Americans tired of Mideast violence increasingly blame Israel and the Palestinians equally and dismiss each side’s cause as “hopeless,” according to a series of new polls of American views of the conflict.
Overall, 42 percent of Americans support Israel, while only 10 percent support the Palestinians. Yet about the same amount surveyed say they remain neutral in the conflict — favoring neither side or backing both equally — a marked erosion of longstanding support for Israel.
In addition, a majority want the Bush administration to pressure both Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate, and they overwhelmingly support a two-state solution to the Mideast conflict — even if it includes the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees to Israel.
These assessments arise from a series of surveys last month that show public support for Israel slipping from 50 percent less than a year ago, turning instead to apathy or disgust with violence by both sides.
“The moral edge that Israel has always enjoyed is that it has always appeared strongly desirous of peace and generally willing to accept the partition of the land of Israel,” said Steven Cohen, professor at the Melton Centre at Hebrew University. “Insofar as we don’t look like we are committed to peace or interested in a two-state solution, we suffer in the eyes of public opinion.”
In the surveys, taken by prominent Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg and funded by several Jewish organizations and private donors, many Americans said the conflict seems “hopeless.” They characterize it as a “holy war” that has endured for thousands of years and could last centuries more without peace.
The Jewish organizations hope to fight that ambivalence with a multimillion-dollar national ad campaign emphasizing Israeli democracy and its shared values with the United States, its willingness to make peace and its importance as a strategic American ally.
The forces behind what’s being called the Israel PR Campaign are Democratic political consultant Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, Republican strategist Frank Luntz and Greenberg.
They’re hoping to convince American Jewish organizations — and the Israeli government — to adapt their communications strategy.
The executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, said the organization is prepared to make “a significant commitment” in funding the centerpiece of the PR campaign, a series of upcoming national ads on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
“The time for talking about the problem has come to an end, and the time for seeking a solution is long overdue,” Harris said.
TV is “where the battleground really is,” he added. “The way to shape it is with ads.”
The AJCommittee was the first to sign onto the new strategy. Others include the United Jewish Communities, which is the umbrella of local Jewish federations, and Israel 21C, a group of pro-Israel high-tech entrepreneurs in California’s Silicon Valley.
So far the AJCommittee has supplied a portion of the $700,000 required for the initial polling and for cable TV ads that have run in recent months in the Washington area.
The rest of the money has come from private family foundations and donors, with Mizrahi, who initiated the project, bearing the initial $50,000 tab.
Twice this month, the AJCommittee and the pollsters sought to win wider support for the new strategy in meetings with leaders of Jewish groups, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the American Jewish Congress, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the American Zionist Movement and CAMERA, the media watchdog group.
They also met in Jerusalem in recent weeks with senior Israeli officials, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, army officials, government spokespeople and academics. More meetings are being planned with groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.
The mid-July surveys measure attitudes about Israel and the Palestinians among five different groups: “opinion elites,” general voters, Jews, African Americans and college students.
While the full results are being closely guarded, JTA secured memos by Greenberg and Luntz summarizing the findings and outlining a communications strategy meant to win back American hearts and minds for Israel.
While backing for Israel stands at 42 percent and support for the Palestinians at just 10 percent, the other half of respondents have pulled away from the conflict, maintaining that they support both sides equally or neither side at all.
Opinion leaders –high-income, highly educated, media-savvy people — are evenly split between those who support both sides or neither side, while most African Americans, college students and registered voters say they support neither side.
When pressed, opinion leaders — whom the strategists consider the most important group, because of their influence — say they have moved from supporting Israel toward sympathizing with the Palestinians, from 14 percent to 28 percent, in recent months, according to Greenberg’s memo.
Though these opinion elites call Israel a key U.S. ally, they also believe that Israel is blocking efforts toward peace, and want the United States to pressure Israel to negotiate a peace deal.
Asked whether Israel or the Palestinians are “morally right” in the conflict, 54 percent of opinion leaders said “both” or “neither,” while only 34 percent chose Israel.
Asked where their sympathies lie, 42 percent of opinion leaders did not choose any side, while 41 percent said Israel.
Perhaps more troubling, African Americans, college students and registered voters tend to be more negative about Israel. Only 37 percent support U.S. military intervention if Israel is attacked, compared to 65 percent among opinion leaders.
Just less than 50 percent of respondents say they think Israel wants peace. Only 34 percent call Israel morally right and just 27 percent see Israel as the victim in the battle.
“We cannot take much satisfaction in the fact that the Palestinians score even lower on these key measures,” Greenberg notes in his memo.
Palestinian propaganda, together with news reporting that suggests a moral equivalence between the sides, may have failed in building support for the Palestinians, but it has undermined support for Israel, the study suggests.
While the opinion leaders believe the Palestinians are mainly responsible for Mideast violence, more than 40 percent see Israel as an obstacle to peace, 36 percent say Israel is acting like terrorists itself, and half say Israel is illegally occupying Palestinian land.
Among the other groups, the perception is worse. The notion that Israel has become like the Palestinian terrorists rises to 40 percent among African Americans, 45 percent among college students and 47 percent among Washington- area opinion leaders.
Most of those surveyed also agree that Israeli settlements, the “occupation” and military actions are provoking “new Palestinian grievances and a new generation of potential terrorists who will eventually strike the United States.”
Ambivalence cuts across party lines. Only 36 percent of Democrats, 37 percent of moderate Republicans and 35 percent of independents back Israel in the conflict.
Israel’s strongest support comes from conservative Republicans, 68 percent of whom support Israel. The pollsters say this group backs Israel largely because it supports President Bush’s anti-terror stance and because of its fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
While only one-fourth of the general public says Israel is morally right in the conflict, 60 percent of conservative Republicans think so.
According to the pollsters, three basic messages helped swing respondents back toward supporting Israel:
Israel remains the only Mideast democracy, it shares the United States’ democratic values and it is on the front lines of the war against terror;
Israel has made and is willing to make major concessions for peace;
Only a courageous Palestinian leader who chooses non-violence over terror can make peace and obtain an independent Palestinian state.
Those themes clearly resonated with the American public in the Washington cable TV ads.
After hearing those messages, a clear majority of opinion leaders — 55 percent — went from opting out of the conflict to backing Israel. At the same time, those who equated Israel and the Palestinians dropped to 32 percent.
“I am struck by the extent to which American support for Israel is based upon the image of Israel functioning as a true democracy, which it deserves,” Cohen said.
“The lesson for Israel is to preserve the democratic character, preserve human rights and the judicial process,” he said, adding that American Jews should underscore those characteristics of Israel.