Publicizing Israel’s plan to withdraw from Gaza might hold the key to winning public support for the Jewish state, according to a new survey released by The Israel Project, a group working to promote Israel’s image.
In the post-Yasser Arafat era, Americans generally still side with Israel, considered a like-minded ally, and show hostility toward the Palestinians, according to the study, which was based on a survey of 800 likely voters and focus groups and conducted by political pollsters Stan Greenberg and Neil Newhouse.
Conducted between February 10 and 15, the survey found that 58% have “warm” feelings toward Israel and 11% have “cool” feelings, compared with 35% and 24%, respectively, for the Palestinians.
About 40% sided with Israel and 10% with the Palestinians. Fifty percent would not choose a side.
But perceptions of the Palestinians under new leadership have improved drastically — and Americans think that Israel should compromise to advance the peace process, according to The Israel Project.
“We should be going into a peace process in which Israel is seen as taking the lead,” Greenberg said. “That’s not happening, and that’s an opportunity that won’t last.”
According to Greenberg, participants in the focus groups knew very little about Israel’s primary role in initiating its plan in July to leave Gaza and dismantle four Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The poll found that most Americans were unaware of the plan.
“In the focus groups, people were blank,” Greenberg said.
Focus groups conducted in Philadelphia on February 7 and 8 were made up of Jews and “opinion elites” — highly educated, engaged professionals. The focus groups conducted in Baltimore on the same days were made up of Caucasian women and Caucasian liberals.
“Even the opinion leaders had no knowledge of” the disengagement plan, Greenberg said. “The question now is, how does Israel get credit for doing it?”
The survey found that 43% of Americans now have a favorable impression of the Palestinians, compared with just 19% in January.
According to the poll, Americans — though they back Israel’s right to ensure its security and blame the Palestinians for the violence — feel strongly that Israel needs to compromise in order to move the peace process forward.
The Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, “has a suit, a smile and a snappy sound bite,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project. “In a world where people want to hear a message of peace, he’s giving one.”
In its report released to Jewish communal leaders Monday, the Israel Project declared, “We cannot underscore enough how special this moment in the peace process is, as Israel is doing exactly what Americans want it to do — make compromises for peace.”
“There is a clear opportunity, right now, to build support through a significant education campaign” about how Israel, a democracy, is taking risks for peace, the report stated.
The group plans to pitch that message to segments of the media, including CNN, that appeal to liberals. In outlets seen as having more conservative viewers, such as Fox News, the group will steer clear of discussing disengagement, focusing instead on the values shared by Israel and the United States.
The findings of The Israel Project report were presented to high-ranking Israeli Cabinet ministers last month and to representatives of major Jewish organizations at a March 14 meeting in New York.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, which vehemently opposes Israel’s Gaza disengagement plan, criticized The Israel Project’s approach and the message of its report.
In particular, issue was taken with the majority of respondents who said that Sharon should be open to negotiating with new Palestinian leader Abbas as long as he makes a good -faith effort to stop terrorism. The respondents blanched at the notion that talks should be conditioned on Abbas disarming the terrorists first.
The option of talking with Abbas now “is softer; it feels better,” Klein said. “Why can’t we all get along? Like the Rodney King thing as opposed to being realistic about the situation. The people answering this question are dead wrong.”
Even as it drew such criticism from ZOA, The Israel Project planned to sponsor a March 17 luncheon with Palestinian Media Watch, an organization that works to expose violent messages Palestinian officials and journalists send to their own people, including the glorification of suicide bombers.
The event will feature the founder and director of the media watchdog, Itamar Marcus, and its associate director and North American representative, Barbara Crook.
Mizrahi said that her organization’s occasional partnership with Palestinian Media Watch did not suggest a tilt away from Greenberg and Newhouse’s findings.
“We asked [Palestinian Media Watch] to only share things with the press that are post-Arafat and not hold Abbas accountable for the sins of his predecessor,” Mizrahi said. “That’s not the business we’re in at the moment, not what we hope will happen in the future.”