The US knows that conflict in the Middle East affects its interests. So why do they only hear one side of the story?
The Arabs must tell their story, America is listening
A new poll this week shows that while Israel retains strong US public support, Americans are deeply concerned that the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict puts US interests at risk across the Middle East. And the public supports the president Barack Obama's stand against Israel's settlement plans. Those are but a few of the findings of a Zogby International poll of 2,471 Americans conducted between March 17 and 19. The poll, commissioned by the Arab American Institute, had a margin of error of 2.0 per cent. The findings offer some lessons. Approval ratings are falling for both Israelis and Palestinians. In 2009, 71 per cent of Americans had a favourable opinion of Israelis, with only 21 per cent viewing them unfavourably. In 2010, ratings were 65 per cent and 29 per cent respectively. There was a significant drop among Democrats, with 49 per cent holding an unfavourable view of Israelis. The prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rating among Democrats was even worse, with 63 per cent against him. During this same period, however, the US public's attitudes towards Palestinians and their president Mahmoud Abbas also declined. In 2009, 25 per cent of the public viewed Palestinians favourably, 66 per cent unfavourably. Today the figures are 21 per cent and 73 per cent. Only 14 per cent of respondents approved of Mr Abbas. These abysmally low Palestinian numbers point to a continuing failure to engage public opinion in the US. While the Israelis aggressively project their story, the Palestinians, and Arabs in general, do not. The bias of major US networks and media covering the Israeli-Palestinian issue is partly to blame. But in this age when new media are opening communications channels and many sectors of the US public (young people, women and minority communities) are more open to a counter-narrative, this continuing decline in Palestinians' ratings is worrisome and inexcusable. Americans are deeply concerned that the conflict puts the US at risk across the Middle East. This was the one area where there was broad national consensus: more than 80 per cent of all Americans agreed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict threatens US interests. American troops are still in Iraq and after repeated flare-ups in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Americans are worried. They do not understand the region's history and have little awareness about the Palestinians, but like the famous line in Bob Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man, "something is happening here, but you don't know what it is". The warning recently issued by General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, is important in this context. By observing how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict puts the US at risk in the region, Gen Petraeus opened a public discussion on conflict resolution. But the outcome of this discussion depends on Arabs engaging the public, telling their story and providing acceptable solutions. Most people believe that settlements are wrong and should be stopped, and support Mr Obama's efforts; but a significant number of Americans still do not understand the issue. By a margin of 40 per cent to 26 per cent, Americans say the president should get tough with Israel to stop settlements. Fifty-one per cent worry that the US failure to stop settlements weakens its stature in the world. These numbers point to a positive trend and show how Democrats and Independents support a tougher US stance, but two observations must be made. First, there is a deep partisan divide, with two-thirds of Democrats opposed to Israeli policies compared to two-thirds of Republicans in support. This divide is not new. It developed during the Clinton administration, when peace efforts were countered by Republicans in Congress who sided with Likud policies. The divide grew during George W Bush's first term when he embraced Ariel Sharon. And now, given the hyper-partisanship and Mr Obama's stand against settlements, the divide deepens. The partisan split is due not only to leadership, but to demographics. The pro-Israel bent of Republicans is largely due to the number of Christian fundamentalists in its coalition, while the Democratic side is increasingly made up of young voters, women and ethnic minorities who are more inclined to a broader view of international issues. The second point is that one-third of respondents had no clear position on any of the issues. Many who declared their opposition to settlements or supported the president had no compelling reasons to do so. The blame is shared between US administrations that opposed settlements without making a compelling case and Arabs who have failed to tell their side of the story. The Israeli narrative about settlements still dominates the discussion in Congress. This past week, politicians defended Israel's "right to build homes for its people"; its right to "rebuild their capital"; and expressed outrage that Jews should be excluded from "any part of Jerusalem". Those are all false arguments that ignore the fact that settlements are on Arab land, not Jerusalem but an area that Israel has illegally declared to be Jerusalem. These arguments also ignore the rights, livelihood and freedom of movement that the settlement enterprise imposes on Palestinians. None of this, however, is considered - in part, because it is not known. The poll poses a challenge to engage and inform a public that is deeply concerned but not certain how to respond to the conflict. It is a challenge that must be met. James Zogby is president of the Arab American institute in Washington, DC