Both in the U.S. and in Israel, government policy and actions do not reflect popular sentiment. Two recent surveys–one by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) and another by the Dahaf Institute in Israel–found that the American and Israeli public support more even-handed approaches to settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the Dahaf poll, which was commissioned by the Peace Coalition in Israel, 59% of those questioned said they believe a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip would lead to the renewal of the peace process, while 72% felt it would improve the country’s international standing. Only 42% of the respondents said the continuous presence of the Israeli army in Palestinian cities gave them hope for the future. Perhaps most surprising was the opinion of 56% of those surveyed supporting a U.S.-led international force for the Palestinian territories–something that the Palestinians have been advocating since the fighting broke out 19 months ago.
Similarly, public opinion in the United States supported measures that are more in line with those advocated by the peace movement in Israel and by U.S. critics of the aggressive policies of the Ariel Sharon government. Political and foreign policy analysts said the results of the PIPA poll showed that President George W. Bush could receive strong public backing for exerting more pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, something that to date he has been very reluctant to do.
“The big message coming out of this poll is that the president has considerable running room (to pursue a tougher line with Sharon),” said Jerome Segal, a leading expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Only 17% of the 802 citizens surveyed in the poll agreed with Israel’s contention–endorsed almost unanimously by both houses of the U.S. Congress last week–that the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be seen as part of the U.S. “war on terrorism,” while two-thirds said they wanted Washington to avoid taking sides between the parties.
More striking, two thirds said they favored a process whereby the United Nations Security Council would impose a territorial settlement of the conflict, and almost 80% said Washington should participate in a peacekeeping operation to enforce it or any other settlement between the two sides.
The poll also showed strong support for recent moves by the Bush administration to rein in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and press for an international conference to help resolve the conflict.
By a margin of 63-26%, with 11% undecided, said they approved of his demand last month that “Israel withdraw its troops from the Palestinian towns it recently took over,” and a majority favored threatening to cut off military aid if the Israelis failed to withdraw. Sixty-two percent agreed with the proposition that Israel’s intervention has “increased the likelihood of further suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.” Four out of five respondents said they approved of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s meeting with Palestine Authority chief Yasir Arafat, while 82% said they favored Powell’s recent initiative to convene a major international conference with the European Union, Russia, and the UN, to deal with the conflict.
In fact, said Segal, the poll results were “quite pro-Colin Powell,” whose efforts to pursue a more even-handed and multilateral approach to the conflict have been frustrated both by opposition from pro-Likud forces concentrated within the administration in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and at the Pentagon, and in Congress among pro-Israeli forces and the Christian Right. Indeed, last week, in what was seen as a reproach to Powell’s peacemaking efforts, both houses of Congress overwhelmingly approved sweeping resolutions in support of Israel’s recent military operations on the West Bank and all but ruling out Arafat as a viable negotiating partner, as, in the words of the authoritative Congressional Quarterly, “members of both parties competed to show their support for the Jewish state.”
Some recent polls have indeed shown strong support for Israel in the current conflict. Two polls taken last month, for example, showed that 47-48% of respondents sided with Israel compared with only 13-15% who identified more with the Palestinians.
But these polls not only showed a very large percentage of people who were not committed one way or another–a finding that was borne out by the far more detailed PIPA survey, which asked respondents more than 50 questions, many with multiple options for answers.
For example, asked which side they blamed for the failure to reach a peace settlement, 29% blamed the Palestinians more, seven percent the Israelis, and 55% “both sides about equally.”
“What this poll makes clear is that recent actions by Congress are out of step with the American public and their views on the crisis in the Middle East,” said Steven Kull, PIPA’s Director. Contrary to the thrust of the Congressional resolutions, “Americans clearly hold both sides equally responsible for the current situation and are willing to increase pressure on both sides to achieve a peace deal,” he said of the poll results.
Seven in ten respondents said they were following the Middle East crisis either “very closely” or “fairly closely”–an unusually high percentage for a foreign conflict in which U.S. troops are not directly engaged, according to I.M. ‘Mac’ Destler, a public opinion specialist also at the University of Maryland.
“What has happened in the last few months is that a larger portion of the population is looking at this as a priority issue,” said Shibley Telhami, a Mideast specialist at the Brookings Institution, a major think tank here. According to both Telhami and Segal, the shift represents an important opportunity for Bush to take much bolder steps in dealing with the crisis.
While three in four respondents agree that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more important for the U.S. as a result of the Sep 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the same percentage does not see the conflict as “part of the war on terrorism, like the U.S. struggle with al Qaeda.” Almost half the respondents defined it instead as “a conflict of two national groups fighting over the same piece of land.”
“The public is not defining the problems of the region through the prism of terrorism,” noted Shibley, but rather they “see terrorism as an instrument” in a political struggle.
At the same time, Palestinian attacks on civilians were seen as unjustifiable by a strong majority. A striking 84% of respondents said they would favor the U.S. putting more pressure on Israel if Palestinians stop terrorism and use nonviolent forms of protest against occupation. “If I were in the (Palestinian leadership) and read this poll, I would conclude that what we need is a massive, nonviolent demonstration,” said Segal.
Fifty-eight percent said they believed that Washington is currently “tak(ing) Israel’s side,” and, despite Bush’s claims to being an honest broker, only 22% said that he is. By contrast, two thirds said Washington should not take either side.
The public also backs the use of sanctions against both the Palestine Authority and the Israeli government if they fail to heed U.S. calls for a ceasefire and new negotiations. More than 60% would support withholding aid to whomever failed to comply with U.S. demands.
In contrast to Congress, the poll showed strong disapproval of Israel’s recent military offensive, with 63% backing Bush’s call for an Israeli withdrawal and 55% seeing it as an effort “to punish the Palestinian population,” rather than solely as an operation to root out terrorists.
Related Citizen Action and Agendas
Shalom Achshav [Peace Now], the largest grassroots movement in Israel’s history, was founded in March 1978 by 348 reserve commanders, officers, and combat soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces. Experience had taught these citizen soldiers that only a politically negotiated solution could end their nation’s hundred-year war with its Arab and Palestinian neighbors. As they wrote to then Prime Minister Menachem Begin: “Real security can be achieved only when we achieve peace.”
Since its inception, Shalom Achshav has been instrumental in advancing political solutions to the discord between Israelis and Arabs. Twenty years later, peace remains an opportunity that has only partly been realized. Peace treaties have been signed with Egypt and Jordan, and a negotiating framework has been forged with the Palestinians. Yet violence, terrorism, and mutual distrust have been rekindled. The promise of peace and the peril of not achieving it have led Shalom Achshav to redouble its efforts. In March 1998 Shalom Achshav issued a new Officers’ Letter with over 1,500 signatories.
Shalom Achshav believes a secure peace can best be achieved through Israeli withdrawal to safe borders from the West Bank and Gaza; creation of a Palestinian state subject to strict military limitations; negotiation of security and peace accords between Israel and Syria leading to a safe Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights; and a resolution on the status of an undivided Jerusalem that accommodates the national aspirations and religious needs of both Israeli and Palestinian residents. Security is on the mind of every Israeli. As their husbands, wives, and children move through Israeli society every moment of every day, security is the primary concern of the members of Shalom Achshav as well. This is why they work so hard for peace. They believe that peace is the only road to true security.
Americans for Peace Now
The mission of Americans for Peace Now (APN) is to help Israel and the Shalom Achshav movement to achieve a comprehensive political settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict consistent with Israel’s long-term security needs and its Jewish and democratic values.
APN strives to meet the following goals in order to fulfill its mission:
- An American Jewish community and general American public educated about the strategic and economic benefits of security through peace in the Middle East.
- Active White House and State Department engagement in the peace process, especially administration efforts to broker a new interim understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, facilitate final status arrangements that reconcile Israeli security with Palestinian statehood, and encourage negotiations between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon.
- Congressional support for the peace process through continued aid to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians.
- Broad awareness in the United States of the benefits of Shalom Achshav programs in Israel.
- A firm financial base for Shalom Achshav and APN activities.