(photo credit: AP [file])
Two recent polls tell us what we already knew: Israel is relatively popular among Americans and the subject of considerable antipathy among European democracies. The data suggest that Americans see themselves with Israelis in the same boat, while Europeans have an almost opposite point of view. Why is this so and what, if anything, can be done about it?
The US poll, conducted by Gallup, found that Americans are more pro-Israel than they were 10 and 20 years ago and now sympathize with Israel three times more than with the Palestinians: 58 percent to 20%. Since 2000, Gallup polls have shown that fewer Americans express no preference on the conflict, with most of the shift from the undecided column moving in Israel's favor.
In the second poll, the BBC asked people in 27 nations to rate a group of countries and found that Iran and Israel were almost tied for the spot of the country most people saw as a "mainly negative influence." Only in the US and Nigeria did a plurality see Israel as a "mainly positive" influence. By contrast, in Germany, France and Great Britain, 77%, 66% and 65%, respectively, viewed Israel as having a "mainly negative" influence.
These same European countries viewed Iran even more dimly - 78%, 86% and 76% negative, respectively, and the US in an only slightly less negative light - 74%, 69% and 57% negative, respectively.
Some may interpret these data as evidence of European anti-Semitism. It is, indeed, difficult to entirely avoid such conclusions when the Jewish state is so blithely painted with the same brush as Iran, a dictatorship that opposes every value Europeans claim to believe in, openly foments terrorism and is racing to obtain nuclear weapons.
Yet, according to the BBC poll, Germans and French see the US and Israel in almost identically negative terms, with the British showing slightly less anti-American sentiment.
Perhaps the best explanation, then, is one given by Stephan Vopel of the German Bertelsmann Foundation for why many more Americans and Israelis favor a military strike against Iran than Germans: "While Israelis subscribe to the maxim 'never again,' the German dictum is 'never again war.'" Pacifism, in other words, is the driving force behind European animus toward both the US and Israel.
Europeans realize that Iran is a threat, but they are almost as, if not more, opposed to confronting that threat than they are fearful of the threat itself.
The US and Israel, as the nations that are perceived both as Iran's main targets and as those most actively fighting back, are threats to the European strategy of lying low and hoping that their adversary will go away.
Further, America and Israel are both seen as provoking Iran and therefore making things worse.
Is there anything Israel - or the US, for that matter - can do to change this European environment? Though it might not be decisive, the most powerful thing the US can do to shift European opinion is to speak with one voice, at least in areas of bipartisan agreement. While Democrats and Republicans disagree on Iraq, they agree that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable and that sanctions must be tightened dramatically to force the Iranian regime to back down.
If a bipartisan message to this effect were to emerge from Washington, it could help signal Europeans that it is not just the "cowboy" Bush administration that is pushing for draconian sanctions, but liberal Democrats who believe that confronting Teheran now with nonmilitary means is the best way to avoid both war and the threat of a nuclear Iran.
Israel, for its part, needs to stress that it faces a struggle for existence against the same jihadi axis that threatens Europe, as symbolized by the hugs this week between Hamas's Khaled Mashaal and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Teheran.
Ultimately, it will be difficult to convince Europeans that they need to help defend Israel, at least morally, when they do not accept the need to defend themselves. Such, however, is the struggle of free peoples in our age, a struggle that must be won.