The Times misrepresents the American public's support for Israel

Citing polls, the newspaper of record reported American sympathy for Israel has risen since Sept. 11. But the polls show no such thing.

By Eric Boehlert
May 16, 2002 11:39PM (UTC)
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While Israelis and Palestinians enjoy a rare respite in their bitter semiwar, a crucial public relations battle over the conflict continues to be waged in America. And supporters of Israel appeared to win a significant victory on Monday, when the New York Times ran a 1,200-word article headlined, "Shock of Sept. 11 Is Making Americans More Supportive of Israel, Polls Suggest." But the Times' conclusion was not supported by the polls it cited. In fact, if anything, those polls, and other surveys, suggest that Americans have become less supportive of Israel since Sept. 11.

American support for Israel is vital to the Jewish state, and that support is, of course, influenced by domestic political considerations -- including the views of the American public. Which is why Israeli government officials, as well as American lobbyists, activists and media spinners, work hard behind the scenes to make sure that support remains unflagging. Sept. 11 was a critical event in this battle: Supporters of Israel argued that the al-Qaida attacks showed that America and Israel were fighting the same fight against terrorism, while supporters of the Palestinians argued that the Sept. 11 attack by fundamentalist zealots enraged at America was fundamentally different from attacks by people living under occupation.


Writing last week in New York magazine, Michael Wolff detailed Israel's public relations strategy, as explained to him by Ido Aharoni, the Israeli consul for media and public affairs in New York. "Aharoni carefully drew me a pyramid diagram: There were 1,500 'decision-makers' at the top of the pyramid, politicians and government officials, who have to be influenced; then 15,000 opinion-leaders below them -- celebrities, shock-jocks, pundits, CEOs -- whom it's important to influence; then the remaining 284 million Americans."

Polls have consistently shown that Americans regard Israel as justified in battling terrorists, and express little or no enthusiasm for Palestinians compared to Israelis. But surveys since Israel's incursion into the West Bank have revealed some cracks in that support, making any noticeable poll fluctuations noteworthy.

The Times article asserted that there has been a palpable increase in American compassion for Israel: "American sympathy for Israel has been on the rise," read the story's first sentence. But the poll numbers referenced in the seemingly cobbled-together piece (many of whose conclusions were supported not by polling data but by opinions solicited from experts, not all of them neutral) simply don't sustain that conclusion.


The Times reported "a CBS News poll and Gallup polls in April showed sympathy for Israel at around 50 percent, about 10 points higher than in previous surveys over the past five years." That's inaccurate, at least as far as concerns the Gallup poll. The April Gallup findings posted on show that over the last five years, the average level of sympathy for Israel (as defined by the question "Are your sympathies more with the Israelis, or more with the Palestinians?") has stood at 45 percent. As of late April it was 48 percent (down from 55 percent in February 2002). Since the poll's margin of error is 4 percent, statistically there has been no change over the last five years. A single 1997 poll did find support down at 38 percent, but it was the exception to the five-year rule. In 2001, for example, 49.5 percent of those polled said they were more sympathetic to the Israelis than to the Palestinians. (Only 2002 findings for the CBS News poll are available at the Web site.)

What about the change in American attitudes between last September and this spring? The Gallup poll cited by the Times, conducted between April 22-24, shows American sympathy for Israel has actually decreased since last fall. According to the poll, 55 percent of those asked last September said their sympathies in the Middle East were "more with Israelis" than with Palestinians. But last month, the same Gallup question found the number who side with the Israelis had slipped to 48 percent, undercutting the assertion that "American sympathy for Israel has been on the rise." Also, the Gallup poll showed sympathy for Palestinians remained statistically unchanged (both since last fall, and over the last five years), and has not "dropped measurably" as the Times suggested in its article.

Similar findings came out of an April poll conducted by the Washington Post. It found American sympathy for Israel has dipped slightly since last fall, from 52 percent on Oct. 9, to 49 percent on April 21. (Sympathy actually fell down to 41 percent on an April 7 edition of the poll, before rebounding to 49 percent two weeks later.) The three-point drop from 52 percent to 49 percent falls within the poll's margin of error, but again belies the Times' notion of a trend toward greater sympathy toward Israel.


As for official U.S. support for Israel, the Post poll found that between last fall and this spring more Americans think U.S. support should decrease; 13 percent wanted to a see a decrease last October, compared to 21 percent last month. (In both polls, a majority thought the support should be kept the same.)

And a CNN/USA Today poll from early April found that since last fall the number of Americans who think the U.S. should take Israel's side went down, from 27 percent last September to 22 percent last month. (In both cases a vast majority supported taking neither side.)


Trying to explain its assertion that Americans favor closer ties between America and Israel, the Times suggested "Palestinian suicide bombings and other attacks on civilian Israeli targets appear to have influenced many Americans to see parallels with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States." The newspaper referenced an April CBS poll of 1,119 adults nationwide that reported 59 percent of Americans agreed that Israel's military actions in the West Bank were "no different from the U.S. taking military action against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda." Thirty-two percent disagreed.

But that poll only offered respondents the option of agreeing or disagreeing with that statement. (They could also opt for "don't know.") In a different poll, when given more choices in answering that question, just 17 percent saw a parallel between America's war on terrorism and Israel's battle with Palestinians. Instead, most of those polled (46 percent) see the Middle East battle as "a conflict between two national groups fighting over the same piece of land."

That finding is found in a survey released last week by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, a nonpartisan research organization associated with the University of Maryland. The PIPA survey drew upon existing polling data -- including some of the same surveys referred to by the Times -- as well as focus groups and a poll of 801 adults nationwide. In their overview, the authors state, "A majority of Americans say they blame both sides equally for the failure to reach peace and express equal levels of frustration for each side. Half express equal levels of sympathy ... Only a small minority view Israel's conflict with the Palestinians as similar to America's war on terrorism."


Another piece of polling data that undercut the Times' conclusions was found in a CNN/Time poll taken in early April. Asked if Israel had gone too far in its military operations against Palestinians, 46 percent said yes, while 44 percent said no. Considering that an overwhelming majority of Americans regard American military operations in Afghanistan as totally justified, this hardly supports the conclusion that Americans see the two wars on terrorism as equal.

Times readers confused by the piece had to turn to the paper's Op-Ed page to get a perspective that made sense of the poll numbers on the Middle East. As if to contradict the news story the day before, Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, noted "public opinion about the two sides has not been transformed by the events of the past eight months." Kohut pointed out that the American public, while clearly more sympathetic to the Israelis than the Palestinians, sees the conflict as complex and nuanced, and that "most want the United States to be a neutral broker."

Kohut's analysis was dispassionate and accurate; the Times' news piece arrived at unwarranted conclusions. But Kohut's piece ran back on the Times' opinion pages, while the news piece appeared on page A8.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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