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Jews Worried, but U.S. Public Remains Supportive of Israeli Stance

December 18, 2001
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With a battle for public opinion running parallel to the real fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, American Jews noted the rise in sympathy for Israel after Palestinian suicide bombers killed 26 Israelis in the first weekend of December.

Two weeks later, some American Jews are wondering if Israel’s decision to cut ties with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat — and the arrest of two Los Angeles Jews allegedly plotting to bomb a U.S. representative of Lebanese descent — will cause that sympathy to evaporate.

But public support for Israel is not that fickle, Jewish observers say.

“Ever since the state of Israel was established, we keep reacting to specific incidents and wondering every day, every week, every year, every decade: How long will American support last?” said Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research. “If you look at the past 30 years, American support for Israel has remained consistently high.”

Historically, that means support ranging from 4-1 to 5-1 in favor of Israel over the Palestinians.

Observers describe three main pillars of American opinion — the public, the politicians and the media.

The political and pundit classes routinely influence public opinion, while Washington poll-watchers are sensitive to the public mood. Each of those three centers traditionally favors Israel, said Tobin, who recently conducted studies about American atittudes toward Israel.

Part of that support stems from the face that Israel is a democracy with Western values, Tobin said, while part is because Washington unequivocally claims Israel as an ally.

There also are the evangelical Christians who support Zionism’s goal of returning Jews to the Land of Israel — because that supposedly presages the coming of the Messiah.

Conversely, studies over the past three decades show that many Americans have negative views of Arabs in general, and Palestinians specifically, Tobin said. Some of this perception can be traced to Hollywood’s consistent portrayal of Arabs as “the bad guys,” he said.

Support for Israel has risen a bit since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington. That was especially true after the Dec. 1-2 suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa.

An increasing number of Americans perceive Arafat as a collaborator, to one degree or another, with terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Tobin said. Other Americans recall Palestinians celebrating the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

At first, Washington resisted what it considered Israel’s effort to ride the coattails of America’s “war on terrorism” to handle the problem of Palestinian terror in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

However, the high Israeli death toll this month appears to have underlined the similarity between the terror that strikes Israel and the Sept. 11 attack on America.

“Since then there’s been extraordinary understanding for Israel’s predicament, and sympathy coming from new quarters,” said Martin Raffel, associate director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “The American public sees Israel’s fight against terrorism as a parallel to America’s fight. There’s a much firmer perception that America and Israel are in this together.”

As for Washington, Congress is traditionally a strong supporter of Israel. On Dec. 5, both the Senate and the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed resolutions that called on the Palestinian Authority to arrest those responsible for terrorist attacks against Israel.

Now the Bush administration, too, seems to be on board.

Most telling, the White House has not demanded that Israel “show restraint” — a common mantra over the past year – – in response to the early December attacks.

“This administration responded to the call of much of the world that something has to be done in the Middle East, and the violent response it received from the Palestinian Authority was a slap in the face,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “America now no longer speaks of the cycle of violence or the moral equivalency of both sides being guilty. And that will go a long way in how the American people will view it.”

The ADL also analyzes how the media interpret the conflict.

Rather than focus on the reportage coming out of the Mideast, which Jewish audiences often perceive as pro- Palestinian, the ADL zeroes in on the editorial pages of the top 50 newspapers.

In the week following the Dec. 1-2 attacks on Israel, the ADL found that 40 of the papers commented on the attacks, with more than half placing the onus on Arafat and describing it as a “defining moment” for him.

“It’s ‘Arafat has to do this, Arafat has to do that,’ ” Foxman said. “They see it as his last chance.”

Despite what Tobin describes as “rock-solid” support for Israel, however, there was palpable anxiety in the Jewish community over two developments last week.

With the arrests of two alleged Jewish terrorists — the head of the Jewish Defense League and an associate — some Jews wondered whether Americans would throw up their hands and figure “a plague on both their houses” because both Jews and Arabs have their “terrorists.”

But all major American Jewish groups quickly fired off faxes denouncing the JDL and its reported plans to bomb Arab and Muslim targets in the Los Angeles area.

Jewish leaders said they thought the story would soon fizzle. More worrisome, however, was the Israeli government’s pronouncement that Arafat’s unwillingness to crack down on Palestinian terror had rendered him “irrelevant.”

Some thought it was too drastic a move. Washington and the European Union refused to follow Israel’s lead, opting to maintain relations with Arafat.

Is there a line beyond which American opinion might shift against Israel?

“Cutting relations with Arafat is not crossing the line,” Foxman said. “Israel has publicly assured Arafat and the United States that its goal is not to eliminate Arafat, but” to eliminate “terrorism and its infrastructure.”

Tobin said he could imagine only one scenario that would spur a dramatic decline in the American public’s support for Israel.

“If the Bush administration were to issue harsh, negative, critical condemnations of Israel, over and over again, over a long period of time, then you’d have a shift,” he said. “But I think the odds of that are zero.”

Indeed, it seems unlikely that Israel would allow relations to reach that point with the country it considers its “indispensable ally.”

Tobin said he understands lingering Jewish anxiety about American support for Israel, though.

“We have to worry about it because it’s in our nature, I guess,” he said. “We should remain vigilant, yes, but support is going to stay strong.”

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