While Israeli society is deeply concerned about the prospect of a civil war over the government’s planned pullout from Gaza and part of the West Bank this summer, nearly six in 10 Americans are unaware of the proposed disengagement.And in a sign that efforts to improve Israel’s image need to be stepped up, Americans have no idea the Gaza pullout was initiated by Israel to improve the prospects of peace with the Palestinians.
Those are among the findings of a new poll on American perceptions of Israel at this critical moment in the Mideast conflict — post-Arafat and four months prior to the planned evacuation of Gaza.According to Stanley Greenberg, who conducted the survey of 800 likely U.S. voters in mid-February, “Israel is doing more” in terms of initiating efforts to promote a more peaceful climate with the Palestinians, “but people don’t know it.”What’s more, Greenberg said, this is happening at precisely a time when “the pressure is on for Israel to do more” in the way of compromise toward the Palestinians, whose image has grown more favorable in recent months.
Greenberg, a leading polling adviser to President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other leaders, discussed the results of his survey at a meeting here Monday of about two dozen Jewish communal leaders.The telephone survey was conducted with Neil Newhouse for The Israel Project, an Israel advocacy group.Overall, the poll found that Americans continue to favor Israel over the Palestinians, but the 4-to-1 ratio — 40 percent favor Israel, 10 percent the Palestinians — is lower than it was a year ago, when it was more than 5-to-1 (52 percent to 8 percent).Greenberg explained that the situation was “less complicated” then, when the widely reviled Arafat was in power, Israel was seen as having no Palestinian partner to deal with, and the Bush administration was strongly supportive of Israel’s decision not to negotiate at that point.
Images of Israel and the Palestinians are improving, Greenberg said, in the wake of the Palestinian election of Mahmoud Abbas, the cease-fire that has quieted the region and the sense that both sides are moving toward renewed negotiations.Greenberg expressed concern, though, over the large number of respondents — 39 percent — who said they favor neither or both the Israelis and Palestinians.“Given our understanding of Israel’s role, this equivalence shows that we have work to do,” Greenberg said of the pro-Israel community, adding: “We need to create a moral imperative.”When Americans were asked which side the United States should support in the conflict, 53 percent said neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians, with 28 percent calling for American support for Israel and 8 percent for the Palestinians.
The question on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to voluntarily disengage Israeli troops and civilians from Gaza and four West Bank settlements described the proposal in some detail, but only 40 percent of respondents said they were aware of it, and 57 percent said they were not.Initial discussion about the plan found respondents saying that Israel was unwilling to compromise to make peace, though after some explanation they softened that view.Greenberg said he was concerned that “there is virtually no knowledge that this is a unilateral action taken by Israel,” and that Israel is “getting no credit for it.”Several Jewish officials, apprised of the findings, said they were not surprised that awareness of the disengagement policy was low among Americans, who are notorious for not knowing much of their own history or current events, including who their vice president is. But the officials said the organized Jewish community should undertake an educational campaign in the coming months to prepare Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, for what could be deeply disturbing scenes of resistance among settlers being evacuated forcefully by the Israeli army this summer. The evacuation is scheduled to begin July 20.“We’ve been standing on the sidelines,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, “and we should be stepping up our activities to show that American Jews believe in Israel and that Israel is willing to take risks for peace.”
Foxman criticized the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations for “having to be dragged into” endorsing the disengagement plan. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, went further last month, calling the Presidents Conference “irrelevant” because of its lukewarm stance on the Gaza pullout.Foxman called for “leadership conferences” in New York or Washington to spread the word about the planned pullout, noting that Americans “have not seen this [disengagement policy] embraced by the American Jewish community, and they are looking to us.”Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, said his group “stands with the government” and is currently discussing how best to prepare the community for the prospect of a wrenching and even violent confrontation between Jewish settlers and Jewish soldiers.Such a scene, Hoenlein said, is “one of the most painful things you can imagine,” adding that “we need to let people know the risk and pain Israel is going through.”
Hoenlein said that while American Jews have a right to express their views, leaders should be speaking out in favor of sensitivity and against inflammatory rhetoric from politicians, rabbis and others.“We are looking for ways to act that do not further divide the community,” he said.Greenberg, in the presentation on his findings, said it falls to American Jewish leaders to explain Israel’s actions in a positive light, emphasizing the sacrifices being made for peace.“People are looking for Israel to go the extra mile” in making compromises, including Jews, he said, “but if we don’t interpret it, it won’t be appreciated.”Greenberg agreed with those at the meeting who suggested that the Palestinians should be pressured to make similar sacrifices for peace.The pollster emphasized that “this is a very important moment” in Mideast history, and said the survey he did was “not just about numbers” but underscored “how the nature of the debate is changing” now that the Palestinians have a leader who speaks more moderately than Yasir Arafat.The delicate challenge for Israel is to support positive efforts for the Palestinians, as long as there is progress on the peace initiative, but not if it fails.While The Israel Project favors making Israel’s case through the media, often in television ads, others emphasize the value of personal contacts.
Ken Goldstein, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, told community relations leaders recently that focus groups he conducted with main-line Christians in Los Angeles recently led him to conclude that one-on-one contacts with Christians are far more effective than costly media advertising.Other key findings in the Greenberg survey: a majority of Americans are sympathetic to Israeli settlements, viewing them as buffers and normal neighborhoods rather than illegal occupation; a majority find the security fence justified; and Americans continue to associate Israel with democratic values and blame the Palestinians as the main obstacle to peace.Americans are divided over whether Abbas can control the terrorism, but they want Sharon to work with him and are prepared to give the Palestinian leader the benefit of the doubt.An astounding 98 percent of those questioned said they knew what the Holocaust was and believed it happened, and more than half said they learned about the tragedy from middle school or high school.Jennifer Mizrahi, the founder and president of The Israel Project, hailed those statistics as “an enormous success for the Jewish community” in stressing Holocaust education for many years.