Thursday, October 1, 2009

The AJC Survey and Strategic Peacemaking

In a poll just released by the American Jewish Committee, 75% of American Jews polled agreed with the statement "The goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel...Only 19 percent disagreed with the above statement." The poll was conducted with 800 respondents and a + or - 3% margin of error, and you can find it here.

On one level, the question itself invites oversimplification. Evidently, "the Arabs" are easily classifiable as one opinion unit. But ought we assume that Egypt and Lebanon have identical policy goals? On a deeper level, should we even assume radical and moderate members of Hamas have the same policy goals? Or a Bedouin sheikh and the son of an Emirati diplomat? And why should either return of territory or Israel's destruction be the only considerable options? Perhaps the goal of the Arabs is to use the Palestinians as a rallying point to maintain regime stability. Or, perhaps the goal is to create a Palestinian identity through the creation of a state. By treating Arabs as if they all have the same thought process, and either concession or destruction as the only options, one can hardly blame 75% of respondents for picking the latter option. In survey research people will answer the question they are given.

Yet the trends indicated by the poll reveal that generally American Jews severely mistrust Arabs (a full 94 percent said "Palestinians should be required to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in a final peace agreement). And it represents the successful framing of the Arab world by various sectors of the Jewish and pro-Israel community as entirely intolerant to the existence of Israel, when the truth is that most entities pragmatically see that Israel is here to stay for the long term. Even Khalid Meshaal, political leader of Hamas, said that the group would accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. The fact that a political leader of Hamas is even willing to make this statement is a strong indication of the effect of Israel's military and political vitality on the Arab world. Arabs may not like Israel, but since the 1973 Yom Kippur war, most recognize that it is here to stay, despite what their outdated charters may say.

Yet rather than take advantage of this statement and call Hamas' bluff, Israel, with the support of the American Jewish community, continues to hold the line that Arabs simply do not accept Israel's right to exist. To be sure, many fringe elements in the Middle East hold this position. But when ideological stubbornness costs Israel a strategic opportunity to improve security and human lives, it deserves scrutiny.

Neither the Israeli government, nor the Israel "lobby," nor the American Jews can be blamed solely for a collective inability to grasp the various complexities of the Middle East as they truly are. But each bears the responsibility to move forward from this regrettable condition. For 3000 years, Judaism has been based on nuance and subtlety. It should be these basic values which guide Jews and Israelis forward in the 21st century.

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