What do American Jews think about Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians? A late September survey of 800 self-identified Jewish voters from around the United States, carried out for the Middle East Forum by John McLaughlin and Associates, produced interesting results with important implications.
By an almost 3-to-1 margin (60 to 22 percent, with an accuracy of ± 3.5% at a 95% confidence interval), American Jews say that Israel should not sign a treaty with the Palestinians if this requires an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Then, given a choice - whether the Arab world sincerely accepts Israel's right to exist, or whether it seeks the eventual destruction of Israel - the respondents by a similar 3-to-1 margin (60 to 19%) find that the Arabs still want to eliminate Israel. After a quarter-century of Israel turning land over to the Arabs, this is a very significant number, one resulting from a deep-seated Arab reluctance to accept Israel's permanence.
By an overwhelming 6-to-1 margin (76 to 13%), American Jews say that President Clinton's promise of $900 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority over five years should be paid only if the PA removes all antisemitic and anti-Israel statements from its school books. An even larger 8-to-1 margin (78 to 10%) wants to hold back on the money until Yasser Arafat fulfills his Oslo obligations to outlaw and disarm terrorist groups and to extradite terrorists to Israel.
In contrast to these decisive stands, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem has less backing. Asked whether they agree with the Congressional legislation to move the embassy (in recognition of Israel's claim that Jerusalem is its capital) or with President Clinton's opposition to the legislation (on the grounds that the city's status should be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians), the respondents by a nearly 2-to-1 margin (57 to 30%) agree with Congress. The sample also strongly endorses the prime ministry of Ehud Barak: asked if he is headed in the right direction or is off track, it approved of him by an 8-to-1 margin (63 to 8%).
Finally, the poll finds that American Jews are not much focused on Israel. In a question asking about the issues that most concern them, an overwhelming 87% pointed to domestic issues and only 5% to foreign policy ones. This helps explain the not very high level of interest about Israel and the Middle East, with 34% saying they read a "great deal" on these subjects and 58% saying "only somewhat" about them.
This profusion of opinions has four major implications. First, it confirms polling done by the American Jewish Committee since 1993 that points to a toughening of attitudes on the question of the Palestinians. As Yale Zussman concluded in his Middle East Quarterly study of six years of AJC polling, "American Jewry is increasingly wary of a negotiation process that it worries may be a trap for Israel." Second, there is a seeming contradiction between the overwhelming support for Barak himself and for positions that he does not endorse (such as withholding money to the PA). This suggests that while American Jews have high regard for the Israeli prime minister, they are generally not aware of the steps he is taking quite contrary to their own views - a conclusion supported by the fact that only one third of them say they are well-informed about Israel.
Third, these results raise questions about an Israel Policy Forum poll commissioned in July 1999 that found American Jews "supporting] the Israeli-Palestinian peace process" by a 11-to-1 margin (88 to 8%). Well, yes, they do strongly support in principle the idea of Israel finding a way to end Palestinian hostilities against it, but our survey shows they also have strong ideas about how this should be done - and these ideas are much more skeptical than those promoted by the current Israeli leadership.
Fourth, American Jews appear to be less engaged with Israel. Yes, a committed minority continues to follow the news intensely, travel to Israel, lobby Congress, and give money, but growing numbers of American Jews have other things on their minds.
For Israel, this has the utmost importance, given the vital role American Jews have had in the formulation of US policy toward the Middle East. This decline in interest has particular importance at a time when - as shown by the recent Burger King, Sprint, and Disney episodes - Arab and Moslem groups in the United States are finding their voice.