Posted on April 21, 1997 in Washington Watch
It is not only organized political power that has given supporters of Israel a dominant role in U.S. politics. Of equal importance has been their ability to use that power to shape American public views about the Middle East.
They have succeeded in this effort not only with politicians but in the popular culture of the U.S. as well. For decades now Israel has been understood in the U.S. as: “a tiny democracy that shares our values; “a beleaguered ally”; “a people who only want peace, surrounded by Arabs who only want war”; and other slogans that were repeated often enough, put into literature, made into movies, and delivered in speeches until they were believed.
This is not to say that there were not large component groups in the U.S. who refused to accept this dominant view. Arabs have always had allies, even in Congress and in the Executive Branch. But even these allies were sometimes afraid to publicly confront the dominant view—either for fear of political retribution or because it was too difficult to argue a case that was so little understood or appreciated by the public.
It is important to understand that this has been the political and cultural context in the United States for a number of decades, precisely in order to grasp the significance of the results of a number of recent public opinion polls. The findings of these polls establish that there has been a dramatic sea change in U.S. public attitudes toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In two separate polls, one conducted by the Harris Company, the other by Zogby International, it is clear that the U.S. public has moved toward a greater sense of balance and fairness in its understanding of the Middle East.
Take note of these results:
Â· two Arab leaders, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek and Jordan’s King Hussein were viewed as being more committed to peace than Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu;
Â· Americans view Israel and the Palestinians equally at fault for the current crisis in the Middle East peace process;
Â· by almost five to one Americans oppose Israel’s settlement construction in East Jerusalem and want it to stop;
Â· by four to one Americans support the Palestinian’s right to statehood;
Â· by a significant majority Americans want U.S. Middle East policy to be more balanced and less pro-Israel; and
Â· Americans are divided over whether Jerusalem should be under sole Israeli control or divided between Israeli and Palestinian control—with a plurality supporting a divided city.
Reviewing U.S. polls taken during the 1970’s and 1980’s demonstrates just how dramatic the change has been:
Â· Only Egyptian President Sadat had higher ratings than an Israeli leader. And no Israeli leader has ever had a net negative rating. Even Begin during the 1982 assault on Lebanon had a strong positive rating;
Â· Americans always gave greater sympathy to Israel and greater blame to the Palestinians. Israel usually bested the Arabs in American opinion 10 to 1—during the war in Lebanon this dropped to 4 to 1, but quickly recouped;
Â· Americans never before expressed strong opposition to an Israeli move. Israel’s in Lebanon was supported by U.S. popular opinion, as were past Israeli settlement developments—even when they were called illegal by the State Department;
Â· When asked whether U.S. policy should support Israel or be balanced, Americans almost always gave stronger support to a policy that would favor Israel; and
Â· In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when asked who should control Jerusalem, American support for sole Jewish control over the city was in the 67 to 72% range, with the divided city option always receiving less than 25%.
There have been significant factors that account for this shift:
Â· Camp David, despite Arab opposition, created a breakthrough in U.S. opinion. For the first time: an Arab leader emerged as a peace maker; the U.S. became a partner in the search for peace; the issue of Palestinian rights was put on the table to be debated in public opinion; and Israeli transigence was put to the test;
Â· The Israeli assault on Lebanon exposed Americans to Israel’s brutality. Even though Americans continued to support Israel’s objectives in the war, ultimately Israeli behavior in Lebanon took a toll on U.S. support for that country;
Â· The Palestinian intifada brought home once again Israeli brutality. The drama of a mass Palestinian uprising created a swell of support and won more allies for Arab causes;
Â· The Bush-Baker design for a Middle East peace process and the obstinance of the Likud government established once again the tremendous importance that the U.S. places on the search for Middle East peace. This peace process also projected for the first time the Palestinian voice directly to a large and increasingly receptive U.S. audience;
Â· With the Clinton Administration, Americans once again, as in the Carter years, found themselves fully immersed in the search for peace.
While some Arabs have opposed the conduct of President Clinton, especially his refusal to publicly criticize Israel, Americans have read him especially in several key instances (the White House ceremonies, the Washington Summit, and his meetings with Arab leaders including Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat) as being committed to balance; and in other instances, of being disturbed by Israeli behavior;
Â· The election of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has contributed greatly to changing American opinion. He is articulate but considered glib and untrustworthy—in some ways Netanyahu is too much like the prototypical American politician that Americans simply do not trust; and
Â· Finally, it is important to acknowledge the role played by emerging Arab American organizations that have: provided an American voice to Arab concerns, challenged the press and politicians to show greater fairness and understanding in dealing with Middle East issues; and built coalitions and mobilized politically in the U.S. arena.
This much is known. There is a new political context in the U.S. The dominant pro-Israel construct that held sway over opinion and culture for more than a generation is crumbling. Politicians can deliver strident pro-Israel speeches but only before pro-Israel audiences—but the press and the broader public now greet such displays with a cynical edge.
The stage is set for both press and public opinion to be even more responsive to Arab concerns.
The question remains, “what will we do about it?” Both Arabs and Arab Americans must define strategies, each in its own way, to meet this challenge. Information work, and political organizing efforts must be intensified. Arab leaders must communicate directly with the U.S. press and public. And embassies should increase their political and educational outreach efforts.
Arab Americans must step up their work; taking their challenge to Congress and by organizing the constituencies of key members of Congress. If politicians insist on adhering to the old, unbalanced, pro-Israel construct, then their constituents should be informed and organized to act.
While the significance of this moment can not be underestimated, neither can the possibility that this opportunity may pass if it is not acted upon.
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