The Israel Project hired pollster Stanley Greenberg to test American opinion on the Middle East conflict — and got a big surprise. In September 2008, 69% of Americans called themselves pro-Israel. Now, it’s only 49%. In September, the same 69% wanted the U.S. to side with Israel; now, only 44%.
How to explain this dramatic shift? Greenberg himself suggested the answer years ago when he pointed out that, in politics, “a narrative is the key to everything.” Last year the old narrative about the Middle East conflict was still dominant: Israel is an innocent victim, doing only what it must do to defend itself against the Palestinians. Today, that narrative is beginning to lose its grip on Americans.
Well, to be more precise, the first part of the old narrative is eroding. Nearly half the American public seems unsure that Israel is still the good guy in the Middle East showdown. But the popular image of the Palestinians as the violent bad guy is apparently as potent as ever. The number of Americans who say they support Palestine remains unchanged from last September, a mere 7%. And only 5% want the U.S. government to take such a position.
Those numbers reflect the narrative that President Obama recited in Cairo on June 4th. He chided the Israelis for a few things they are doing wrong — like expanding settlements and blockading Gaza. To the other side, though, his message was far blunter: “Palestinians must abandon violence.” Of Israeli violence he said not a word.
The president’s speech implicitly sanctioned the most up-to-date tale that dominates the American mass media and public opinion today: The Israelis ought to be reined in a bit, but it’s hard to criticize them too much because, hey, what would you do if you had suicide bombers and rockets coming at you all the time?
That view is a political winner here. In the latest Pew poll, 62% of Americans say Obama is striking the right balance between Israel and Palestine; of those who disagree, three-quarters want to see him tougher on the Palestinians, not the Israelis. A Rasmussen poll finds even stronger support for a pro-Israel tilt.
There are, however, two things wrong with his narrative. First, though it’s somewhat less one-sided than the story that prevailed during the George W. Bush years, it is far from impartial, which means the U.S. still cannot act as an even-handed broker for peace in the region. Since no one else is available to play that role, it’s hard to see how, under the present circumstances, any version of a peace process can move forward.
The second problem is that the popular narrative just doesn’t happen to match the facts. In reality, unjustified violence is initiated on both sides — and if anyone insists on keeping score, Israel’s violence, official and unofficial, outweighs the violence coming from the Palestinians.
Coming to Grips with Jewish Settler Violence
Israeli violence is often overlooked here because so much of it is done by official order of the state. Americans are quick to side with the man who wears the badge. Even when he lets loose the kind of violence that recently devastated parts of the Gaza Strip, the reigning assumption is that his gun is a force for law and order.
But what about the kind of violence Palestinians are so often accused of, the unauthorized civilian-on-civilian kind — what the experts term “non-state-actor violence” and the rest of us simply call “terrorism”? Though you may not know this, much of it these days is done by Israeli Jews.
“Palestinian civilians bear brunt of settler violence,” Agence France-Presse recently reported: “Nestled amid rolling hills and with an eagle eye’s view to the Mediterranean coast, Nahla Ahmed’s house has all the elements of Eden… if it weren’t for the Molotov cocktail-throwing neighbours. ‘We put bars on the windows after the first attack, three years ago,’ says the 36-year-old mother of four. ‘Now they come each week.'”
The attacks aren’t always with Molotov cocktails; sometimes Jewish settlers throw tear gas canisters, simply spray a Star of David on a wall, or cut down trees owned by Palestinians. In other incidents, settlers have shot and killed a 16-year-old boy, fractured the skull of a 7-year-old girl with a rock, set a dog on a 12-year-old boy, and shot dead an Arab man but let his companion go when he identified himself as Jewish. These are not egregious, isolated cases of mayhem; they’re just a few random examples of what’s happening all too often on the West Bank. To see how depressingly common such violence is, just Google “West Bank settler violence” for yourself.
It’s easy enough to see what the violence looks like too, since a lot of it has been captured on video. And this is just violence against people. The violence against property is far too common to begin to catalog.
Last December, Jewish settlers in Hebron went on a rampage, shooting at Palestinians, setting fire to homes, cars, and olive groves, defacing mosques and graves. Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister at the time, said he was “ashamed” of this “pogrom.”
Yet few such settler crimes are seriously prosecuted by the Israeli authorities. The Israeli rights group Yesh Din has documented this in an extensive report, which, the group carefully notes, is merely one more in a long line of similar reports:
“Since the 1980’s many reports have been published on law enforcement upon Israelis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. All of the reports… warned against the failure of the authorities to enforce the law effectively upon Israelis… who committed offenses against Palestinian civilians… Yet the problem of attacks against Palestinian people and property by Israelis has only grown worse, becoming a daily occurrence.”
Assessing Hamas Violence
Jewish settlers who commit violence claim just what the Israeli government claims when it directs state-sponsored violence at Palestinian areas: Self-defense — it was nothing but self-defense. And it’s certainly true that there are incidents of individual Palestinians venting their frustration violently. After all, they’ve been living under an arbitrary, demeaning, and sometimes brutal occupation for 42 years.
According to the common Israeli and American narratives, however, the real culprit and chief roadblock to peace is the constant violence — suicide bombings and rocket attacks — planned and carried out by a well-organized political party, Hamas. Again, as it happens, this popular version of events is simply not borne out by the facts.
Consider suicide bombings. In 2003 Israel’s premier newspaper, Ha’aretz, reported that Hamas had decided “to stop terror against Israeli civilians if Israel stops killing Palestinian civilians.” Though it’s not clear that Israel did stop its own killings, Hamas soon halted its devastating suicide attacks. There were two in 2004 and not a single one in the nearly five years since then, according to the Jewish Virtual Library run by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (a source hardly sympathetic to Hamas).
The same source counts no “major attacks” on Israeli civilians by any Palestinians since 2006. Though there have been other attacks since then, their frequency has dropped dramatically, and none have been carried out by Hamas itself.
Israelis generally know what most Americans still don’t: Suicide bombing, supposedly the trademark of “Palestinian terrorism,” has virtually ceased. As a result, Israel’s chief complaint has switched to Hamas rocket attacks. How can we let them have the West Bank, the argument goes? Look what happened when we pulled all our settlements out of Gaza and got nothing in return but thousands of rockets. That’s why we had no choice but launch our full-scale assault on Gaza in December 2008: to put an end to them.
In fact, though, Hamas rocket attacks had ended in July 2008, when Israel agreed to the ceasefire Hamas had been asking for. That agreement held for four months until Israeli troops killed six Hamas operatives — shortly before Hamas and Fatah were scheduled to create a unified government. It’s a familiar Israeli tactic: block Palestinian unity and then complain of “no partner for peace.”
Hamas was also moved by the plight of its people in Gaza, growing increasingly short of food, medical supplies, and other basic goods due to an ever-tightening Israeli blockade.
Yet all this is lost in the story that most Israelis tell, and most Americans believe, about why Hamas began shooting rockets (which, compared to the massive Israeli onslaught in response, did relatively little damage). Equally lost is Hamas’s return to its moratorium on firing rockets after the recent Gaza war, formally confirmed by the party’s leader, Khaled Meshal, in the New York Times.
Occasional rockets do fly out of Gaza, provoking the usual Israeli demand that Palestinian authorities must prevent every single incident of violence before there can be any talk of peace. That’s something like holding the U.S. government responsible for the recent shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington or the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
A Mirror Image?
Still, the Palestinian governments in both Gaza and the West Bank could do more to control the private violence of their people, just as the Israeli government could do more to control Jewish settler violence. Yet none of these governments act vigorously because they risk alienating a small but significant portion of their political support.
As the Times’s Ethan Bronner recently wrote: “There are striking parallels between the hard-core opponents of a peace deal on each side. They are generally driven by a belief in a law higher than any created by human legislatures; they are exceptionally motivated; and they are very well organized… Many Israeli governments have fallen over the issue.”
For the risk of offending hard-core groups, neither side sees obvious countervailing political gain. While a minority on both sides condemns the violence of its compatriots, the majority seems to accept it as an excessive, unfortunate, but understandable response to provocations initiated by the enemy. So neither Hamas, nor Fatah, nor the Israeli government see any clear advantage in bending over backwards to stop attacks by non-state groups.
What’s more, as Uri Avnery, the grand old man of the Israeli peace movement, explains: “On both sides, the overwhelming majority want an end to the conflict but do not believe that peace is possible — and each side blames the other.” Each side blames the other because so many on each side believe that those who perpetrate the violence represent the entirety of the other side. We could have peace, the universal complaint goes, if only “the Palestinians” or “the Israelis” would stop their violence.
The tragedy is that, on both sides, those who inflict violence gain little of practical value from it. Indeed the motives that keep the conflict boiling may have little to do with any hope of practical gain from it. When researchers asked nearly 4,000 Israelis and Palestinians what it would take to make peace, few focused on tangible benefits like gaining more land or resources. Most on both sides wanted see “their enemies making symbolic but difficult gestures.” They agreed that they would be willing to make concessions, but only if “the other side agreed to a symbolic sacrifice of one of its sacred values.” The violence done by non-state actors is perversely satisfying, even if ultimately useless, because it’s the most visible way to win little symbolic victories.
A New Narrative
Palestinians can argue, with good reason, that treating the two sides as mirror images creates a false equivalence. After all, one side is the occupier, constantly inflicting symbolic defeats through the use of state-sponsored violence that dwarfs the violence of its private citizens, or sometimes even more powerfully just by using its ability to re-organize the landscape. The other side is the occupied, a people with virtually no tools of state violence to wield even if they want to, struggling every day just to survive. In the U.S. and around the world there is growing pressure to reverse the traditional narrative of these last decades and turn the Israelis into the bad guys.
Given the tiny fraction of Americans who identify as pro-Palestinian, it’s fruitless to think that a majority of us would ever adopt such a reversed narrative — nor would it be very helpful, regardless of the facts. If the Obama administration really intends to be an even-handed broker, forcing the two sides to move towards genuine compromise at the negotiating table, it needs to represent a nation that tells an even-handed story.
Old narratives don’t die out simply because they fail to fit the facts. They die out when a more appealing story comes along. The eroding support for Israeli policies in this country signals a growing appetite for a new, more even-handed narrative, one that says this:
The crucial conflict is not between Israel and Palestine. It’s between peace and violence. Violence comes from both sides. But there’s also the possibility of fostering a strong push for peace on both sides. Here in the U.S., we should urge our government to stop taking sides in the blame game, condemn all the violence — including, for the first time, Israeli violence — and support all forces of peace that exist or arise.
It is hard for many of my fellow Jews to accept the painful truth that we are as capable of violence as the Palestinians, or anyone else. But this new narrative is gaining ground rapidly in the American Jewish community, where groups like J Street and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom are making well-organized efforts to promote it and act upon it.
As non-Jewish Americans become aware of that change, they are likely to feel freer to adopt the even-handed narrative as their own, too. When enough of them do, the political winds in this country will change. Then the White House will feel safe enough to tell Israel, as well as Palestine, to stop both state and non-state violence. That’s a necessary first step for an even-handed broker who hopes to open a path to peace.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.