It could be an expression of hope that the death and destruction of war stops, without any idea how to make that happen or ensure the peace is lasting and just. It could be a call to broker a deal Israel and Hamas both find acceptable. Or a demand that Hamas surrender, release hostages, and give up control of Gaza. Or that Israel halt its military operations, accepting that Hamas will remain in power and continue holding some Israeli hostages. Or something else.
Perhaps the clearest articulation is a letter from anonymous, dissenting civil servants in the U.S. and Europe, released Feb. 2. The letter makes a few demands of their governments, two of them concrete:
Demand 1: “Stop asserting to the public that there is a strategic and defensible rationale behind the Israeli operation.”
That’s asking leaders to change what they say. The letter could have demanded leaders say something like “while Israel had legitimate reason to respond to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, its military has gone too far, killing way too many civilians,” but chose not to.
The request, therefore, is that Western leaders stop nonspecific comments like “Israel has a right to defend itself,” stop specific arguments that Oct. 7 justified an armed response, and instead assert that Israel’s military operation is indefensible.
Demand 2: “Use all leverage available—including a halt to military support—to secure a lasting ceasefire and full humanitarian access in Gaza and a safe release of all hostages.”
That’s a demand for action to end, or at least reduce, decades-long security partnerships with Israel. The letter does not call on Western leaders to make any demands of Hamas, implying that blame for the lack of full access to Gaza or release of Hamas-held hostages is entirely on Israel and its international partners.
The letter does, however, acknowledge that both sides have legitimate concerns, concluding with a more abstract demand to “develop a strategy for lasting peace that includes a secure Palestinian state and guarantees for Israel’s security, so that an attack like 7 October and an offensive on Gaza never happen again.”
How to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has frustrated world leaders for more than 75 years, they do not say.
Based on the letter’s other demands, the strategy must involve accepting that Hamas (which adamantly rejects Israel and threatens Israeli security) will be in charge of Gaza (which keeps the Palestinians politically divided, and prompts the joint Israel-Egypt blockade of Gaza, which are both obstacles to a Palestinian state).
So “ceasefire now” appears to mean, broadly, two different things:
1. Make the fighting and suffering stop. Just do it.
2. While the U.S. president can’t snap his fingers and fix the situation, he should try to improve it by speaking more like an anti-Israel activist, ending support for the Israeli military, and telling Israel to accept Hamas in charge of Gaza (because the cost of trying to remove them from power is too high, and might never succeed).
Many of President Biden’s left-wing critics embrace the ambiguity of “ceasefire now,” which helps them claim widespread support. But doing so can leave them frustrated, asserting that a majority of Americans agree with them and the government simply won’t listen.
“61 percent of Americans support a permanent ceasefire in Gaza,” claimed Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), including “76 percent of Democrats,” but “only… 11 percent of Congress has called for a ceasefire.” Similarly, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a left-wing think tank critical of U.S. interventions, claims “over 70 percent of Democrats support a ceasefire in Gaza,” which they cast as “a sharp divide between the party elite and its supporters.” An Al Jazeera editorial titled, “U.S. lawmakers lag voters in support for Gaza ceasefire,” argued that over 60 percent of Americans want a ceasefire compared to only 11 percent in Congress. Journalist Mehdi Hasan put it as “66 percent of Americans want a ceasefire,” while “less than five percent of House members” have called for one, showing how “Congress is out of touch with public opinion.”
This has become an article of faith among left-wing critics of the Biden administration’s approach to the conflict, with some going so far as to argue that the United States doesn’t have a democracy because, as award-winning journalist Steven Thrasher put it, “47 cities have called for a ceasefire, which a majority of the american [people] want,” but “congress and the white house refuse to enact the will of the [people].”
Except that’s probably wrong.
The claim that most Americans want a ceasefire traces back to two questions in a November survey by the progressive group Data for Progress. The first asks “do you support or oppose the U.S. calling for a permanent ceasefire and de-escalation of violence in Gaza?” 61 percent say support, only 28 percent say oppose, and that rises to a 76-16 split among Democrats.
The question doesn’t say what a ceasefire means, nor how de-escalation would come about, and it’s likely different respondents imagined different conditions. On top of that ambiguity, the question asks about “the U.S. calling for”—as in “saying words about”—not doing anything in particular, let alone explaining how it would work.
Some respondents who follow the issue likely interpreted the question as “Do you want the U.S. to try to make Israel stop?” But others probably took it more literally, closer to “Are you OKwith the president, secretary of state, and other American officials saying they hope for peace?” When framed that way, it’s not surprising most said yes.
No one needs to outline a workable plan before they can call for an end to violence. The Hamas attack killed over 1,200 Israelis, and the Israeli campaign has killed over 25,000 Palestinians (and counting), many of them civilians. Wanting that to end is very understandable. But actions the U.S. could take to try to end the fighting involve trade-offs. And those poll decently lower.
For example, an Economist/YouGov poll conducted Jan. 14-16 asked about U.S. military aid to Israel. Only 26 percent of Americans want to decrease it. That’s more than the 20 percent who favor an increase, but the most popular answer, with 34 percent, is to keep it the same. Among Democrats, it’s 32 percent decrease, 34 percent same, 15 percent increase. Among every age group, decrease has less than 33 percent support.
Data for Progress helpfully asked a question about the details of a ceasefire, presenting what it says are “arguments from both sides.” Fifty-two percent of Americans, including 66 percent of Democrats, agreed with the argument that the U.S. “should call for a permanent ceasefire” over the 34 percent (21 percent Democrats) who favored “should not.”
The problem with these results is the two arguments aren’t evenly matched.
The red argument is realistic, acknowledging that a permanent ceasefire now would “keep Hamas in power,” threatening “another attack against Israel,” while continuing the war in an effort to defeat Hamas means “more civilian casualties in Gaza.” The blue argument, however, is a hopeful hypothetical, envisioning a “deal between Hamas and Israel to end the violence on both sides and release all hostages.”
Mutual agreement, no more fighting, and all hostages freed. That sounds great, but no one knows how to get it.
After Oct. 7, Israel refuses to accept Hamas running Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas refuses to give up power, rejecting a December Egyptian proposal of a permanent ceasefire under which Hamas relinquishes control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority. In early February, Hamas rejected a deal brokered by Egypt, Qatar, and the United States to cease fire and negotiate another prisoner exchange, on the grounds that it did not include a full withdrawal of Israeli forces, which Israel rejects. A “deal between Israel and Hamas to end the violence on both sides and release all hostages” is not currently an option, no matter how much Americans wish it were.
But maybe the U.S. government can change that. The Data for Progress survey asks voters what the U.S. should prioritize, and the most popular answer was, “Leveraging diplomatic relationships with Israel and Arab partners in the region to de-escalate violence and ensure the safe release of hostages.”
The Biden administration helped secure a temporary ceasefire and hostage/prisoner exchange in November, which facilitated more humanitarian supplies entering Gaza (though still far short of what people there need). Now the U.S. is working with Qatar and Egypt to broker a longer ceasefire and release of additional hostages. President Biden has been calling for a “path toward peace,” not just for the current war, but the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well.
One can reasonably see Biden’s approach as leveraging diplomatic relationships, trying to broker a deal that de-escalates the violence and releases hostages. Or one could point to Biden statements such as “Israel has a right to defend itself,” and the administration bypassing Congress to send millions in military aid while calling for Congress to authorize billions more, and say the U.S. is supporting Israel’s campaign rather than leveraging aid to get Israel to de-escalate.
It’s inaccurate to assume everyone who picked the hopeful hypothetical of a mutually agreeable permanent ceasefire believes the latter, since the survey does not say that.
What do Americans Really Think?
Data for Progress did not ask about a ceasefire without an Israeli-Hamas agreement or the release of hostages. For that we can look to the Jan. 2024 Harvard-Harris poll, and the results are nearly flipped.
Asked about “an unconditional ceasefire… that would leave everyone in place” compared to a ceasefire “only after the release of all hostages and Hamas removed from power,” two-thirds favor the latter, including 57 percent of Democrats.
An identical 67 percent, including 58 percent of Democrats, rejected the claim that Hamas “can be negotiated with to create peace.”
It’s worth noting that sympathy for Israel’s position rises with age. Majorities in the youngest age groups (18-24 and 25-34) favor unconditional ceasefire over setting the conditions of hostages released and Hamas no longer controlling Gaza.
That suggests American public opinion could become more opposed to Israel in the future, as younger generations have little-to-no memory of Gaza before Hamas forcibly took over in 2007, or of Israel before Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009. But for now, and on this war specifically, solid majorities say otherwise, especially among the age groups most likely to vote.
Polls also show increasing criticism of Israel’s war efforts in Gaza. For example, an AP-NORC poll conducted in late January showed 50 percent, including 62 percent of Democrats, think Israel’s military response has “gone too far,” compared to 40 percent (58 percent of Democrats) saying the same in November.
However, the same poll found that 66 percent of Americans, including 58 percent of Democrats, think it’s at least “somewhat important” for the U.S. to “provide aid to Israel’s military to fight Hamas.”
It’s confused, yes, as are most of these public opinion polls in combination, but the situation is complicated. Americans, like most observing the Gaza war from the outside, don’t really know what to do.
Polling, Policy, War, and Elections
Public opinion data doesn’t show majority support for the U.S. to push Israel to unilaterally cease operations and accept Hamas in charge of Gaza. But it doesn’t show majority approval of Israel’s military campaign either.
The data shows the public wishes the death and suffering would stop, and approves of scenarios where that happens as long as it’s abstract and there are no apparent trade-offs.
Generally positive things, such as releasing hostages or providing humanitarian aid, get majority support, but actions beyond “do diplomacy” and “call for more effort to avoid civilian casualties” do not. In particular, the public opposes the specific measures Biden’s left-wing critics want: talking of Israel as an American adversary rather than partner; cutting off aid to the Israeli military (and perhaps ending the U.S.-Israel security partnership entirely); and telling Israel to live with Hamas in charge of Gaza.
The president doesn’t have to follow public opinion. Foreign policy, especially about war, is an area where leaders should lead, weighing both short- and long-term consequences, rather than simply following polls.
Anyone critical of the administration’s policies is entitled to say so, and to hope U.S. policy changes accordingly. Americans are divided and uncertain on this topic, and while there are some noticeable differences between the parties, public opinion does not fall neatly along partisan lines. Biden seeks re-election this November, and it’ll likely come down to a few close swing states, which gives him a political incentive to placate relatively small subsets of voters, at least as long as it doesn’t alienate others.
But if you think that, on this issue, Biden should align with both the American people as a whole and Democratic voters specifically, he does. And if you think a sharp turn against Israel will aid Biden’s re-election prospects, the data says you’re probably wrong.