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Jewish Journal

Spin Cycle

Power, Politics And People

March 26, 1998 | 7:00 pm

By J.J. Goldberg

Spin Cycle

A spate of new polls shows Jewsdivided, Arafat unpopular and pollsters getting rich

Some startling revelations have emerged aboutAmerican Jews and the way they view the Middle East, following lastweek's publication of parts of a new American Jewish Committeesurvey.

First, the statistics prove that fascination withJewish opinion has reached an all-time high, at least amongpoll-takers. No fewer than four major surveys of American Jews havenow been released since the Hebrew year 5758 began last September.This breaks the previous record of three polls in a six-month period,set in 5752. And we're not even halfway to Yom Kippur. Don't cancelthose vows yet.

Second, opinions on the Middle East are evenlydivided. Of the four latest polls, two support aggressive U.S.intervention, while two warn against it.

Of course, this is a silly way to interpretsurveys. It doesn't tell what American Jews actually think. Butnobody cares about that. The point of all this expensive pollingisn't to explore Jews' beliefs. The point is to influence policymakers by scaring them with imaginary Jewish bogeymen.

Why now? Because Washington and Jerusalem are on acollision course over how to break the yearlong deadlock inIsraeli-Palestinian peace talks. Having tried quiet diplomacy, theClinton administration now plans to announce its own peace plan.Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu hates that idea. He saysthat it amounts to America pressuring Israel into concessions. Toblock it, he is playing every card he has, from toasting theChristian right to threatening angry Jewish politicalretaliation.

Unfortunately, it's unclear how angry Jews mightget. Netanyahu wants President Clinton to believe that they'd behopping mad. Clinton wants Netanyahu to believe they wouldn't.Everyone has polls to prove it. If nothing else, it's a great time tobe a pollster.

The polling frenzy began last September, when thedovish Israel Policy Forum released results that showed strong Jewishbacking for U.S. pressure. Its most publicized figure was 84 percent,the number supporting pressure if applied equally on Israel and thePalestinians (a detail lost in most reporting). The findings werereleased days before a crucial White House meeting, where a forumleader presented them directly to Clinton as Israeli officialswatched helplessly.

In reply, the hawkish Middle East Forum conductedits own survey in January. It found Jews opposing American pressure,65 percent to 24 percent. "President Clinton is on a collision coursewith a majority of American Jews," Middle East Forum director DanielPipes said, savaging the Israel Policy Forum survey as "garbage in,garbage out."

In February, yet another poll was released, thisone by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), whichcoordinates the policies of the main Jewish organizations. The JCPApoll was a two-tiered affair, questioning community leaders and therank and file to test whether the mostly liberal leaders are in stepwith their constituents (they are, except on welfare reform andaffirmative action). JCPA found that 70 percent favored equalpressure on Israel and the Palestinians.

Now comes the American Jewish Committee's annualsurvey, widely considered a reliable, objective resource on Jewishopinion. The AJC, like the Middle East Forum, found Jews against U.S.pressure. The margin was 52 percent to 45 percent.

The score, if you're following: two favoring U.S.pressure, two against, all claiming to be the latest news on Jews'views. Is there anything believable in this morass of statisticalblather?

Actually, yes. The original surveys, devoid ofspin, are more alike than their sponsors let on. Studied carefully,allowing for differences in method, all four paint a similar pictureof American Jewry: devoted to Israel; suspicious of Arab intentionsbut none too fond of Netanyahu; hopeful that the peace process can besalvaged; and willing to see the Clinton administration do somethingabout it so long as Israel isn't the fall guy.

Differences in method are important, though. TheAJC and Israel Policy Forum surveys worked with reliable nationalsamples of more than 1,000 interviews each. The other two were morelimited. The JCPA simply mailed a questionnaire to federationactivists, a narrow spectrum. Results reflect the views of those whobothered mailing it back.

Most limited was the Middle East Forum survey,which interviewed only 600 "likely voters" ("unsure" voters weredropped) in just nine states. How representative is its sample? Well,15 percent were Orthodox and 28 percent Reform; every other surveyshows about 7 percent Orthodox and 35 percent to 40 percent Reform.Researchers have long known that Jews' political conservatism riseswith traditional observance. It seems the forum found the results itwanted to find.

Still, the four polls' results are strikinglysimilar. Dislike of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat runs from 81percent in the Israel Policy Forum's survey to 84 percent in theMiddle East Forum's. Asked if Arafat really wants peace, answersranged from AJC's 55 percent "no" (up from 31 percent "no" a yearago), to the Middle East Forum's 60 percent "no," to 70 percent "no"in the JCPA survey (which asked about the PLO, not Arafat).

But Netanyahu doesn't do too well either. Hescores high on basic questions such as "what are your feelings towardhim," a cue to praise Israel's leader. But with probing, his numbersdrop. His Likud Party is viewed far less favorably than the Laboropposition, 39 percent to 59 percent in the AJC poll. When the MiddleEast Forum asked respondents to choose between Arafat and Netanyahuas "someone I admire," Netanyahu got 43 percent. "Neither" got 44percent.

The one question where comparison is hardest isthe big one: U.S. pressure. Different polls phrased this differently,seeking different responses. The Israel Policy Forum and JCPA askedif Washington should pressure both Netanyahu and Arafat, and foundstrong support; support for pressuring only Netanyahu was much lower.The Middle East Forum and AJC polls didn't ask about pressuring bothsides, because they didn't want to know. Naturally, they found theJews against pressure.

But how strongly against? The AJC found that 52percent opposed the United States pressuring Netanyahu, and 45percent supported it. With the survey's 3-percent margin of error,that could also be 49 percent to 48 percent. It's a virtualtie.

The truth, if anyone cares, is that American Jewsare a complicated lot. They are deeply devoted to Israel -- 74percent told the AJC that "caring about Israel" was a "very importantpart of my being a Jew," and nearly 40 percent have visited -- butare troubled about its future and divided over what to do. They trustClinton more than Netanyahu, but they're wary of blaming Israel. It'san amber light for Clinton, and a "hazard" sign for Bibi.

It's not clear who should be happy with thesepolls. Besides the pollsters, that is.


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