President Clinton is on a collision course with a majority of American Jews. That's what comes out of an opinion poll, commissioned by the Middle East Quarterly and carried out on January 5-7 by John McLaughlin & Associates. About two-thirds of 600 registered American Jewish voters we interviewed take issue with the president's tough new confrontational approach to Israel. More, the poll suggests that this is an extremely high-risk policy for the president that could do him serious political damage.
For years described as the most pro-Israel president ever, Mr. Clinton in recent months has adopted a far more negative approach to the Jewish state. He routinely holds the Israelis responsible for the lack of progress in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. He snubbed its prime minister and cut Israel's aid package. He even partially blamed Israel for the unwillingness of Middle Eastern states to support him against Saddam Hussein.
Why these steps, why now? In good part, the president seems to be influenced by a poll taken in late 1997, commissioned by the Israel Policy Forum, that claimed 91 percent of American Jews accept U.S. government pressure on Israel if that's what's needed to forward the peace process. This man-bites-dog story made headlines internationally; The Los Angeles Times, for example, concluded from it that "President Clinton would get overwhelming support from the U.S. Jewish community" if he pressured Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Reports from Washington suggest that the poll has emboldened Clinton and his advisors to do what they long wanted to do -- squeeze Netanyahu.
Trouble is, the IPF poll asked complicated and confusing questions that produced slanted responses. "Garbage in, garbage out," applies to survey research as well as computers; a fallacious question gets a flawed response. Word for word, here is what IPF asked of American Jews in a key question. Do they agree or disagree with the following?
It is in Israel's interest to have the United States continue as a credible and effective facilitator of the peace process, even if this means there will sometimes be disagreements not only between the US and Arab parties but also between the US and Israel?
This question distorts in two ways. First, it is completely abstract, without any reference to the downside. Pollsters long ago learned they could find widespread agreement by asking "Do you favor eliminating all taxes?" rather than "Do you favor eliminating all taxes even if this means no public schools or roads, no police protection or military security?"
Secondly, the question asserts that "It is in Israel's interest" to be pressured -- thereby insinuating this debatable premise into respondents' minds. In other words, the question assumes what must be proven -- that American politicians can better conduct Israeli policy than the Israel electorate.
To test the validity of the IPF's results, the Middle East Quarterly poll probed precisely these two points. On the first, we repeated the gist of IPF's question while making it less abstract:
Should Bill Clinton pressure Benjamin Netanyahu to move faster on trading land for peace than Benjamin Netanyahu may otherwise be prepared to do?
This direct and straight-forward question evinced a resounding response: 24 percent of the respondents said yes, do pressure Netanyahu; 65 percent said no, don't pressure him (with an accuracy of 4 percent at the 95 percent confidence level). This nearly 3-to-1 vote against U.S. pressure on Israel unambiguously points to the belief among American Jews that Israelis be allowed to reach their own conclusions about relations with the Palestinians, and not follow orders from abroad.
As an aside, our questions uncovered a similar duality on the question of a Palestinian state. Asked if they endorse the statement that "the Palestinians should have their own country," American Jews agreed wholeheartedly, 65 to 29 percent. This would appear to be a major policy statement -- until further questioning reveals that, by even larger margins, the respondents oppose much of what a Palestinian state implies. If Israel's signing a peace treaty with the Palestinians means that Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state, American Jews hugely disfavor such a treaty (by 70 to 17 percent). They also oppose it should terrorism continue after the signing (68 to 25 percent), or if an accord requires Israel to give up the West Bank (64 to 25 percent), the Golan Heights (71 to 20 percent), or some part of Jerusalem (74 to 19 percent).
On the second point -- whether American Jews accept IPF's assumption that Washington knows best -- we asked our respondents: "On questions about Israel, who you most agree with, Bill Clinton or Benjamin Netanyahu?" The reply favored Netanyahu over Clinton, 39 to 31 percent. So much for the notion that American Jews welcome U.S. pressure on Israel.
Unpacking this ratio casts even more doubt on the idea that American Jews side with Clinton against Netanyahu. Those who are most committed Jewishly, it turns out, are also the most skeptical of the president. About one third of Reform Jews and those who say they attend religious services just "some of the time" side with each of Clinton and Netanyahu. But Orthodox Jews trust Netanyahu far more than Clinton (55 to 20 percent), as do those who say they attend religious services "all the time" (53 to 25 percent). Even Conservative Jews trust Netanyahu significantly more than Clinton (43 to 29 percent).
This is important: in going head-to-head with Israel's prime minister, Mr. Clinton risks alienating the majority of Jews who are either Orthodox or Conservative. In fact, he risks enraging them. Far from endorsing a U.S.-Israel confrontation, two thirds of American Jews consistently agree on the need for a cooperative relationship. They support the prime minister of Israel and are not eager to see the president tell him what to do.
The president and his aides, no slouches when it comes to reading the political tea leaves, would do well to drop the idea they can squeeze Israel at no cost to themselves, and they should do so fast.
Daniel Pipes is editor of the Middle East Quarterly and author of the just published Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes, and Where It Comes From (Free Press).