As the peace process threatens to collapse, how do Americans look at Israel and the Palestinians? In a poll commissioned by the Middle East Quarterly and carried out by Arthur J. Finkelstein and Associates on September 16-18, one thousand registered voters answered over twenty questions on this and related topics. The polling firm observed all the proper methods to find an unbiased mix of voters to discern a balanced portrait of American opinion. The result offers not just a uniquely in-depth glimpse into American attitudes but also a consistently ringing endorsement of Israel and an equally clear repudiation of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinians.
Who wants peace more? By a nearly 4-to-1 ratio (47 to 13 percent, with a 3 percent margin of error), Americans see Israel as the more serious party about trying to settle the conflict. By a 3-to-1 ratio (63 to 20 percent), they go further and predict that the Palestinians would continue to engage in terror even after the establishment of a Palestinian state. In other words, a crushing majority of Americans are saying that the Palestinians will not be content with winning their own sovereignty but will go on fighting until they also achieve the destruction of Israel's.
Equally important is the strong endorsement of Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Though widely derided in the U.S. media as a "hardliner" and even an "extremist," the U.S. public views him far more favorably than the much better known Yasir Arafat. In a head-to-head comparison, it deems Netanyahu both more pro-American (27 to 5 percent) and more admirable (17 to 4 percent) than Arafat.
Who do they connect with terrorism? Eight times more Americans point to Arafat than to Netanyahu (40 to 5 percent). When asked freely to associate the two men, Americans most often link Netanyahu to the peace process and Arafat to terrorism.
In the most general question of all, "with whom do you have more sympathy for, the Palestinians or the Israelis?" Americans reply with a resounding 4-to-1 preference for Israel (48 to 12 percent). This fits a pattern going back decades: with the exception of moments of crisis, when the numbers might go much higher or lower, the standard sympathy ratio always reverts to roughly 4-to-1 in favor of Israel. To those who discern a gradual alienation of Americans from Israel, these figures offer compelling proof otherwise.
Perhaps the poll's most striking result concerns the future disposition of Jerusalem. Jerusalem has a unique place in policy discussions, for it is the closest thing to a purely emotional issue. Sovereignty over the Temple Mount bestows no diplomatic, commercial, or strategic benefits. Whether Israel alone controls the city or shares it with Palestinians bears on almost no national interests for Americans. Rather, the issue touches on some of their most profound religious emotions and through these on their very identity and sense of self.
This being the case, it is very revealing that our poll finds American voters endorse exclusive Israeli control of Jerusalem by an almost 3-to-1 ratio (60 percent to 22 percent). This result shows an emotional commitment by Americans not just to the survival of the Jewish state but to the implementation of its Zionist aims.
The outlook that stands behind these numbers places the U.S. public squarely at odds with the Clinton administration - which has consistently adopted positions far more favorable to the Palestinians on a wide range of issues (including Jerusalem's future, terrorism, and Arafat's character). This being the case, it comes as little surprise that our poll finds the public looking much more skeptically at the administration's Middle East policies (56 percent say it is poor or fair, 38 percent say good or excellent) than at the Clinton record in general.
Finally, it bears noting that these are the views of an involved electorate. Six out of nine respondents indicated that they read about the Israel and the Middle East; even more impressive is that one out of nine reads a "great deal" about the region. Politicians may widely hold that foreign policy has lost its political punch, but it appears to remain an active concern when the Middle East is involved.
These views suggest that for the administration to pressure the Israeli government into making concessions to the Palestinians, as it seems prepared to do, amounts not only to a diplomatic mistake but also a political folly.