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Public Support for Israel

What does the public really think about aiding Israel?

In his last year in the White House, George W. Bush promised Israel $30 billion in military aid over the next ten years. Apparently, Barack Obama doesn’t think that’s quite enough. His new proposed budget ups the ante by $75 million for the next fiscal year. If Congress approves that increase – and when did Israel ever lose in the US Congress? – the average US taxpayer will contribute $21.59 in military aid to Israel in 2011, according to the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

The campaign has a nifty web site feature that will tell you roughly how much your own state, congressional district, county or even city will pay. My rather small, sleepy, middle-American city will give Israel about $1.8 million in military aid next year. I suspect my neighbors will be shocked when they learn about it (in the letter to the editor I’m sending off right away).

The web site translates whatever amount you and your neighbors are giving Israel into the equivalent in human services – things like primary medical care, early childhood education and job retraining. But I have a hunch that my neighbors and yours are in no rush to use that money for human services. I bet most of them would stuff the money back into their pockets, until the next impulse strikes to buy the latest gadget they’ve seen advertised on television (new iPhone anyone?).

If, that is, our neighbors really do not want to give the Israeli military their money. But we shouldn’t be too quick to assume anything. The average taxpayer will pay about the price of one cup of coffee per month for aid to Israel. And the average taxpayer might just be ready and willing to do that.

What does the public really think about aiding Israel? A long Google search turned up shockingly little polling data on the question. The most recent I could find was from 2006, when less than a third of the public thought we should cut military aid to Israel. Half of respondents to the survey thought aid should be maintained at its current level and 12 percent wanted it increased.

In the absence of more recent data, we have to rely on anecdotal impressions. When Bush announced his massive long-term commitment to the Israeli military, there was little public outcry. More recently, Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Kentucky) suggestion to cut military aid to Israel gained little traction. It’s easy to credit that relative public silence to the power of the right-wing Israel lobby, but that would be a dangerous oversimplification.

Consider a few more relevant statistics. In early February, Gallup asked a cross section of the American public two questions: “What is your overall opinion of … ” followed by a list of countries, and “How important do you think what happens in each of the following countries is to the United States today?” The results show an interesting correlation. Of the nine countries topping the list of “vitally important” to the US, eight get less than 50 percent favorable ratings and are generally seen as actual or potential sources of trouble to the US (which is, presumably, why people think they matter to us).

The only nation with a strong favorable rating that also ranks high on the importance list is Israel.

On the favorability scale, Israel gets a 68 percent rating, compared to the Palestine Authority’s 14 percent and Egypt’s 40 percent. Israel’s favorability has been roughly that high for the last six years and nearly that high over the last twelve. The dismal Palestinian rating is barely higher than it’s generally been over the last decade. (Egypt showed a sharp decline, but the poll was taken more than a week before Mubarak resigned, when Egypt was being billed in the US mass media as a potential source of instability.)

On the “importance to the US” scale, Israel places fourth, with 54 percent calling events there vital and another 32 percent seeing them as important but not vital. A mere 10 percent said what happens in Israel is not important to the US. The 54 percent number is virtually unchanged from the same poll four years ago.

That’s not surprising. Did you notice, as the uprising in Egypt unfolded, the steady flow of news items devoted to the reaction in Israel? How many items did you see about the reaction in, say, China or India or the rest of Africa – all of which are arguably a lot more important to the world’s future than the reaction in Israel. But Americans are conditioned by their media to assume that Israel is of vital world importance.

All these statistics add up to a pretty simple picture, which matches the picture painted by most of the US mass media over and over again: Israel is a likeable nation, its neighbors are a lot less likeable and what happens in Israel matters a great deal to Americans.

To me, that’s a recipe for a public inclined to spend that cup of coffee’s worth each month to help Israel – especially when you fill it out with the rest of the dominant media picture: since Israel is more admired than its neighbors, it is readily seen as an innocent “good guy” while its neighbors are seen as evildoers bent on destroying Israel. And if Israel disappears, we’re told, the Middle East will be overrun by anti-American forces. So Israel needs that military aid to defend both itself and US interests in the region.

The mass media rarely come out and say it so bluntly (except perhaps for Fox News). But that simplistic narrative has been assumed between the lines in most American reporting on Israel for decades. Across this country, there’s a widespread, deep-rooted, taken-for-granted story about Israel as a tiny nation that deserves military aid because it’s surrounded by huge enemies bent on destroying it.

“Ein breira,” the Israelis have said (in Hebrew) for years: we have no choice. We really hate doing this stuff. But when someone wants to destroy you, all the normal moral rules no longer apply. You do what you must to survive. And vast numbers of Americans assume the Israelis are telling it like it is.

In fact, of course, the popular narrative is totally out of touch with reality. But how many Americans know that? Not nearly enough to mobilize public opinion for cutting aid to Israel.

Here’s where the groups promoting that aid cut make their mistake. They know that the popular narrative is nonsense at best. For them, that goes without saying. So they don’t say it; they don’t attack the narrative head-on. Instead, they work hard to educate the public about all the human rights abuses and other morally outrageous things that Israel does with the weapons our tax money provides.

The public already knows what’s going on, though. They see it all on television. The problem is that they don’t define it as outrageous or abusive. What counts as a human rights abuse, or as moral outrage? It depends on the context.

Suppose you strike out at someone who is menacing you or your child. Isn’t that just self-defense? Even a lot of progressives would say so. And that’s how most Americans see Israel’s use of force and offenses against human rights. In fact, many admire the Israelis as rough, tough guys who do what they must in an amoral international jungle.

The way to change public opinion is not to pile up more and more facts, but to change the narrative through which those facts are interpreted. That means a full-scale campaign to discredit and debunk the story of Israel as an innocent, endangered victim, while promoting a more accurate story of Israel as the regional superpower, already fully secure against attack.

It’s a huge task to change a long-entrenched public narrative. But until that change comes, the military aid will keep on flowing, Israel will have little incentive to negotiate a just peace, and Palestinians will keep on suffering. In Israel and Palestine, it has long been assumed that the conflict is, at heart, a battle between conflicting narratives. It’s time to bring that conflict to American soil.