Posted on February 20, 1995 in Washington Watch
The Arab American Institute recently sponsored a poll in the northeastern state of New Hampshire. We were partners in the poll with FOX television news of New York City and the New York Post. The pollster was the John Zogby Group of New York.
While the New York Media focused its attention on the poll’s questions on Presidential politics, we commissioned our portion of the poll to develop ideas for the types of issues that Arab Americans could and should raise in the upcoming 1996 elections. In American politics, this is known as “testing the waters,” that is, looking for a general idea of where public attitudes are at the moment. New Hampshire is a key state since it is the site of the first Presidential primary in the nation, and in many ways a test of New Hampshire voters is a good indication of how voters think nationally.
The poll indicates is that, if we are going to establish our case to support the Arab countries, we have serious work to do. But is also shows the base from which we will have to work; and in some cases that base is solid while in most cases the it will require some work. Among the positive findings was a much lower than expected anti-Arab American and anti-American Muslim sentiment. In fact, the attitudes toward these two groups were about the same as attitudes toward Asian Americans and American Jews – which shows that an initial goal of our empowerment project, allowing us to function as other ethnic groups do, is being realized. This provides a solid basis for our political work.
Another positive in the poll was that Egypt once again outpaces Israel in popularity. Egypt’s favorable rating was 42%, while its unfavorable rating was 32%. The figures for Israel were 44% favorable and 40% unfavorable. While Israel’s favorable rating was slightly higher, Egypt’s net rating (subtracting the unfavorable rating from the favorable rating) came out to be 10%, markedly higher than Israel’s 4%.
Other Arab countries did not fare as well, but most showed an improvement over polls done in previous years. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for example, showed identical 39% favorable ratings compared with identical 44% unfavorable ratings. Jordan had a 31% favorable rating with an unfavorable rating of 45%.
Lebanon has not yet recovered from the strong negatives engendered by its 17 year civil war, and the hostage-taking and the bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks which many Americans still associate with that country. Lebanon’s favorable rating was a low 19% and its unfavorable rating was a high 60%. Surprisingly, the same is true of the Palestinians. The positive feelings the peace accords brought out were outweighed by decades of anti-Palestinian propaganda which still shapes many attitudes, leaving the Palestinians rating of only 19% positive to 64% negative.
By comparison, Germany rates a 74% favorable and 15% unfavorable, Mexico 47% favorable and 40% unfavorable, and Russia 45% favorable and 40% unfavorable.
More importantly, when New Hampshire voters were asked whether they support continued foreign aid to countries which receive such assistance, only 20% support aid to Egypt and the same number support aid to the Palestinians while 32% support continued aid to Israel. At the same time, 49% support aid to Russia and 42% support aid to Mexico.
The poll indicates that Egypt, in particular, has standing that is strong enough to make it an issue on the agenda, but that alone will not put it on the agenda: work must be done. For example, Egypt’s position on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – that it will not sign the Treaty unless and until Israel also signs it – should be supported. If the demand that Israel sign the Treaty is stated as an Egyptian position, it can garner strong public support.
It also appears that U.S. aid to Egypt is not popular precisely because Egypt has never actively stated its case for this aid. Instead, the aid is viewed as tied to the aid to Israel as a part of the Camp David Accords (a position adopted in order to secure Congressional support). But as the silent partner in this arrangement, Egypt has never used its popularity to lay out the case for the aid, as shown by the fact that aid to Egypt is much less popular than the country as a whole. (Note that the ratio of support for Israeli aid to support for Israel as a whole is 3/4, while the same ratio for Egypt is 1/2.; there is a reservoir of positive feeling for Egypt that has not yet been tapped on the foreign aid question)
Lebanon and the Palestinians, it is clear, have serious work to do. Lebanon, and Lebanese Americans in particular, have for too long rested on their past glories. They have failed to appreciate the tremendous damage done to Lebanon’s reputation over the past two decades. A national campaign for Lebanon is clearly in order if public opinion is to consider Lebanon in the more positive light it deserves.
So, too, with the Palestinians. Unfortunately, the PLO has never taken seriously the need to do meaningful public relations work in the U.S. Even after the Madrid Peace Conference when U.S. public opinion was ready for a change, the Palestinian leadership did not make a concerted effort to reshape U.S. opinion. The PLO office is still understaffed, under-funded and without a directive or a mandate to fully engage in a U.S. public relations campaign.
When I raise the importance of this issue to various Arab leaders, I am frequently asked three questions:
Can it be done?
Is it important to do it?
How could it be done?
Can it be done? Ask the Saudis. While Israel has a plus 4 rating and Saudi Arabia has a minus 5, given the fact that the poll has a margin of error of +/- 4.5 percent, the Saudi and Israeli ratings are virtually statistically equal.
Imagine: Israel with the most powerful foreign lobby in Washington, with the support of a tremendously influential Jewish community and an extraordinarily successful public relations effort is now only viewed as slightly more favorable than Saudi Arabia, if at all. Why? Because, over the past five years the Saudis have waged a public relations battle in the U.S. Despite the enormous cultural and religious differences between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and despite the fact that most Americans historically tend to resent countries we expend lives and dollars to defend, Saudi Arabia’s campaign has succeeded in turning U.S. opinion into a more favorable view of the Kingdom. (A poll just three years ago showed Saudi Arabia with a 32% favorable and 48% unfavorable rating.)
It is important? Since the U.S. Congress shapes so much of U.S. foreign policy based perceptions of what is popular and acceptable, it is critically important to have or win a favorable public opinion rating.
Each time the pro-Israel side shapes the public debate on a question, they succeed to some degree in influencing public policy. Elements of this community are still, as I have noted for months, engaged in a strategy to discredit Saudi Arabia (as unstable, bankrupt and backward), or Egypt (as unnecessary, untrustworthy and unstable), or Islam (as the new post-Cold War “enemy”). It seems that the Israelis have perceived a danger in two Arab countries being perceived as close allies of the U.S. and popular with the public. It is imperative that the Arab countries respond and take seriously the need to not only improve their public relations standing but also to use their standing to help shape the U.S. public debate on Middle East priorities.
How can it be done? The problem is simple and has been well developed by the Israelis. First, cultivate friends – elected officials, constituent groups (business leaders, interest groups, churches), especially those groups whose interests are served through their relationship with the Arab world. It is especially important that Arab leaders work with Arab Americans – we are, in the end, their strongest supporters. And our strength and theirs are intimately related to one another.
Next, it is important to establish direct contact with the U.S. people. I have long argued that we have a great deal to learn from the Israeli model. When an Israeli Prime Minister comes to the U.S., he first goes to major public events in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles (speaking to thousands and appearing on television and radio), establishing his public message before he comes to Washington. By the time he arrives in Washington, U.S. leaders have seen the public support and heard the public message.
Arab leaders, on the other hand, rarely go anywhere other than New York (to appear at the United Nations – a venue Americans don’t pay attention to), and then to Washington for quiet meetings with the President and Congressional leaders. On occasion, they will address a think tank in Washington – but almost never will they venture out into the real America and give the American people a chance to see them, know them (possibly come to like them) and see their message in their local media.
In an earlier poll we did, we found that President Mubarak was far more popular in the U.S. than Israeli Prime Minister Rabin. Imagine if Mubarak were to take his message on nuclear non-proliferation or what must be done to make the peace process work, to major U.S. cities. Arab Americans would gladly sponsor such events – it would a plus for both Egypt and the local Arab American communities (who would clearly gain in stature from such sponsorships. It would be a plus for the U.S. people who would hear, from a leader they respect, what should be done to build peace. And it would be a plus for the U.S., since it would provide badly needed balance to our foreign policy debate.
The rest of the New Hampshire poll, as cited in the New York Post, also found that Kansas Senator Robert Dole held a commanding lead over all other Republican challengers in that state’s Republican primary. Dole received 45% support while his closest competitors, CNN commentator Pat Buchanan and Texas Senator Phil Graham each received 10%.
The poll also showed that President Clinton would easily defeat any and all potential Democratic challengers, if the primary were held today. Clinton received 66% of the Democratic support, with his nearest possible competitor (Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey) received only 9%
If the general election were held today, the poll found that Clinton would defeat any of his potential Republican rivals except Dole. Dole outpolled Clinton, in the tentative match-up 52% to 34%. This held true for all the possible three-way races including former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff running as an independent: Clinton won all those possible races except the ones including Dole.
The results are interesting, since Dole has lost previous New Hampshire primaries (in 1980 and 1988) and Clinton actually won the state (by a slim 1% margin) in the 1992 general election.
But New York pollster John Zogby, who conducted the poll, said,
“Dole is in the drivers’ seat. He’s well-positioned on issues that matter to New Hampshire, and the poll shows no real weaknesses for him. The only risk is that he’s the runaway front runner – because New Hampshire likes to cut front-runners down to size.”
I have only given at outline of the results of the New Hampshire poll. We learned a great deal more from what are called the “internals” of the poll. For example, Catholics are more sympathetic toward Arab concerns than Protestants., and women are more supportive than men. Similarly, as income and education increase, support for the Arab world also tends to increase.
In the weeks to come, we will commission other polls, in an effort to learn more about voter attitudes in other states and in the nation. We will continue to work to shape a national Arab American agenda for 1996.
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