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Poll of U.S. and British Views on Israel Suggests Ways to Spin

March 16, 2005
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Publicizing Israel’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip may hold the key to winning public support for the Jewish state, according to a new survey. In the post-Yasser Arafat era, Americans generally still side with Israel, considered a like-minded ally, and show hostility toward the Palestinians, according to The Israel Project, a group working to promote Israel’s image.

In the survey, 58 percent said they had “warm” feelings toward Israel, with 11 percent expressing “cool” feelings. The comparative numbers for the Palestinians were 35 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

Also, some 40 percent of Americans sided with Israel over the Palestinians. Only 10 percent took the Palestinians side, and 50 percent would not choose a side.

But perceptions of the Palestinians under new leadership have improved drastically — and Americans think Israel should compromise to advance the peace process, according to The Israel Project, a group working to promote Israel’s image.

The Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, “has a suit, a smile and a snappy soundbite,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of The Israel Project. “In a world where people want to hear a message of peace, he’s giving one.”

At the same time, “we cannot underscore enough how special this moment in the peace process is, as Israel is doing exactly what Americans want it to do — make compromises for peace,” says the report, released Monday in a briefing to Jewish officials in New York.

“There is a clear opportunity, right now, to build support through a significant education campaign” about how Israel, a democracy, is taking risks for peace.

The group plans to pitch that message to the part of the media, such as CNN, that appeal to liberal viewers. To media seen as having more conservative viewers, such as Fox News, the group will steer clear of discussing disengagement, focusing instead on the values shared by Israel and the United States.

The situation in Britain is slightly different. There, a focus group of educated professionals put the onus for peacemaking squarely on Israel, which it considered the oppressor. When group members were told about Israel’s plans to withdraw from Gaza, their opinion of Israel improved.

The message in Britain, according to the report, should focus on progress on peace talks, concern for the Palestinians and the need to improve the lives of average people on both sides.

The studies were based on focus groups conducted by political pollsters Stan Greenberg and Neil Newhouse.

About 800 30- to 70-year-olds were interviewed in February. In Philadelphia, Jews and “opinion elites” — highly educated, engaged professionals — were interviewed; in Baltimore the groups were made up of white women and white liberals.

In Britain, 16- to 22-year-old Muslim men were interviewed, along with non-Jewish “opinion formers,” 30- to 50-year-old management-level professionals who follow foreign affairs.

The extent of public ignorance about Israel’s disengagement plan came as a surprise to many Jewish officials, who are deeply involved in the plan’s details, Mizrahi said.

She ascribes that ignorance to a “very cluttered media environment.” The subject of Israel and the ongoing intifada have moved deep inside the newspapers, away from page one, and thus capture less public interest, she said.

It is not yet clear how Jewish organizations will make use of the new study, but The Israel Project already is preparing to put the data to work.

The group plans to continue running focus groups to determine how best to publicize disengagement. And it aims to educate the 1,400 American reporters who cover Israel about the Jewish state’s initiatives for peace through direct mail and by setting up meetings for them with Israeli officials.

One of the most hopeful elements in the report, according to Mizrahi, is how much most Americans know about the Holocaust. She attributes that to the educational efforts of Jewish organizations.

About 98 percent of Americans know the Holocaust happened, more than 80 percent feel they know a good deal about it and 62 percent know how many Jews died during the Shoah.

Furthermore, 75 percent of Americans with at least some knowledge about the Holocaust have warm feelings toward Jews.

“In a country where people have difficulty naming the vice president of the United States or the speaker of the House, the idea that they know how many Jews died in the Holocaust means that there has been a very successful effort” and decades of education, Mizrahi said.

“When the community gets behind an important issues in an important way, we can accomplish the world.”

By contrast, in Britain many people knew little of the Holocaust, and Muslim men saw the event as comparable to modern-day conflicts.

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