Mar 30th 2010

New Poll on American Attitudes Toward the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

A new poll out this week shows that while Israelis retain strong US public support, Americans are deeply concerned that the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict puts US interests at risk across the Middle East and the public, therefore, supports President Obama's stand against Israel's settlement plans. These are but a few of the top line findings of a Zogby International poll of 2,471 Americans conducted between March 17-19, 2010. The poll, commissioned by the Arab American Institute, had a margin of error of 2.0%.

Upon closer examination of the poll's findings, observations can be made pointing to lessons that should be learned.

Israeli ratings are high, but dropping; so are the Palestinians.

In 2009 71% of Americans had a favorable view of Israelis with only 21% rating them unfavorably. In 2010 the favorable/unfavorable ratings have shifted to 65%-29%. This is largely due to a significant drop among Democrats who now hold a 42% favorable, 49% unfavorable view of Israelis. The Israeli Prime Minister's rating among Democrats is an even worse 20% to 63%.

During this same period, however, the US public's attitudes toward the Palestinians and their President, Mahmoud Abbas, have also declined. In 2009 Palestinians were viewed favorably by 25% of the public and unfavorably by 66%. Today the favorable/unfavorable ratio is 21% to 73%. Abbas' ratings during the past year have also declined to where he is now seen favorably by only 14% of the US public.

These abysmally low Palestinian numbers point to their continuing failure to engage public opinion in the US. While the Israelis aggressively project their story, the Palestinians, and Arabs in general, do not. Fault certainly can be placed on the unbalanced way major US networks and press cover the Israeli-Palestinian story, but in this age where "new media" provides new possibilities and where many sectors of the US public (young people, women and minority communities) are more open than ever before to hearing a counter narrative to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this continuing decline in Palestinian ratings is worrisome and inexcusable.

Americans are deeply concerned that the continuing conflict puts the US at risk across the Middle East.

This was the one area where there was broad national consensus. With over 80% of all Americans agreeing that the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is important and the same number expressing the view that the continuing conflict puts US interests at risk.

With American troops still in Iraq and after witnessing the destabilizing consequences of repeated flare ups in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Americans are worried. They still do not fully understand the region's history and have little awareness of the Palestinian's story, but like the famous line in a once popular Bob Dylan song "they know something is wrong, but they don't know what it is".

In this context the warning recently issued by the US Commander of CENTCOM, General David Petraeus becomes important to consider. By observing the degree to which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict puts the US at risk in the region, Petraeus created the opening for a public discussion on the importance of resolution of the conflict. But the outcome of this discussion is not guaranteed unless Arabs take advantage of this opportunity to engage the public, tell their story and provide acceptable solutions they find acceptable.

Pluralities know settlements are wrong, should be stopped, and support President Obama's efforts; but a significant number of Americans still do not understand the issue.

By a margin of 40%-34%, Americans say Israel's settlements in occupied territories are wrong. By a margin of 40%-26%, Americans say the President should get tough with Israel to stop settlements. And, 51% worry that when the US is unable to stop Israeli settlements it weakens that stature of the US in the world.

While these numbers point in a positive direction and also show both Democrats and Independents in support of a tougher US stance, two observations must be made.

First, there is the presence here of a deep partisan divide with two-thirds of Democrats opposed to Israeli policies compared to two-thirds of Republicans in support of whatever Israel does. This divide is not new. It developed during the Clinton Administration as that president supported peace efforts only to be countered by Republicans in Congress who sided with Likud policies. The divide grew during George W. Bush's first term when he so completely embraced Ariel Sharon. And now, given the hyper-partisanship of the current era, with President Obama's strong stand against settlements, the divide deepens.

The partisan split in not merely a function of leadership, it is also demographics. The pro-Israel bent of the Republican side is largely due to the preponderance of Christian fundamentalists in its coalition, while the Democratic side is increasingly made up of young voters, women and minorities (African Americans, Hispanics and Asians-who together form about one-third of the US electorate)-and they are more inclined to consider a broader view of international issues.

Next it is vital to take note of the one-third of those polled who have no clear view on any of these issues. They and even many of those who will declare their opposition to settlements or will support the President's stand have no compelling reason to hold a firm position. The fault here is with both successive US administrations who have declared their opposition to settlements without making a compelling enough case, and once again, with the Arab side for failing to tell their story.

That the Israeli narrative about settlements still dominates and defines the discussion was in evidence this past week as Members of Congress defended Israel's "right to build homes for its people", or its right to "rebuild their capital", or expressed outrage at the though that Jews should be excluded from "any part of Jerusalem"-false arguments that ignore the fact that the settlements in question were being built on Arab land and were not in Jerusalem (but an area that Israel illegally and unilaterally declared to be Jerusalem). What these arguments also ignore is the cost in rights, livelihood and freedom of movement that this settlement enterprise imposes on Palestinians. None of this, however, is considered in part because none of it is known.

The bottom line is that this poll presents a challenge to engage and inform a public that is deeply concerned but not yet certain how to respond to the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is a challenge that must be met.

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