Posted on August 10, 1998 in Washington Watch

An August 1-3, 1998 poll conducted for the Arab American Institute in Washington show that the attitudes of U.S. voters toward Israel and the Palestinians are now dead even.

In response to policy questions the Institute has been asking for two years now, U.S. voters reject any U.S. policy that demonstrates bias towards Israel. At the same time, U.S. voters express strong support (3 to 1) should the U.S. administration decide to pressure Israel to comply with the terms of the Middle East peace process.

As promising as these results may be, however, they will only be meaningful if they are acted upon. Unfortunately, in all likelihood, they will not be.

During the past two years the Clinton Administration has sought to use subtle forms of pressure to shift Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s posture toward the peace process. The Prime Minister has withstood these efforts, knowing that the U.S. Administration had limits. In this test of wills, it appears that, so far, Netanyahu has won. President Clinton seems unwilling and unable to take a more decisive and public stand against the Israeli government. Not only the active opposition of the Republican Congress, the pressures of the upcoming congressional elections and resistance from the strong pro-Israel lobby weigh, heavy on the President. The President’s growing difficulties with the investigations of the Office of the Independent Counsel have also become a substantial burden distracting the White House from involvement in a number of critical issues, both foreign and domestic.

Despite the fact that the President’s personal popularity remains quite high and a strong display of Presidential leadership to save the peace process would most likely win significant public support, it is unlikely that the President will take such a stand anytime soon.

What is also true, is that the Arabs will most likely do nothing to take advantage of the new public opinion situation in the United States.

To a great extent the shift in U.S. attitudes has come about without any effort by an Arab state. Netanyahu has single-handedly made the greatest contribution to alienating U.S. voters from their previously strong pro-Israel positions. The Administration’s subtle message of displeasure with Israeli policy and with Netanyahu, himself, has also helped this shift.

With U.S. support for Israel at its lowest point, Netanyahu and his U.S. supporters are planning a major fall offensive. Netanyahu, himself, will spend a week in the United States, his ambassadors are campaigning non-stop to get their message on television and in print, and Israeli supporters have announced a major public relations campaign against Palestinian statehood.

The Palestinian office in Washington, on the other hand, remains underfunded, and without an adequate staff and program. No other Arab embassy, to the best of my knowledge, has any initiative in the works and no Arab leaders have announced plans to tour the United States in a focused effort to capitalize on this new political situation.

Netanyahu understands all of this. He allowed the July 29 Knesset deadline to pass without making a decision to withdraw from some of the occupied Palestinian lands both because he didn’t want to and because he knew that he didn’t have to.

Netanyahu maneuvered successfully to mute his opposition within Israel and hold together enough of his coalition in order to protect his government. At the same time Netanyahu knew that there would be no decisive move from the United States, nor would there be any effective Arab countermove to expose his obstructionism.

Like the ideologue that he is, the Prime Minister is willing to absorb unpopularity at home and abroad as long as it can be managed so as not to threaten his position.

Netanyahu is willing to live with disapproval, as long as it is toothless. He is also willing to accept terrorism and violence, since these actually play into his hands–strengthening his position at home and reinforcing negative Arab stereotypes abroad.

Only a strong Arab public relations counter offensive can alter this sorry state of affairs. Arab Americans can and are doing their part as Americans, but Arab states have a necessary role to play. The must bring their political weight to bear in the United States. A public campaign should be launched to promote Palestinian rights and to spell out for U.S. public opinion the dangers that U.S. inaction and a collapse of the peace process pose to U.S. interests in the Middle East.

The new openness that exists in the public arena must be filled with defined policy options that press the Administration and Congress to act to defend peace and U.S. interests. This moment, as ripe as it is for change, will not last forever.

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