US attitudes on Israel improve

Poll shows disengagement led to more sympathy towards Israel.

stanley greenberg 298.88 (photo credit: Rachel Fishman)
stanley greenberg 298.88
(photo credit: Rachel Fishman)
In the public relations battle between Israel and the Palestinians, August's disengagement from the Gaza Strip was a decisive victory for the Israelis. According to the first comprehensive poll conducted since withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria, more than three-quarters of those surveyed said they supported the Israeli move. The poll also revealed growing approval of Israel's security barrier and a more favorable overall impression of Israel among the American public. The results were published Sunday in a presentation by The Israel Project, a nonpartisan organization started three years ago to improve Israel's image in the international media. Two American polling firms were hired to execute the bipartisan study, one aligned with the Democratic Party and the other with the Republicans. The survey was conducted last week among 500 members of "opinion elites" - likely voters who regularly follow the news, have a college degree and earn more than $75,000 annually. The group was selected because of its "chain of impact" on electoral outcomes and foreign policy, poll advisers said. While Israel typically draws less support from opinion elites than from the American public at large, disengagement received "an almost uniformly positive response," said Dr. Stanley Greenberg, the project's senior consultant and a pollster whose past clients include former prime minister Ehud Barak and former US president Bill Clinton. Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed supported withdrawal and said they were more optimistic about the chances for peace than a year ago, when the fate of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan was still unclear. Nearly five respondents sided with Israel for each one who sided with the Palestinians, while 40% said they did not favor either side. Support for disengagement had a spillover effect on views of other Israeli policies, Greenberg said, noting that nearly 15% more Americans now approve of the security barrier than in July 2004, when 49% said its construction was "justified." That number rose to 63% in last week's poll, while the percentage of those supporting the structure's removal fell from 37% in February 2005 to 25%. Greenberg said disengagement improved perceptions of the security barrier "because it gave more support to the idea of separation" and the two-state solution. While the poll showed that Palestinians have also enjoyed a slight image boost in recent months, Greenberg said disengagement was a "much more impactful event for Israelis," with Israel winning significantly more of the newfound goodwill directed at the region. The post-disengagement boost resulted from the heavy news coverage the program received in American newspapers, with the dismantling of Gush Katif settlements garnering 159 front-page articles on August 15, the day before disengagement began. Nearly 90% of poll respondents said they had heard "some" or "a lot" about disengagement, as compared to the 73% who were aware of the construction of the security barrier and 53% who knew about the possibility of Hamas running in Palestinian Legislative Council elections next year. While Israel benefited from disengagement, Greenberg said a seemingly unrelated news event - the start of hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico - blunted the potential public relations impact from another disengagement-related development: the fiery destruction by Palestinians of the synagogues left in Gaza after disengagement. News stories about the synagogues' burning were pushed to the back of most newspapers, which devoted the bulk of that week's front-page coverage to Hurricane Katrina and may inadvertently have prevented damage to American attitudes about the Palestinians. Not all the data collected in the poll could be reduced to a zero-sum analysis, however. Israel's improving public image didn't lead to an equivalent drop in American views about the Palestinians, which dipped slightly after taking a significant leap in the months following Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat's death in November 2004. The improvement in Israel's numbers also didn't prevent PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas from nearly doubling the number of Americans who said they had "warm" feelings for him, though the new number, 18%, was still half of the 35% with "warm" feelings for Sharon. Despite positive feelings about his disengagement plan, Americans' attitudes about Sharon remained unchanged between January and October. Greenberg attributed the boost in Israel's public image, in part, to the decision "not to do disengagement in closed quarters, to put it in the spotlight." "Americans saw Israel saying, 'We're going to take initiative on how to make progress,' and it produced significant positive shifts in sentiment," he said. "Israel often gets knocked for its hasbara [public diplomacy] efforts," said Calev Ben-David, Israel office director of The Israel Project and a former managing editor of The Jerusalem Post. "But the government has learned lessons and gotten more sophisticated in terms of using research and other tools to reach the public." He credited the Foreign Ministry and the Government Press Office, in particular, for their work during disengagement, and said results of The Israel Project's poll would be made available to the relevant government offices. Pleased with the "cascade of information" provided by the American poll, Greenberg said he was now preparing for a similar survey to be conducted in Europe in November. He said focus groups convened earlier this year suggested that "important changes" have taken place in European attitudes about Israel, and he expected surveys to show Israel's image to have undergone an "even bigger improvement" now that disengagement has been completed.