Posted on June 30, 1997 in Washington Watch
Results of a new poll demonstrate that U.S. public opinion continues to move toward greater balance in its understanding of Middle East issues.
In three distinct areas of investigation – including evaluations of: U.S. allies in the Middle East, the Middle East peace process, and the U.S. Middle East foreign aid program – U.S. voters display almost total balance in their attitudes.
The June 1997 poll was conducted for the Arab American Institute (AAI) by Zogby International of New York. With 1,012 registered voters polled, the results have a high degree of accuracy (+/- 3.2%).
These AAI poll results both build on and affirm findings of a number of other polls conducted over the past several months, all of which point to a continuing movement of public opinion toward a balanced view of the Middle East.
The Value of U.S. Allies in the Middle East
The most striking results of the AAI poll came when U.S. voters were asked to rate the importance to the United States of four Middle East countries. Saudi Arabia bested Israel as well as Egypt and Jordan.
Thirty-six point five percent (36.5%) assessed Saudi Arabia as a “very valuable ally” and about 40% thought Saudi Arabia was “somewhat valuable”. That total of over 76% was higher than Israel’s combined total of 74.5%. Thirty-five percent (35%) thought Israel was “very valuable” and 39.5% thought it was “somewhat valuable”.
While the Saudi edge over Israel is a slight 1.5%, it nevertheless represents an important breakthrough for the Kingdom. During the 70’s and 80’s, Israel’s ratings more than doubled those of Saudi Arabia. Even after the Gulf War, Israel’s ratings still edged out all Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia.
The fact that U.S. voters continue to grow in appreciation of the U.S.-Saudi relationship despite persistent negative press accounts is significant.
The other Arab countries included in this poll, Egypt and Jordan, were also rated valuable as U.S. allies. Egypt’s combined score was 65.6% and Jordan’s rating was 59.6%.
The U.S. Foreign Aid Program
Voters show an equal degree of support for and opposition to U.S. foreign aid to Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian National Authority.
About 21% believe that U.S. aid to the Palestinian National Authority is either “just the right amount” or “should be increased”—the exact same number that supports the U.S. program for Israel. On the other hand, 63% of those polled feel that the Palestinian aid program is too high, while 64% feels Israel receives too much aid.
U.S. aid to Egypt is supported by 18%, with 66% feeling that the amount is too high.
This near balance in support of and opposition to aid to all three countries is noteworthy in light of recent Congressional votes to punish the Palestinians and Egypt. The attacks on both were quite intense, as were the threats to retaliate by cutting their U.S. support levels.
By focussing only on Egypt and the Palestinian National Authority and refraining from criticizing the high level of U.S. aid to Israel, Congress is clearly out of touch with public opinion.
In general, the U.S. public is opposed to all foreign aid. The untouchable nature of Israel’s aid program is a function of Congressional politics and not a reflection of public support.
The Middle East Peace Process
Continuing the trend that was first observed in the April 1997 Zogby poll, American voters held both Palestinians and Israelis to blame for the impasse in the peace process. Thirteen percent (13%) blame Israel, 19% blame the Palestinians, but 42% said both parties are equally to blame.
When asked whom the U.S. Administration should pressure “to get the peace process moving again”, 4% said Israel, 4% said the Palestinians, and 44.5% said both should be pressured equally. Once again, evidence that U.S. voters are displaying a new sense of balance.
What makes these results important is not only the fact that they reflect continued movement of U.S. opinion in the direction of evenhandedness, but that this trend toward balance occurs in the face of an all out assault on the Palestinian Authority and Egypt by supporters of Israel and continuing press coverage of the bombing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. And none of these efforts have been directly countered by a pro-Arab public opinion campaign. While the behavior of the Netanyahu government has certainly contributed to the change in U.S. attitudes, recent public statements of balanced concern made by President Clinton have also played a role in helping to bring about this shift in public opinion.
It is, therefore, significant to note that this shift occurs as the Clinton Administration weighs policy options in an effort to salvage a floundering Middle East peace process. While the Administration is coming under some domestic criticism for its apparent passivity, there are indications that the President and his advisors are deeply concerned about the collapse of the process and the dangers that a collapse poses to U.S. allies and interests in the broader region.
Recent public comments by the President and comments by some White House and State Department officials make it clear that the President is actively engaged in discussing options to deal with the crisis.
Weighing heavily on the Administration is the realization that U.S. vital interests are at stake should the drift in the Middle East continue. Absent movement toward peace, there are dangerous developments that can lead the region toward renewed conflict. There is also grave concern that should the three and one-half (3 1/2) year -old effort collapse, there will be a loss of confidence in the possibility of achieving a negotiated settlement. Should this occur the U.S. will have squandered significant political assets which can threaten its future standing in the region.
In this context, recent warnings by Crown Prince Abdullah have served as an important reminder that concerns over the fate of the peace process are shared by an important U.S. ally.
Also weighing heavily on the Administration, of course, is the highly unstable internal political situation in Israel and the reaction that any dramatic U.S. initiative will generate from pro-Israel forces in the U.S. and in Congress.
Shifts in U.S. opinion should, therefore, tell Washington that American voters will support a balanced and firm approach to peace and will welcome an evenhanded U.S. plan to restore momentum and confidence in the peace process.
The ability of hardline anti-peace advocates to influence U.S. public attitudes is limited. A strong display of leadership will receive strong public support.
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