Inter Press Service
Eighty-one percent of U.S. citizens say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has hurt their country’s interests, according to a new poll, although a sharp partisan divide increasingly frames the issues.
The poll, released last Thursday by Zogby International, found that for the first time Democrats have an unfavourable opinion – only 42 percent viewed Israelis favourably – while 92 percent of Republicans see Israelis favourably.
“On every other question covered in this survey the public displays what appears to be ambivalent attitudes, but this masks a deepening partisan divide,” wrote the polls authors.
Attitudes towards Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were even more sharply divided along partisan lines, with 20 percent of Democrats viewing him favourably compared to 84 percent of Republicans.
Despite some decline from previous years, Israelis continue to enjoy greater support than Palestinians in U.S. public opinion. However, the emergence of a substantial majority who “believe that the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict negatively impacts U.S. interests in the Middle East” indicates a degree of support for the position taken by Gen. David Petraeus during his Senate testimony last week.
“Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favouritism for Israel,” Petraeus said.
Petraeus’s warnings about the security threat posed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were delivered after Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the region earlier this month.
On the first day of the trip, the Israeli government announced that it had authorised construction of 1,600 new residences in East Jerusalem. The decision caught the Barack Obama administration off-guard and was interpreted by many as a “slap in the face” of Biden, who was visiting the region in hopes of kick-starting proximity talks.
Zogby’s poll found that attitudes towards Palestinians, and their president, have declined and the U.S. public’s impression of Palestinians remains poor.
Twenty-one percent of respondents viewed the Palestinians favourably, compared to 25 percent a year ago. Fourteen percent viewed President Mahmoud Abbas favourably, compared to 19 percent in 2009.
“The fact that the Palestinians are polling so low, to me, indicates very clearly that the American public still does not perceive this conflict as necessarily between rights and wrongs, and doesn’t view it as an issue of Palestinian human rights,” said Amjad Atallah, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.
“The fact that there’s no Palestinian [element to the public discussion] is a direct failure of the Palestinian side, in particular, and the larger community of nations who support them to reach out to the American audience and explain to them what’s happening,” he added.
President of the Arab American Insitute, Dr. James Zogby – the brother of Zogby International’s president, John Zogby – also suggested that the low numbers supporting Palestinians and Abbas are partly a result of Palestinians’ failure to make their case to the U.S. public or to define the lines of the conflict as it relates to Palestinians.
“Even the Palestinians say ‘East Jerusalem’ but it’s not. These are actually Palestinian village lands. If you do not define you are defined. And this has all been defined now as Jerusalem which makes it easier to make the case that these are not settlements, this is [the Israeli] capital,” said Zogby at a New America Foundation event to release the poll.
“It’s easier to lose the case when you don’t make the case,” Zogby continued.
Thirty-five percent of Democrats viewed Palestinians favourably while only six percent of Republicans shared that view.
Nineteen percent of Democrats and eight percent of Republicans viewed Abbas favourably.
A plurality or slight majority agreed with the statements that, “Israel’s settlement construction in the Occupied Territories is wrong,” “It’s time for the U.S. to ‘get tough’ with Israel ‘to stop building settlements,'” and the U.S.’s “inability to prevent Israel’s settlement expansions makes the U.S. less respected in the world.”
Support for these statements, when poll results were tallied, was underlined again by strong partisan divisions, with Democrats skewing toward approval of the statements and Republicans, on average, disagreeing.
Fourteen percent of Democrats, 62 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of Independents say Israel has a right to build on land in the Palestinian West Bank.
Overall support for Israeli construction in the West Bank was 34 percent. Forty percent of respondents believe that settlements should be torn down.
Sixty-three percent of Democrats, 13 percent of Republicans and 40 percent of independents agree with the statement that the U.S. should “get tough with Israel and attempt to stop expansion.”
The strong support of Democrats, and some independents, for the U.S. taking a stronger stand on settlements was highlighted by James Zogby.
“This perfectly resonates with the Petraeus message that this is dangerous for us and we have to do something, we cannot look weak, it does not help us at all,” said Zogby, emphasising that the Obama administration has strong support from its base to apply more pressure to Israel.
On the question of whether Jerusalem should be partitioned with one part as the Israeli capital and one part as the Palestinian capital, poll respondents, overall, exhibited nearly evenly split feelings with 33 percent in favour of and 35 percent opposed to the partitioning of Jerusalem.
Eli Clifton writes for the Inter Press Service and is a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/)