among—on attitudes toward Islam. Because historically we find that attitudes toward Muslims are somewhat more favorable than attitudes toward Islam as a religion. I have written about this as to why that is the case. But you will find that even attitudes toward Islam improved as well. Not quite as much, but also improved over time. So, yes, there has been a marked shift that has taken place during the Trump years into the Biden years.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Angela Williams with a raised hand. If you can identify yourself.
Q: Can you hear me?
Q: Thanks for having us here today. Now, my question for Dr. Shibley is, you speak of social justice, but I want you to go back and speak of justice, because you also referenced Evangelicals.
Q: Now, justice is what is in the Bible, not social justice, which came about 1970s and 1980s, or if you want to go Luigi, in 1840s. But I think that we are—don’t have authentic conversations or perspective because justice is not the focus. Most of the conversation is related to nations, not all the social justice emotionalism that we witness in media.
FASKIANOS: Angela, give us your affiliation?
Q: Yes. Professor at Georgia Military College.
FASKIANOS: Thank you so much.
TELHAMI: So let me answer that a bit. I use the term “social justice” because that’s what we traced, meaning that if you look at—particularly during the Trump years when we have a value divide in America, obviously. I mean, it’s not just a partisan divide. And much of it, particularly the things that animated young Democrats, have been issues of justice, you’re right, in a global justice, international law, rule of law, but also social justice, because the issues that have animated much of the conversation had to do with Black Lives Matter, anti-Hispanic sentiments that was seen to have come together with the Trump presidency. And we were focused more on domestic issues because that was what the fight was. And it was wrapped into this worldview that brought people into other issues as well.
But you’re right. It’s justice more broadly. But since you raised the Evangelical issue, I do have a lot of polling among Evangelicals. So I’m actually writing a book on Evangelicals. I’ve been doing this for a number of years. In fact, I started it in 2015, doing a lot of polling among Evangelicals related to our politics, and particularly their interest in the Middle East. And, clearly, Evangelicals have been perhaps the most supportive constituency in America of a right-wing Israel, meaning an Israel that wants to claim ownership with the West Bank. Evangelical leaders have been very much behind that. And we see them supportive of Israeli policies and Israeli government attitudes over time.
But what is interesting is that while this is predicated on some biblical interpretation—what is Israel, or support for Israel—as I have found in interviewing many of the Evangelical leaders, they say their support for Israel is really coming not so much out of their interpretation of the Bible as much as it is about being socialized into a political process in which they have come to certain strategic conclusions. So what happened among the grassroots Evangelicals is that in the polling that have been done over the past five years, including our own but also scholars in the University of North Carolina, what we found is actually support for Israel is diminishing among young Evangelicals.
And we have anecdotal evidence that that’s principally because increasingly also young Evangelicals see the Israeli-Palestinian issue through a prism of justice, whether you want to call it social justice or another prism of justice. But there is increasing evidence. I’ve written about that. I have a couple of articles about it. You’re welcome to see it. It’s also posted online and then other scholars have written about it. But there is a shift taking place among young Evangelicals, that seems to be justice connected, that is moving them toward more evenhandedness on Israel-Palestine.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m taking the next question from Kathy Long Holland, who gets a number of upvotes. She’s an auditor and faculty member at Portland State University: Why do you think Biden did not take a more neutral stance from the beginning?
TELHAMI: Well, this is really an interesting question, honestly. And we now know quite a few things. I have—the president himself has been, of course, pro-Israel. He considered himself—in fact, he called himself a Zionist, including while visiting Israel this time, but over the years he called himself a Zionist. He has been— whether this is being socialized into a political system where support for Israel was kind of automatic if you were a member of Congress—he spent so many years in the Senate and obviously was attuned to the political environment— or whether he has his own belief system, is hard to know.
I happen to have interacted with him when he was a senator and testified before his committee, had conversations with him on Israel-Palestine. Had one conversation with him about this issue when he was vice president. I knew where he stood. But he still surprised me quite a bit. And so it has led to a lot of reinterpretation of where his position comes from and including people who are looking back to see his posture in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. I went through—a couple of articles led me to some material related to his posture when Israel was invading Lebanon in 1982, when he thought Israel was justified to even do more damage to civilians at that time, when everybody was criticizing what they thought was overreaction by Israel or affecting civilian casualties more than was warranted.
He seemed to say, I’m fine with that, and people have been referring to that now. The New York Times has an article now, I think it may even be today, about how the president himself had disagreed with Biden back in 2014 when—with Obama, sorry. When President Obama in 2014, when there was a Gaza war and Obama wanted to be publicly critical when the Israelis were attacking in a way that led to many civilian casualties. That Biden disagreed with him. Biden said, you shouldn’t do that. We should embrace Israel. And that will give us more leverage with Israel. We should hug them and not criticize them publicly. So he talked about it as if it were a tactic. So he had, obviously—I’m also finishing up another co-authored book on Biden, Trump, and Obama presidencies. And in our interviews with Obama officials, we discovered a number of areas in which on this issue there was disagreement between Biden and Obama, and Obama supporters.
So we don’t really know exactly what is driving him personally, because we do know that it was a rather unique position that he was the one who was leading this kind of embrace of Israel. We know there’s been division within the State Department, people who are critical. I’ve spoken to many of the officials who are privately not pleased with the way this has gone. Been a lot of public writing about disagreements within the White House. The State Department, the initial instinct was let’s deescalate and let’s have a ceasefire. Then information came from the White House, no, that’s not what we’re going to call for. We’re going to support them for the purpose of destroying Hamas. And I don’t think the president fully understood, separate from how this is going to play internationally—it’s not playing well, by the way. As one official said, we are taking a lot of water over Israel right now internationally. No question about it.
But I don’t think he realized how much more damage it would do domestically. There are a lot of members of Congress, Democratic members, who are very angry with him, who don’t support his policy, who are not going to go out and publicly criticize him in a very strong way because he is a Democratic president who is in an election year, and they don’t want to weaken him further. So they’re kind of being quiet. But the polling is shaking them up. And I think you can see a little bit of change in the discourse in the past couple weeks.
I think this chapter hasn’t been written about why the president took a decision very early on to embrace, almost a blank check, for the Israeli operations in Gaza in a way that has generated devastating results, for an aim that is probably not achievable—whatever that means, destroying Hamas—in a way that impacts U.S. national security interests. This is not just about supporting Israel. There are huge American interests at stake. One is blowback. A lot of people in the Arab and Muslim world are watching this. They can’t believe this is—they blame America more than Israel over this.
I happen to think this is a paradigm-forming moment. I don’t think this is a temporary anger. I think a whole generation of Arabs and Muslims are now going to have this picture in mind, what happened in Gaza in 2023. And they’re going to blame the United States for it. There’s obviously a risk of escalation. We’re already seeing some of it, in terms of attacking American forces in Iraq and Syria, and elsewhere. There’s a chance of escalation to draw the U.S. into a war with Iran, if there is an ultimate escalation that that brings Iran and Hezbollah into the fight.
And yet, there has not been—from day one—an interagency process about what choice we should make and what are the implications—what the implications are for U.S. interests if, in fact, we took that particular course. There is no evidence there was any kind of interagency process the president initiated, or military strategizing before he sent two carrier groups to the Middle East, that obviously he thought of them as a deterrent to Iran or Hezbollah. Maybe they served that purpose, but also they were escalatory in in various ways. There was no apparent consideration of this. Instead, he went to Israel. Sure, he needed to support the Israelis. The Israelis came under a horrific attack on October 7. They felt vulnerable. The U.S. is a supporter. That was the right thing to do for president, to go and say, look, we’re with you at your moment of pain. We will support you. We will not allow somebody to destroy you.
But that’s different from saying we’re going to give you a blank check to define what is your self-interest. Every state has the right to self-interest, but no state has a right to define alone what action constitutes self-interest. And we do know that this Israeli government—sure, a lot of them want just self-defense, and they want security. But many of them want a lot more. This is an extremist government. And many of the objectives of the ministers in that government do not coincide with interest in the United States, whether they’re—some of them want to expel the Palestinians from Gaza, ethnic cleansing. Some of them, including the prime minister, have been known in the past to want to draw the U.S. into a war with Iran.
And so the interest, sure—the overlap, at some point, you want to support self-defense. But you don’t want to give a carte blanche in a way that undermines your interests. And the president has—we don’t really know what process he undertook to reach this conclusion. I think this chapter has not been written yet. And I think there will be a lot of things that we—certainly there are a lot of things we don’t know about Biden personally. But we don’t also know a lot of things about how these decisions were made.
FASKIANOS: There has been a lot of talk in the media about President Biden putting pressure on the ceasefire, in order to have the hostages released. Have you done any polling on that? Like, has the—is he getting some credit for his role in that—those discussions to release hostages?
TELHAMI: We haven’t done any polling on that. I probably will when I do my next poll. But here’s my instinct. My instinct is, no, he’s not getting credit for it, except among those who already support him. This is a talking point, not an opinion shifting point. Because the people who bought into the paradigm of criticism are looking at the destruction that’s already been done.
And part of the narrative is this offer of hostage exchange was on the table much earlier. Hamas had referred to an exchange early on. The question is, of course, whether it could have been done. I mean, obviously, but nobody had tried it. So whether you needed the kind of destruction that already happened—and, again, let’s talk about magnitude here, OK?
We are talking about more than 15,000 people killed, thousands of children. Most of the 15,000 are children and women. We are talking about 80 percent of the population rendered homeless. We are talking about destruction, according to the U.N., of up to 50 percent of the structures. So damage or destruction. We’re talking about the dropping of bombs over Gaza that are equivalent to more than two nuclear devices, on a very small population over a period of a month and a half. So we’re talking about an enormous amount of devastation. That’s what’s registering, not what you might get out of it now. And, by the way, you have prisoner exchanges. It’s a good thing. It’s necessary. Hamas taking hostages was a war crime. You do not—especially civilian children and woman. I mean, that is an awful thing and needed, obviously, to be addressed. And they need to all come back home to their loved ones.
But the Israelis have also taken prisoners in the West Bank, obviously not in the same way. But nonetheless, if you look, for example, at the prisoner exchanges, you’re talking about for—you might end up with maybe a hundred Israelis—150 Israelis released. I hope all are released. In exchange for maybe three times as many Palestinians. But there are 7,000 Palestinians held by Israel under occupation. And just since the war started on October 7, the Israelis are said to have arrested 3,000 people, just since October 7. Three thousand people in operations in the West Bank. Most of them are said to be under administrative detention, meaning they’re not facing any charges.
So this is a—obviously, the exchanges are important. Even a single one coming home is important. But I don’t think those people who are assessing Biden policy are going to reward him for the outcome so far. They might, if there’s some other huge deal coming out that we don’t know about. But for now, I don’t think so. That’s my assessment. Obviously, I could be wrong. Sometimes I’m surprised when I do a poll, and I’m making an assumption, and it turns out I’m wrong. And that does happen—though, not frequently, I must say.
FASKIANOS: I was just going to say, I don’t think it’s that frequent. (Laughter.)
I’m going to go next to Monica Byrne, who’s an undergraduate student at Bard College, and really focusing on the campus: This conflict has comment from every corner, even those with only a glancing acquaintance of the history or the complexities involved. Right now, especially on campuses the conversation is a binary one, you’re either for Palestine or for Israel with no nuance or understanding. How can we raise the level of dialogue and amplify more diverse voices who are interested in solutions?
TELHAMI: Yeah. I really appreciate that. I mean, my initial reaction when this—I started speaking out very early, as you can imagine, talking all over the country at various academic institutions and the media on this issue. And my take, I look at it, obviously, as somebody who’s been studying this issue for decades. And I’m also a student of war, broadly. And what I have put out there is that, look, I mean, we do know that wars harden the hearts and they fog the minds.
And so—and it doesn’t matter who it is. It’s not just the Israelis and the Palestinians. You know, when you have family members, or relatives, or loved ones who were killed in an awful way and you feel helpless, and it comes as a surprise and you feel vulnerable, many of us have come under these kinds of situations, you want to lash out. You want to—you start demonizing the other. You start seeing every signal from the other as something—they’re all alike. They all want to kill us. They all want to do this. And it happens on both sides, and they both have a long history that leads to demonization.
And so that’s why—one reason I’ve been critical of Biden administration. That’s because when you are in the middle of something like that, and you know the urge for vengeance—and, yes, everybody wants self-defense. But you know that the urge goes well beyond self-defense, even under the best of circumstances. And these are not the best of circumstances, with leaders whose aims go well beyond self-defense. And we know that. That’s where you need a better conversation outside. That’s why you need international leaders to speak out with a moral authority. That’s why you need restraint, handholding, yes. Empathy is important. Empathy is part of what is needed in times of pain, for sure. But what you need is empathy for both sides. What you need is also a bit of restraint. What you need is create an environment that allows for more clarity than is allowed typically by the hardened hearts that you face.
And we need to do that in academic institutions. We need to do that in every arena that we have. And we haven’t seen that. We haven’t seen that. The president, I think, supported the Israelis. It worked for him, in the sense that Israelis really, really like him now. He could even get elected if he were running for prime minister of Israel. But he did it in a way where he failed to express even minimum empathy with—even in the face of horrific Palestinian casualties—in a way that lost him a whole generation of people. And now, nothing he will say will be trusted by the people on the other side. It’s not as if he can put a plan on the table. They’re going to say, are you kidding me? You’re the one who allowed this. You’re going to—because they blame him for enabling what transpired.
So, yes, we need space. We need it in academic institutions, particularly. We need it in the public discourse. We need it in the media. But the signals come from our leaders. And that’s why I think—the fact that the president is the highest authority in giving signals. I happen to think that his discourse initially dehumanized Palestinians, even though he was warning from day one Hamas is not Palestinians, don’t take it out on Palestinians, don’t take it out on Muslims, don’t take it out on Arabs. He was saying that, to his credit. But what people are hearing through the signals when he’s condoning the kind of mass destruction and killing that’s taken place, and in his news conference even dismissing it, saying, well, this is what happens in war, rather than saying I feel for them, initially. Or even challenging the numbers when, in fact, his own officials were saying they’re probably even higher than Hamas is revealing.
And so that is dehumanizing. And that kind of dehumanization, we do know there’s rising antisemitism, for sure. We’ve seen it, as a result of this as well. But there’s been a rise, with the three students who were just shot in Vermont—Palestinian Americans who were shot in Vermont in an apparent hate crime. And so I think the dehumanization that has come out probably has more impact than the verbal saying, oh, don’t take it out on these people. And so that’s why I think, yes, it is important to set a different tone in our discourse than we have set for ourselves.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next spoken question from Ashley De Oliveria. If you can unmute. There you go. And tell us what your affiliation is.
Q: I’m about to start graduate school at Florida International University in cybersecurity technology policy.
And my question is related to the cyberattacks that I have found in my own research that are currently going on. Immediately after October 7, after the Hamas attack, there were cyber disinformation attacks by—suspected to be from Russia, China, and Iran, by foreign actors on social media, which we’re seeing across Twitter, Facebook, TikTok. And don’t you think that there could be a correlation possibly between the sharp inapproval (sic) and drastic shift in public opinion, especially, again, to younger people who are the biggest consumers of social media, corresponding to the polls you referenced, which you said showed a decrease in Israel support within a week after the beginning of the war, and then I believe you said another poll, which showed a gradual increase for the support of Muslims and on their—on that side of the dispute over the course of the conflict?
So are you considering that a lot of what we’re seeing is the result of both long-term and short-term foreign policy—or, short-term foreign influence of cyber disinformation campaigns across social media? Because especially in TikTok, I think there’s been, really—the algorithms have shown a sharp increase in what they are putting out. And the younger people are the ones who don’t seem to have a grasp of the—a lot of the history coming from the beginning of this situation and the influences also that fascism has on the dispute at the origins of this. Because it just goes back a long way. And I feel like there’s a drastic misunderstanding of some of the history. And I feel like this is really being amplified right now by social media in a big way. So I would like to know if you consider that an influence on the situation.
FASKIANOS: Thanks, Ashley.
TELHAMI: So let me just give you a kind of—a bit of a take on this. I mean, obviously, I don’t know the exact— the question that you said about particular cyberattacks or state-sponsored manipulation of social media, which, of course, exists. I worry about it tremendously. As you know, we worried about it here in the election campaign because of what we thought was Russian influence early on in the campaigns during the Trump era in the previous election. We still worry about it now. I actually held a conversation about it at Maryland with General Hayden a couple of years ago, with the head of the NSA and CIA, as well as Dana Priest of the Washington Post, and my colleague at Maryland. So I certainly take that seriously, and I worry about it now with the introduction of AI as another factor that we all are worried about in terms of impacting the social media.
I want to say that everybody’s doing it, right? So the Israelis are doing their own, right? So this is a media war. This is an information war. So everybody is—we know that we have bots, we have all kinds of attempts at creating the narrative on the social media. Which one is working? Which one is not? It’s hard to tell.
My instinct, though, on the shifts that have happened related to Israel-Palestine in recent months, is probably not a function of—or, not mostly a function of direct manipulation by particular players, like China or Iran. Why do I say that? Because it’s just consistent with the trends that we have seen about sort of the basis of the information they have and why they attribute certain—why they hold certain views, what are the issues that matter to them, and what is their value system that leads them to take a particular position? So I don’t find it at all surprising that we see what we see in the trends. It’s exactly what I would have expected, with or without any attempt at manipulation of social media. But, of course, I don’t know. I mean, as I said, we’re in a game where these factors are increasingly important. None of us know exactly how important. And we need to study more rigorously.
FASKIANOS: I’m going to take the next question from Steven Shinkel, who is a military professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. It has five upvotes: Do you have any insights on the feeling about Hamas being allowed to stay in power or perceptions about Palestinian control of Gaza without Hamas?
TELHAMI: Well, let’s put it this way: There was—when I talked to the Biden administration people from day one, both in the White House and the State Department. I’m not going to talk about—at a pretty high level. Let’s put it that way. And clearly, one of the views that they had was, let’s tell people—the Palestinians, and the Arabs, and Muslims, we’re really only against Hamas. And Hamas is responsible for your misery. And Hamas is responsible for what the Israelis are doing. And so blame Hamas. Don’t blame the Israelis. Don’t blame the U.S.
And I thought from day one that is just a naïve approach. It’s just like telling the Israelis, blame your government for the occupation. Don’t blame Hamas for attacking you, and don’t go after Hamas. I mean, nobody’s going to buy that. Even people who hate their government, they rally behind the flag. They feel for the—they will go after the people who actually fired the shots and people who actually carried out them. And they see that as their priority. They think they have another battle to be had. Like many of the liberals say: We need to fight this fight against Hamas now, and then we’ll go on and maybe revisit the issue about who’s responsible among us for this or that. You see the same thing among the Palestinians.
So among Palestinians, there is no doubt—whether it’s in Gaza, in the West Bank, in the Arab world, the Muslim world. The blame is principally going to Israel and going to the U.S., and not to Hamas, even among people who don’t want Hamas, don’t like Hamas ideologically. People who are secular, people who don’t want to anything to do with it. So the idea that you create this separation, particularly, of power, who’s not trusted to begin with, that they’re going to listen to you and your pitch on this is naïve. And I put it that way to high-level officials in the U.S., naïve. I used even the term “naïve” for doing that.
Now, what might happen afterwards? I have never believed that the idea, quote, of “destroying Hamas” was an idea that was coherent, because I don’t really know what that means, honestly. I mean, if you mean destroying their infrastructure, and destroying most of the weapons, killing most of their leaders, it’s probably achievable but at the cost of destroying Gaza, all of Gaza. Maybe a couple of hundred thousand casualties, and everybody’s displaced, and maybe becoming refugees. A) That’s a war crime. B) It’s totally immoral, aside from whether it’s a war crime or not. And, three, it generates far more not just misery, but a huge political problem. Because for every Hamas member you’re killing, you’re generating twenty others whose families have been destroyed, and you’re planting the seeds of more violence down the road. So it’s a crazy idea. It just has no meaning whatsoever.
And in any case, it’s not just in Gaza. Hamas has supporters in the West Bank. They are in Lebanon. And whether or not it’s that particular organization, that organization emerged in a vacuum, in part because of the weakening of the PLO, which was the principle Palestinian representative organization. And it was encouraged initially by Israel, who wanted and saw the PLO as the main threat to Israel and wanted to weaken it. So they allowed Muslim Brotherhood to rise and create something like Hamas. Obviously, not exactly anticipating the same outcomes. And in recent years, as the Israeli press has been full of stories, the Netanyahu government has kind of had—was happy to have Hamas—of course, not expecting the kind of attack they carried out on October 7—as something they can scare people with, as something that is a barrier to having a two-state solution, which obviously the government doesn’t want.
So it’s much more complicated than we think. And I think that’s why, to me, when the president embraced the idea that Hamas must be destroyed, I didn’t think that was a coherent idea that was vetted through the system. And it needed to be vetted through the system. And it has consequences, because if you carry it through, all the way through until they really are destroyed, you’re going to have the devastation that we’ve seen, and more. And, of course, it could draw Hezbollah, it could draw Iran, could draw us into the fight. And so I am very concerned about this posture.
FASKIANOS: Well, with that, we are at the end of our time. I am sorry that we had so many questions and raised hands that we could not get to them all. But sadly this issue is not going away, and we will need to continue to have discussions on it. Shibley Telhami, thank you so much for everything that you—all the work that you have done. We will send out a link to the website—to this discussion and transcript, as well as links to some of the polls and other writings that Dr. Telhami has done. Is the correct URL for your polls CriticalIssues.UMD.edu?
TELHAMI: Yes. And also Sadat.UMD.edu, both.
FASKIANOS: Both. So you can go there for a full listing of all the polls. And I encourage you to do that, as well as follow Dr. Telhami on X, the app formerly known as Twitter, at @ShibleyTelhami. And so I hope you will do that as well. We just announced the winter/spring Academic Webinar lineup in the November issue of the CFR bulletin. So if you’ve not already subscribed, you can sign up by emailing us at [email protected].
I also encourage you to learn about CFR paid internships for students and fellowships for professors at CFR.org/Careers. And you will see there the international affairs fellowship that was referenced at the top. And please do follow us at @CFR_academic and visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues. Again, thank you for this conversation. Shibley, we really appreciated it. And, to all of you, good luck with your finals and the end of semester work. And we look forward to reconvening in 2024.