Posted on July 08, 1996 in Washington Watch

Historically U.S. voters have displayed little interest in foreign affairs. Given its dominant place in the news during the past three decades, however, the Middle East may be an exception. While not expert in all Middle East issues, many Americans have developed a rather sophisticated understanding of the region.

This is one of the conclusions of a recent poll conducted in part for Arab News by the John Zogby Group of New York. A national sampling of 901 likely voters were polled during the third week of June. The results have a margin of error of + 3.3 percent.

Israeli Elections and Middle East Peace

Given the perception many American voters have of the recently elected Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, he may face difficulties if he pursues his stated policies toward the peace process.

Our poll shows that Netanyahu has a significantly lower standing than that of his predecessor Shimon Peres. When asked whether they view Peres favorably or unfavorably, American voters give the former Prime Minister a 45 to 9 favorable rating. Netanyahu’s ratings, on the other hand, are a much lower 17 to 15. This may place the new Prime Minister at a disadvantage in the struggle for U.S. public support since many Arab leaders with whom he must deal have significantly higher ratings. (see Table I)

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, for example, has the best standing of all current Middle East leaders with a 29 to 8 rating. King Hussein of Jordan also has a net positive standing with 34% of U.S. voters viewing him favorably and 31% unfavorably.

Even Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, who has been subjected to a twenty-five year long campaign of vilification in the U.S. (which even intensified after the signing of a peace accord), has shown a significant upswing in popularity. Arafat’s favorable rating is now 26%, while his negative is still a high 41%. By comparison, Arafat’s rating places him ahead of U.S. Presidential candidate Ross Perot, whose rating is 26 to 62.

The only Arab Middle Eastern leader at a disadvantage with U.S. voters is Syria’s President Assad who was only viewed favorably by 9% of those polled; 31% viewed him unfavorably.

It must be noted that an average of 50% of all voters were unfamiliar enough with these leaders to judge them. But this leaves a substantial number of Americans who are aware of, and have attitudes about, Middle East leaders—in fact, this represents a larger number than those who were aware of the candidates in the recent Republican Presidential primaries.

What the John Zogby poll also establishes is that the new Israeli government may encounter difficulties with U.S. opinion if it attempts to slow down the peace process.

Americans feel invested in this process and are proud of the role their government has played in hosting the many peace signing ceremonies during the past two and one-half years.

As displayed in Table II most U.S. voters believe that Netanyahu will either slow down the peace process (38%) or reject it completely (13%). Only 14% believe that he will keep it on course.

This conclusion as to what they expect that Netanyahu will do, contrasts sharply with what U.S. voters feel that the new Israeli government should do. Fifty-one percent (51%) of American voters feel that Netanyahu should continue on schedule with the Peace process.

Should President Clinton apply pressure or criticize Netanyahu if he slows down the peace process (and about one third think that Clinton should apply such pressure), the President will not encounter a negative voter reaction. According to the Zogby poll findings 63% said that an alienation or criticism of the Israeli Prime Minister would not effect their vote in November. Ten percent (10%) said that such behavior by the President would make it more likely for them to vote for him, while 10% said it would make them less likely to vote for him.

By a margin of 2 1/2 to 1 U.S. voters also felt that Clinton’s tilt toward Peres in the recent election was wholly appropriate.

Attitudes Toward Middle East Countries and Policy

The attitudes of the U.S. public toward most Arab countries has shown a marked improvement during the past three years (see Table III). With the exception of Egypt which dropped some thirteen points in positive ratings (although it continues to have the highest rating of all Arab countries with 51% positive to 14% negative), most other Arab countries show an increase in their positive ratings.

The big winners are Kuwait and Saudi Arabia which have experienced dramatic turnaround. In 1993 the John Zogby poll found that both countries had a virtually identical 36-37% positive rating as compared with a 41% negative rating. Today Kuwait is viewed favorably by 40% of U.S. voters and only viewed negatively by 30%. Saudi Arabia, likewise, has a 40% to 34% rating.

Jordan, too, now has a slightly better rating that it did in 1993.

While Americans traditionally shun foreign involvement, our poll shows that U.S. voters remain committed to the security of Middle East countries (see Table IV). The commitment of U.S. voters to maintain the security of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia is statistically the same as their commitment to Israel. Egypt follows close behind. This is significant because Israel has built a powerful lobby and waged expensive public relations campaigns to achieve its favorable position in U.S. public opinion. It is remarkable, therefore, to see U.S. voters making nearly identical commitments to Israel, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

One of the most interesting findings of the poll is the rock-solid antipathy toward Iraq. As in previous polls, U.S. voters continue to support sanctions against the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. Seventy-eight percent (78%) favor maintaining the sanctions. U.S. voters seem firm on this issue. They apparently can’t even be induced to change their view. Even if it meant that gas prices would be lowered by removing the sanctions, 71% of voters would still oppose lifting the sanctions.


What our poll shows is a greater understanding of Middle East issues among U.S. voters. This understanding which leans decidedly in the direction of peace indicates a reservoir of support for Arab positions which should be better exploited, particularly now when the Middle East and the peace process itself are in such a difficult and tension-filled situation.


The results of this poll are especially important for Arab leaders to consider given the events of June and July, 1996. The election of a hard-line Likud government in Israel, the positive outcome of the Cairo Summit, the tragic terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia, and the expected visits of Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Hosni Mubarak to Washington—will all combine to keep the Middle East as a central concern for U.S. policy makers and public opinion.

Despite U.S. presidential elections in November, Washington may still take a positive stand regarding both the peace process and Arab security needs. Our poll shows that there is strong public support for such policies and that Arabs have some strong positives that can work to their advantage.

But good results will not occur without an Arab strategy to remain engaged in the U.S. public debate.

Already pro-Israeli groups in the U.S. are attempting to project the Arab Summit as a “threat” to peace and a major campaign is underway to isolate Syria, discredit Lebanon, denigrate the Palestinian leadership and even portray Saudi Arabia as instable and not a trustworthy U.S. ally.

To some extent public policy, especially in an election year, will be shaped by public perception. Our poll shows that Arabs have significant resources in public opinion that must be strengthened.

Those Arab states with strong positive ratings should use those assets to their advantage and build a campaign in the U.S. to support Arab positions on peace and security.

The battle for public opinion is a constant struggle. It must be continuously fought or the battle can be lost.

Table I. Rating Middle East Leaders
Leader Favorable Unfavorable Not Familiar Enough
Shimon Peres 45 9 46
King Hussein 34 31 35
President Mubarak 29 8 63
President Arafat 26 42 31
President Assad 9 31 60

Table II. The Future of Middle East Peace

The sample U.S. voters were presented with a list of options facing the new Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. They were asked first what they thought he “would do”, then what he “should do”.

Option Will Do Should Do
Continue the peace process on schedule 14 51
Continue the peace process, but more slowly 38 19
Reject the peace process 3 3

Table III. Rating Various Countries
1996 1993
Country Favorable Unfavorable Favorable Unfavorable
Germany 71 10 69 18
Israel 62 14 61 20
Egypt 51 14 64 13
Kuwait 40 30 37 41
Saudi Arabia 40 34 36 41
Jordan 31 27 32 35
Turkey 24 23 - -
Lebanon 19 42 23 49
Syria 10 46 21 75
Iran 6 73 9 75

Table IV. U.S. Maintain Security

In Best Interests of US to Maintain Security of . . .

Country Agree Disagree
Saudi Arabia 56 29
Kuwait 59 27
Israel 64 20
Egypt 51 26

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