The problem with going negative

Borrowing from the anti-Israel playbook, however tantalizing, is simply not a sound strategy for the American scene.

Palestinian demonstrators 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian demonstrators 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Some are saying that it’s now time for Israel supporters to go on the offensive and accuse Arab countries of apartheid. Efraim Karsh, for example, argues that “Rather than engage in incessant apologetics... Israel should adopt a proactive strategy... and target the real perpetrators of Middle East apartheid: the regions Arab and Muslim nations.”
Similarly, British journalist Melanie Phillips asserts “we must also show that those who stand against Israel stand for illegality, aggression and lies. We must delegitimize the delegitimizers!” One fellow pro-Israel advocate recently suggested that we should organize on campus “Arab or Muslim Apartheid Week.”
They are right, of course, that much of the Arab world engages in what might be termed ethnic, gender, religious and racial “apartheid.”
The Freedom House annual report on the state of freedom in the world finds once again that Israel is the only “free” country in the Middle East. The UN commissioned Arab Human Development Report, written by leading Arab scholars, points to the pathetic state of freedom in literally every Arab country.
I am all for outside organizations highlighting systematic discrimination in the Arab world. It’s extremely important work. It’s just not pro- Israel advocacy and will do little to better Israel’s standing. Karsh and Phillips are also right that the pro- Israel community should be more proactive and less defensive. But we should do it in a very different way than what they suggest.
Those who argue that Israel supporters should go on the attack advance faulty zero sum logic – if they go down, we go up; if we go up, they go down. They reason that if Americans come to view the Arab nations as the real perpetrators of apartheid, then they’ll necessarily come to see the Jewish state as the champion of freedom.
Years of public opinion surveys, however, do not bear this out. Americans are quite capable of simultaneously showing less sympathy for Arabs and Israelis, and vice versa.
THE GALLUP Polls of the past 20 years show remarkable inelasticity in sympathy for Arabs and Palestinians. Their numbers have generally stayed between 10 and 20 percent, with a couple dips below 10%. Their numbers can’t get much lower. This past year showed a slight increase in sympathy for Palestinians (from 17% to 19%) and a more significant increase in sympathy for Israel (from 63% to 71%), an all-time high for the Jewish state.
College students also show less interest in the Palestinian narrative than we might expect. According to a recent poll conducted by The Israel Project and American Israel Cooperative Enterprise, only 1% of college students believe that Palestinians share American values, compared to 32% who believe Israel does. There’s plenty of room for Israel’s numbers to go up; there’s very little room for Palestinian numbers to go down.
Unlike the Palestinians, Israel is in a position of strength on the US front and has a lot to lose. Israel depends on US support, from selling bunker busting bombs and top-of-the-line fighter aircraft, to casting vetoes at the UN Security Council.
Going on the attack might make us look overly aggressive – like Israel’s detractors, who turn off the average American. When you drill down in focus groups, it becomes apparent that Americans and especially college students are turned off to what they perceive as the heated rhetoric coming from both sides. Their reflexive response is to say “a pox on both of your houses.”
Borrowing from the anti-Israel playbook, however tantalizing, is simply not a sound strategy for the American scene. It may bring us down with them. Karsh and Phillips may be on to something for Europe, where there’s much less to lose than in the US. Palestinians enjoy a considerable advantage in sympathy in EU countries. Paradoxically, the lower the support for Israel in a country, the more aggressive we can be in attacking the other side.
Irredentist Muslim and Palestinian causes are held in relatively high esteem in Western Europe, so exposing them can only bring their numbers down and, moreover, has less downside risk given the low esteem in which Israel is held.
The special relationship between the US and Israel is predicated on the strong sense among most Americans that Israelis and Americans share a set of values. Americans don’t need to be convinced that the Arab world has yet to embrace these values. They already know it. They may need convincing, however, that Israel still does.
The best strategy is to show the positive face of Israel – its democracy, its freedom, its quest for peace, its innovative economy. While such a strategy is no silver bullet, it’s the best we can do. Let’s do it much better than ever before.
The writer is the executive director of The David Project, a nonprofit that positively shapes campus opinion on Israel.