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Israel & US Public Opinion

In response to:

The 'War for Washington' from the October 8, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

It is difficult to disagree with Stanley Hoffmann’s somber assessment of the present immobilism that governs the search for peace in the Middle East [NYR, October 8]. There is little hope of any radical change in the stalemated Israeli political situation. If anything, as lan Lustick shows in a recent Foreign Policy (Fall 1987) article, the right wing in Israel is gaining ground. There is also little hope that the American Jewish community will rise to the historic challenge—the very same groups that issue public statements calling for a peace conference busy themselves with a questionable campaign to close down PLO offices in the US. Similarly, there is little hope that the US Congress, this or future administrations will change their blind reaction to pro-Israeli influence-peddling.

While Professor Hoffmann is quite right that such a vicious circle can only be broken by people who are unhappy with this stalemate and who agree on a radically different strategy, he is incorrect in stating that there are few signs of such a movement in the US. Public opinion data reveal an important shift in the American public’s perceptions of the conflict and of the key actors. Even though this shift is not reflected in policy decisions, it does present a solid base for the strategy that Professor Hoffmann calls for.

The figures are usually tucked away in tables that few people bother to analyze. What is often highlighted is the increase or decrease in pro-Israel sympathy among the US public. A closer examination of the data, however, reveals a different picture.

The results of a June 23, 1987, Los Angeles Times nationwide survey of 2,317 adults reveal that Americans hold a mixed view of the government of Israel—37 percent favorable, 30 percent unfavorable, and 33 percent unsure. Fifty percent of respondents agree that “in order to bring peace to the Middle East, we (the US) should be willing to talk to all parties involved in the conflict, including the PLO.” The vast majority of respondents (61 percent) say that Israel should return at least some of the territory occupied in June 1967 as a condition for peace. Only 21 percent of those interviewed think Israel should keep all of the occupied territories.

These figures are further buttressed by the results of a recent nationwide study by Gallup for the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (1987). John Rielly, Council President, reports the findings in a monograph published by the CCFR and in an article in Foreign Policy (Spring, 1987, pp. 39–56). In his interpretive summary for Foreign Policy Rielly highlights two points—that the Middle East has declined in importance for the majority of the public and that pro-Israel sympathy had climbed back up to its usually high levels after a brief decline in October 1982 (the date of an earlier CCFR study) as a result of the invasion of Lebanon and Israel’s involvement in the massacres at Sabra and Chatila.

Further analysis reveals the following: thermometer ratings for different countries place Israel in the same group as Brazil, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Taiwan, France, Mexico, and the Philippines, with the strongest feelings reserved for Canada, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan. Only 33 percent of the public favor sending US troops to the Middle East in case the Arabs invade Israel. Asked specifically about President Reagan’s September 1, 1982, peace plan, 45 percent of the public favored it, 21 percent opposed it, and 34 percent didn’t know.

Perhaps the most striking discovery is the fact that 68 percent of the public favor a “Palestinian homeland on the West Bank” and only 32 percent oppose it. In October 1982 Gallup also found a two-to-one majority (41 percent to 21 percent) in support of “a separate, independent Palestinian nation.” Other surveys show consistency in these figures over the last decade.

What this adds up to is the following proposition, namely that a pro-peace agenda, cognizant of the homelessness of the Palestinians, their need for a state of their own that does not threaten Israel’s existence, and their need to have their own representatives at an international peace conference may find, among the American public, overwhelming support. This may be anathema to the pro-Israel lobby, many members of Congress, some key members of this administration, and some groups in Israel. But it is acceptable to the majority of Americans and to the rest of the world. It is nonetheless an important opening which should effectively be used to inform members of Congress, presidential candidates, and opinion leaders. It may even provide the foundation for the kind of strategy based on international legality that could serve as a basis for a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Fouad Moughrabi

October 5, 1987

The University of Tennessee

Chattanooga, Tennessee

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