Late September saw three similar polls taken looking at American attitudes about Israel, the Palestinians, and the peace process. But two of them, sponsored by the Middle East Quarterly, differed from the third one, sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum. What do the polls tell us? And how can one reconcile their different conclusions?
The MEQ surveys, both conducted by the highly-reputed firm of Arthur J. Finkelstein and Associates, asked largely identical questions of two different samples, 600 specifically Jewish voters and another of 1,000 registered voters.
The poll of Jewish voters, conducted on September 19-22, shows them to be a tough-minded lot. They see Yasir Arafat, for example, not as a partner for peace but as a man of violence. Fully 68 percent of the sampling (which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent) considers him a terrorist, whereas just 5 percent thinks he truly wants peace. By an even wider margin, 83 percent to 3 percent, the respondents view him unfavorably. These figures reflect Arafat's repeated calls for jihad, his duplicity about changing the Palestinian covenant, the use of violence by his "police" force against Israelis, and the Palestinian Authority's many unfulfilled promises.
This skepticism by American Jews about Arafat extends to the future too; by a crushing margin (72 percent to 17 percent), the respondents expect that creating a Palestinian state will not end terrorism. In this, they signal an awareness that Palestinians have not yet accepted the permanent existence of the Jewish state but still hope to destroy it.
This tough-mindedness also applies at home. American Jewish organizations may lavishly praise the Clinton Administration's record on Israel but voters are more skeptical. Almost precisely the same number of them rate the administration poorly as think it has done a good job in the Middle East.
Such skeptical views are all the more noteworthy given the liberal outlook of Jewish voters, far more so than the nation as a whole. (Our sample finds roughly 32 percent of Jews saying they are liberal and 20 percent conservative, just the reverse of the general population.) When it comes to Israel, their liberalism merges with conservatism; our results suggest that all American Jews support the State of Israel, whether or not they agree with the outlook of its current government.
Finally, it bears noting how well-informed American Jews are about Israel and the Middle East: no less than 94 percent of them say they read about these subjects, a very high number by any standard. Their opinions, in brief, are not impressionistic, nor are they lightly held.
A few days earlier, on September 16-18, a Middle East Quarterly polled a general U.S. voting sample along the same lines. Looking at these two polls in combination reveals a very striking pattern. While percentages and ratios differ, both groups of respondents agree on every significant point. To not a single question did we find that Jews want something different from the whole of the U.S. population. In many cases the two populations differ only in that Jewish voters reply more emphatically.
Some examples: Asked whether "Yasir Arafat could stop Palestinian terrorism if he wanted to," both samples agree by a ratio of 1.6 to 1 that he could indeed do so. Do they see Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu favorably or not? Jewish voters like him by a ratio of 1.6 to 1; American voters as a whole like him by 1.4 to 1 - not much of a difference. Should Jerusalem remain entirely under Israel control or be divided with the Palestinians? Jews prefer exclusive Israel control by a ratio of 3.8 to 1, Americans in general want it by a ratio of 2.8 to 1. Will terrorism continue after the creation of a Palestinian state? Jews say yes by 4.3 to 1, the general population by 3.2 to 1.
This remarkable similarity of views goes far to explain the durability and depth of U.S.-Israel relations, which are based not on the predilection of American Jews, a small percentage of the population, but on the views of the American people as a whole.
The similarity also mutually validates their results, an important point because the Israel Policy Forum conducted a poll of American Jews about the Arab-Israeli peace process and found seemingly different views. The 1,198 Jews tallied by the firm of Penn, Schoen & Berland (one of Bill Clinton's pollsters) on September 16-21 did have a few areas of overlap with our poll of American Jewish voters. For example, the two show an almost identical ratio of favorable vs. unfavorable attitudes toward Netanyahu.
But in most respects the two surveys differ greatly. The IPF found that Jews overwhelmingly want Israel to share intelligence with the Palestinian Authority, that they endorse sending U.S. funds to Arafat, and they want President Clinton to put pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu. Our liberal but tough-minded respondents seem not to appear in the IPF survey; rather, theirs portrays a far-left American Jewish population enamored of the peace process and the Clinton administration while severely critical of the Israeli government.
Several factors give me confidence in our results. The poll we commissioned draws on a truly random group and conforms to the known profile of age, gender, geographic, and political views among Jews. Further, our questions probed respondents' feelings ("Who do you think wants peace in the Middle East more, the Palestinians or the Israelis?") whereas the IPF's only touched the surface ("Do you support or oppose the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?").
Finally, the accuracy of our Jewish survey is confirmed by its close parallel with the general survey of American voters we did last month, as well as with a June 1997 poll of American voters sponsored by the Middle East Quarterly and executed by a different poling firm (John McLaughlin & Associates). That these three polls track so closely gives me confidence that Jews approach the peace process not with the pie-in-the-sky attitudes of the IPF survey but with the critical realism implicit in our results.