Why do a majority of Americans believe that more Israelis than Palestinians have been killed in the recent conflict? Why do about eight in ten Americans find Israel’s condemnation of suicide bombings convincing? What can be done to redress misperceptions? And why does American public opinion matter anyway?
If we are to believe what a new survey of over 800 Americans conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (see www.pipa.org) tells us, part of the answer has a lot to do with suicide bombings.
Neither Ariel Sharon nor Shimon Peres would deny that for the past century the Jewish people have used a carefully calibrated strategy that has enabled them to ethnically cleanse what became Israel in 1948 of about 80% of the indigenous Palestinian population and successfully establish the Jewish state of Israel on their land.
This strategy has combined the use of two tactics: First, the development and use of an increasingly powerful military machine, and second, the development of a potent and sophisticated public relations and lobbying machine. Today’s Israeli army began as a cluster of clandestine Jewish guerilla groups that eventually introduced terrorist bombings to the Holy Land and frightened the Palestinian population so much that they fled in fear. And early on, Israel’s public relations and lobbying advocates crafted and delivered slogans like “A land without a people for a people without a land” to help build their influence in Europe and Washington. Such influence helped bring about crucial legitimizing public policy victories like the 1917 British Balfour declaration favoring the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. More important than the use of either of these two tactics separately, was the Jewish leadership’s ability to weave together a strategic approach to use these tactics in coordination with one another to create and sustain Israel.
Although never perfectly calibrated and often at odds, the strategy held together and was ultimately successful in creating the Jewish state of Israel because it was realistic, and because it was coordinated. Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress, and the South Africa people dedicated themselves to a decades-long campaign of forceful resistance and the slogans like “Sanctions Until Democracy” to win. To establish the Arab state of Palestine, the Palestinian people can and should strive to emulate this long-term strategic approach and incorporates both an intelligent public relations and lobbying effort and forceful resistance to occupation.
I am neither Israeli nor Palestinian. But I am an Arab American who has personal pain associated with the conflict; my grandfather was living in Palestine and lost his life during Israel’s war of independence. I do not live in the West Bank, Gaza or in a squalid Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon or Jordan. While I cannot feel their same fear and grief over the past 20 months of conflict that has killed almost 500 Israelis and 1400 Palestinians, along with the brutal destruction of Palestinian civil institutions, I can try to be objective and rational. Still, the difficult choices can only be made by the Palestinians themselves. I can only advise.
Here is my advice to the Palestinian leadership. One. Strategically calibrate the use of forceful resistance to occupation with a genuine public relations effort in the USA. Like it or lump it, Washington is the judge-and the American people the jury-that will grant Palestine the legitimacy it needs to become a viable independent state in the way that Balfour’s London was the jury for those who sought to establish the Jewish state of Israel.
Two. End suicide bombings against civilians now. Now. And I say this as someone who has been humiliated at Israeli checkpoints, someone who has been shot at by Israeli soldiers, someone who has been tear gassed. But nothing, nothing, has done more to hurt the Palestinian cause in the American jury than this tactic of revenge killings. This is not about the right to resist occupation. Israeli’s occupation is illegal and immoral, and I believe thirty-five years of war crimes have been perpetuated against the Palestinian people. Justice must be served. But attacks against Israeli civilians must end. Why? Leaving completely aside my own view that the murder of civilians is wrong, be it in Jenin, Tel Aviv, New York or Kabul, consider this: The survey shows that only one in three Americans is aware that more Palestinians have been killed in the recent conflict than Israelis. The rest of America got it grossly wrong. Why? Because Israel controls media access in Palestine and has far greater influence in US media circles. While the images of suicide bombings are thrust onto TVs for the American jury, Israel kept the media and even the Red Cross out of Jenin for days. Pictures speak louder than words. Suicide bombings produce images which are replayed time and again on TV and equate Palestinians with terrorism in the minds of the viewer. This does not advance the cause of Palestinian statehood.
Furthermore, the survey shows that today 56% of Americans favor increased pressure on Israel to make compromises, but that if Palestinians stop suicide bombings and use non-violent protest an overwhelming 84% of Americans would urge that the US apply more pressure on Israel. While today the poll shows that over 60% of Americans would support withholding aid to Israel or withholding spare parts to Israel, those figures would also almost certainly rise should Palestinians embrace non-violent protest.
Let’s be realistic. Palestinians just can’t achieve the necessary combined victories in public relations and on-the-ground-resistance to establish Palestine through suicide bombings. It just won’t happen. Suicide bombings negate the noble and inspiring resistance to occupation that takes place every minute of every day. Mothers with their children proudly walking through check points defying Israeli soldiers who illegally occupy their land. Young ambulance drivers who defy Israeli curfews to get care to the wounded. Why rob the millions of Palestinians that confront the Israeli occupiers every day of their moral high ground? Why turn the American and international juries of public opinion against Palestine?
Do not give in to the primal desire to inflict pain on those who have tortured you in prison, those who have destroyed your homes, those who have humiliated you at check points. Instead, focus on creating Palestine. Focus on freedom.
Like it or not, American public opinion counts. And so does Israeli public opinion. Suicide bombings against civilians in Tel Aviv make Israelis think you will fight until you push them into the sea. And it turns the American jury against you. The likes of Ahmad Yasin should accept what Yasir Araft fully accepted decades ago: the Jewish people are not going to leave the Holy Land. Only when Israel’s Jews feel comfortable that Palestinians accept them, will they accept full Palestinian independence. Only when Americans can relate to the Palestinian struggle against oppression as they feel towards that Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi, will the state of Palestine have a chance. But even then, the establishment of Palestine will require more than an end to suicide bombings. It will require a carefully calibrated campaign of forceful resistance and public relations. Nelson Mandela and the South African people did it. So too can Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian people.
Hady Amr was formerly the National Director of Ethnic American Outreach for Al Gore’s presidential campaign and served in former President Bill Clinton’s Department of Defense at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. Amr is currently an independent consultant who divides his time between Arlington, Virginia and the Arab world. He writes for The Daily Star (Lebanon) and permitted Media Monitors Network (MMN) to publish this commentary.