Yale M. Zussman holds a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
How do American Jews view the peace process between Israel and the Arabs? Are they becoming more skeptical or enthusiastic about it? Are there any differences among identifiable groups of Jews?
Whatever the answers, the opinions of American Jews count, for they have long influenced the U.S. government's policy in the Middle East, especially since 1967. Their passionate support of Israel has been expressed through large donations to political causes and a greater likelihood to vote than most other Americans. Their influence is all the greater by virtue of their concentration in the largest states (8 percent of Jews live in twelve states with 273 electoral votes out of a total of 538).
Fortunately, we know quite a bit about the attitudes of American Jews. Since the signing of the Oslo agreement in 1993, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) has conducted an annual survey of American Jewish opinion, which asks some fifty questions of about one thousand self-identified Jews.1 The survey includes about a dozen questions on the peace process, A careful examination of its results shows that American Jewry is increasingly wary of a negotiation process that it worries may be a trap for Israel. Remarkably, while these views are especially pronounced among the Orthodox, they hold for all American Jews, even including those who consider themselves "distant" from Israel.
AMERICAN JEWRY AS A WHOLE
With the single exception of early 1996,2 American Jewish support for the Israeli government's handling of negotiations with the Arabs has decreased in every year since 1993. (See table 1.1). In 1993, riding the euphoria of the White House ceremony, 84 percent of American Jews supported the peace process. That number had decreased to 68 percent by 1995, the last survey before the assassination. Following a momentary upward bump after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, support for the handling of the negotiations continued to decline. By the time of the most recent survey, in early 1998, support had fallen to 56 percent.
What accounts for this steady decline? It cannot have been the election of Binyamin Netanyahu in May 1996, for the drop began almost immediately after the signing of the Oslo agreement, and well before the assassination of Rabin. Indeed, Netanyahu's election reflected a similar decline in support for the peace process among Israeli Jews. In reality, these numbers have always had less significance than has been attributed to them, for they include a majority of American Jews who believe, as found in the AJC survey, that they "should support the policies of the duly elected government of Israel ... regardless of their individual views on the peace negotiations with the Arabs." To determine the real attitudes of American Jews, one must consider their views on three factors: final status issues, Palestinian non-compliance, and concerns about ultimate Arab objectives.
Final status issues. American Jews oppose Palestinian demands on essentially all matters of substance. The surveys included questions about the re-division of Jerusalem, the removal of Jewish settlements, and the establishment of a Palestinian state.3 By a nearly two-to-one ratio, they reject the re-division of Jerusalem (table 1.2) and nothing suggests this view will change appreciably in the future. American Jewish opinion on the removal of Jewish settlements in the territories (table 1.3) has been remarkably constant as well, with a substantial minority rejecting the idea that "any" settlement should be removed and only a small fraction agreeing to remove "all" the settlements. On the question of support for a Palestinian state, a majority of American Jewish opinion once favored such a state but now a clear majority opposes it (table 1.4).4
In all, other than agreeing to the establishment of a Palestinian state prior to 1995, American Jews have from the beginning rejected Palestinian demands. Further, with the exception of views on establishing a Palestinian state, American Jewish opinion has hardly moved on any of these issues. Declining support for the Israeli government's handling of the negotiations may indicate growing awareness of the substance those agreements may entail and rejection of what is perceived as an overly conciliatory approach.
Palestinian non-compliance. American Jews are nearly unanimous that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)/Palestinian Authority (PA) has not done enough to fight terror (table 1.5). The results for 1996 may be attributed to the impact of the Rabin assassination since that was a year that witnessed several incidents of mass murder. The results for 1998 are somewhat surprising, given the paucity of recent major terrorist incidents.
In 1998, the survey asked whether Netanyahu is "right or wrong" to insist on revocation of the PLO charter that calls for Israel's destruction as a condition for further progress in the peace process.5 Eighty percent agreed he is right to insist on this change, with only 9 percent opposed. This view is exactly the opposite of the one held by the U.S. government, which seeks a formula to permit the Palestinians to claim that they have revised their charter without their actually having to do so.
Ultimate Arab objectives. In the heady days of September 1993, a majority believed that the Arabs wanted to live in peace; five years later, this group has shrunk to a small minority (table 1.6). Instead, a nearly three-to-one majority believes the Arabs still want to destroy Israel. The trend is clearly toward enhanced pessimism on this score. The decline in support for the peace process correlates with a growing belief among American Jews that the Palestinians remain more intent on destroying Israel than in establishing peaceful relations with it.
These numbers point to a startling conclusion: diminished American Jewish support for the Israeli government's handling of the negotiations (as shown in table 1.1) may result from the Netanyahu government's being too conciliatory, not too hard-line. American Jews seem puzzled over why the Israeli prime minister does not just declare the discussions over until the Palestinians fulfill the many obligations they undertook on the White House lawn. That the Clinton administration has been unwilling to fulfill its obligations as a guarantor of the original Oslo agreement to insist that the Palestinians comply with their commitments simply reinforces the perception that the peace process is a trap.
Subsequent polling by the author6 has identified at least three distinct groups among those American Jews expressing opposition to the Netanyahu government's handling of the negotiations: those who believe the Arabs have no intention of living in peace, who oppose further concessions, and who find Netanyahu too conciliatory; those who believe Netanyahu's insistence on reciprocity will result in the loss of a real chance to achieve peace, and who find him too hard-line; and those who favor further concessions to the Arabs even though they believe the Arabs do not intend to make a real peace. (The reasoning behind this third viewpoint remains to be identified.)
It is often useful in analyzing public opinion to identify the two groups whose views lie at opposite extremes; consideration of their differences can suggest why they hold the views they do. The Orthodox occupy one end of the spectrum on the peace process; on the other end are those, just under one third of the total sample, who consider themselves either "fairly" or "very" distant from Israel and whose views are closest to those of the Clinton administration.
Orthodox Jews, those committed to living by Jewish law, constitute approximately 8 per cent of the whole. Analysis of their replies reveals results that are, with one important exception, qualitatively similar to those for the entire sample, though more emphatic.
As with Jewry as a whole, support for the peace process among the Orthodox has declined over time, and it too shows an upward blip following the assassination of Rabin (table 2.1 ). Since the election of Netanyahu, however, it has followed a rather different path, increasing slightly even as support has declined in the other sectors. Even after Netanyahu signed the Hebron agreement that was so vociferously opposed by much of the Orthodox rabbinate, Orthodox support for his handling of the peace process was much higher than it had ever been for Rabin and Peres. This pattern suggests that the Orthodox espouse not a rejectionist approach but one seeking assurances that Judaic interests will be taken into account as the peace process advances.
On final status issues, Orthodox opinion is in the same direction, but stronger, than that of the sample as a whole. By nearly two-to-one, the general Jewish population rejects the re-division of Jerusalem; among the Orthodox, the ratio is six-to-one (table 2.2). This difference results from the different emphasis each group attaches to the centrality of a united Jerusalem to Israel's future as a Jewish state.
Although most of the "ideological" settlements are inhabited by Orthodox Jews, many of whom moved to Israel from the United States specifically to live in these settlements, the Orthodox position on removing the settlements is not as different from the general sample as one might expect (table 2.3). There is no statistical difference between the Orthodox and the full sample for willingness to remove all the settlements. Differences exist between the percentages willing to remove "some," and those who would remove "none." It is a quantitative difference rather than a qualitative one. The Orthodox want to see what the territorial settlement is before they will commit to supporting it. As with the whole sample, there has been little movement on this question.
Similarly, Orthodox Jews have more pronounced views than the general American Jewish population on the establishment of a Palestinian state; support for this is generally about half that found among the general population. Over time, the Orthodox opposition to such a Palestinian state has grown slowly (table 2.4).
The full sample and the Orthodox have very similar views on PA efforts to stop terrorism (table 2.5). Though about as close to unanimous as any poll can reliably find, this result is not statistically different from the results for the full sample. The Orthodox share general Jewry's belief that Netanyahu is right to insist that the Palestinians revoke those provisions of their charter calling for Israel's destruction, with 85 percent agreeing and only 4 percent disagreeing.
Finally, Orthodox Jews are somewhat more convinced than the general Jewish population that the Palestinians remain interested in destroying Israel rather than in reaching a modus vivendi (table 2.6). The view that the Arabs still seek to destroy Israel has become stronger over time among the Orthodox as it has among the total sample.
JEWS DISTANT FROM ISRAEL
On the opposite end of every scale are Jews who describe themselves as "distant" from Israel. They are least likely to consider being Jewish important to their self-identity and most likely to have non-Jewish spouses (7 percent compared to 14 percent for the rest of the sample). They tend to base their Jewish identity not on membership in the Jewish people, religious observance, or a commitment to Israel, but on a commitment to social justice or "something else." A substantial fraction does not affiliate with any of the four principal branches of American Judaism. While those who do are likely to be Reform, this group is distinct from Reform Jews whose views are closer to those of the whole sample than to those of this group. Politically, they are between the Orthodox, who are the most conservative, and the general Jewish population, which is more liberal. Curiously, the "distants" are second most likely to be Republican (following only the Orthodox).
The "distant" group numbers approximately 31 percent of the total U.S. Jewish population. It has within it two identifiable subgroups, those who are "fairly distant," constituting three quarters of the whole group, for whom Israel is not particularly important, and those who are "very distant," who make up the other quarter, for whom Israel has negative connotations.
Despite its attitudes toward Israel, even this group of American Jews has from the very beginning opposed many components of the peace process. For "Distants," as with the whole sample, support for the Israeli government's handling of the negotiations declined from 1993 until 1996 when it took a jump upward in response to the assassination of Rabin (table 3.1). This group reacted negatively to Netanyahu taking office as prime minister; in short order, its support for his handling of the negotiations dropped significantly. Even among this group, however, a surprising plurality supports Netanyahu's handling of the negotiations.
The explanation may lie, as it did with the whole sample and with the Orthodox, in its attitudes toward the substantive issues in the negotiations. For example, although they show increased acceptance of the Holy City's re-division (table 3.2), their opinion is close to evenly divided on the matter. Similarly, this group has only a small number who favor removal of "all" the settlements (table 3.3); nearly a third would reject removing "any" settlements. This group once favored the establishment of a Palestinian state by a margin of more than two-to-one but now can muster only a simple majority in its favor (table 3.4). Though those who are distant are the ones most "opposed" to Netanyahu's insistence that the Palestinians revise their charter, 69 percent of them still agree with him.
Even the group of American Jews most in agreement with the Clinton administration, then, is becoming disillusioned by the peace process. It increasingly perceives that something is wrong in the Palestinians' approach to Israel; this turns up most clearly in the group's dissatisfaction with the PLO's efforts in controlling terrorism (table 3.5). The "Distants" have also come to agree that the Arabs are more interested in destroying Israel than in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict (table 3.6). Their perception of the peace process has changed substantially since 1993: what was once considered a quest for peace is now recognized as possibly part of a process intended to destroy Israel. That some members of this group are nonetheless willing to agree to some Arab demands suggests how little the fate of Israel matters to them.
ACCOUNTING FOR DIFFERENCES IN OPINION
What accounts for the differences in view between American Jewry as a whole and its two most disparate groups, the Orthodox and the "Distants"? It turns out that how closely a person follows what is happening in Israel is the critical factor: Orthodox Jews know the most and "Distants" the least.
Orthodox Jews are far better situated to know what is actually going on in Israel than are most other Jews (tables 4.1 to 4.4). More than half of them have been to Israel more than once; indeed, though they constitute just 8 percent of the total sample, they constitute 30 percent of American Jews who have been to Israel more than once. Five of six have friends or family living there. Nearly half of the Orthodox know Hebrew well enough to read the Israeli press and talk with people in the street; they make up some 40 percent of those Jews who have this ability. Nearly two thirds of the Orthodox follow the news from Israel very closely; they make up a quarter of all Jews who pay such close attention.
By contrast, the "Distants" have generally never visited the country; only one in five has family or friends who live there; almost none can speak Hebrew well enough to read the Israeli press or conduct a conversation in Hebrew; and nearly half acknowledge that they pay little attention to the news from Israel.
In sum, there appears to be a direct correlation between knowledge of circumstances in Israel and skepticism toward the negotiations. The group of American Jews whose knowledge is most extensive is also the most skeptical politically. In contrast, those who depend on the American media are the most enthusiastic. Put differently, the "Distants" may not have the knowledge necessary to understand the issues at hand.
The foreign policy establishment-executive branch officials, regional specialists, think-tank denizens, and the prestige media-has for many decades differed with American Jews over U.S. policy in the Middle East. The former would pressure Israel to dismantle settlements, withdraw totally from the territories, divide Jerusalem, acquiesce to a Palestinian "right of return," and accept a Palestinian state. The foreign policy establishment saw its opportunity when American Jewish spokesmen endorsed the Oslo process in September 1993. In the years since, it has held as an article of faith that American Jews continue overwhelmingly to favor the Arab-Israeli peace process, ignoring the evidence that this is not so.
The establishment has tended to dismiss Jewish opposition to Oslo as restricted to a small, primarily Orthodox, minority that holds views substantially different from those of other Jews. They assert that Judaic religious concerns account for the attitudes of the Orthodox minority. For example, correspondent Mark Lavie of the Associated Press wrote that Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, "who calls Palestinians 'our enemies,' represents ideologically driven Israeli settlers who believe that Israel must retain all of the West Bank for religious and security reasons."7
Were it not for the subversive activities of a small, mostly Orthodox, minority, they say, the United States government could apply the necessary pressure for Israel to accept an agreement with the Palestinians that is in that country's best interests. Henry Siegman, director of the U.S./Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations, asserts that
Opponents of the peace process in the American Jewish community, including the Zionist Organization of America and Orthodox Jewish organizations, constitute altogether less than 10 percent of the American Jewish community. Yet they had the field to themselves as they lobbied ... Congress for the adoption of mischievous measures intended to undermine Rabin's efforts.8
Coverage of this issue in the American press often cites unnamed polls that supposedly prove how American Jews support at least the peace process and sometimes even the establishment of a Palestinian state. Barry Schweid of the Associated Press mentions a poll, conducted by the Israel Policy Forum, that "found that [by] an overwhelming margin American Jews support the Middle East peace process pursued by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his successor, Shimon Peres."9 Nowhere does he indicate that the level of support in 1996 was lower than it had been in 1993. More striking yet, an op-ed piece in The Houston Chronicle cited a New York Times poll to demonstrate Jewish support for a Palestinian state:
a plurality, 45 percent of Jewish Americans (compared to only 38 percent of Americans as a whole), favor the creation of "a Palestinian homeland in the occupied territories."10
The writer makes no mention that 45 percent represents a substantial reduction in support for this proposal, down from 57 percent in 1993.
This is clearly a self-serving and erroneous view-how does a mere 10 percent of American Jewry so dominate the remainder, especially given that the other 90 percent are hardly reticent about its views?-How it remains in place is something of a mystery. Two reasons for its longevity come to mind: First, American Jews are perceived, for the most part correctly, as being generally liberal, and the view held by liberals on the peace process is that espoused by the Clinton administration. It should follow logically that American Jews agree with their ideological peers. Orthodox opposition to the peace process only reinforces the perception that liberal Jews should favor it.
Second, groups and individuals who present themselves as spokesmen for American Jewry nearly unanimously endorsed the Oslo process when it was first announced in 1993. Dissenting voices were nearly drowned out. Yet this initial support was less significant than it seems, for everyone was blind-sided by the announcement of the Oslo agreement and had no opportunity to think through its implications before having to pass judgment.
As it becomes more widely-known that American Jews are skeptical of the Oslo process, three consequences are likely to follow. First, American Jews opposed to it will feel freer to express their opposition, and it will become ever-harder to dismiss them as "hard-liners," "right-wing" ideologues, or apologists for the Orthodox. Second, the foreign policy establishment will find it more difficult to claim that it has the support of American Jews, and will have to make more of an effort to present their case. Third, especially with a presidential campaign about to get under way, American pressure on Israel should ease off.
These are positive developments for anyone interested in a real peace in the Middle East, for they again focus attention where it always should have been: how ready are the Palestinians and other Arabs to live in peace with Israel?
1 Information here derives from the annual surveys conducted in 1993 through 1998, some of which is tabulated on pp. 42-43 of the 1998 survey results. The author thanks the AJC's Blaustein Library for providing detailed breakdowns of the survey results.
2 When the AJC's opinion poll was conducted to assess the impact of the Rabin assassination two months earlier.
3 The survey does not ask, however, about the Palestinian "right of return."
4 The shift may be as large as 15 percent, a rather large number for such a question.
5 The exact wording of this question was: "The PLO has still not revoked its charter calling for Israel's destruction. Is the Netanyahu government right or wrong in insisting on revocation of the charter as a condition for further progress in the peace process?"
6 Conducted since early Sept. 1998 with leaders of organizations represented in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, asking their views concerning Arab-Israeli negotiations.
7 Associated Press, Sept. 20, 1998.
8 Quoted in James H. Noyes, "Does Washington Really Support Israel?" Foreign Policy, 106 (Spring 1997): 148.
9 The Chattanooga Free Press, July 10, 1996.
10 The Houston Chronicle, May 15, 1998.