Sympathy for the Palestinians

As the Palestinian-Israeli conflict heads toward serious escalation, the United States is facing reduced cooperation from some of its Arab friends, even in the military arena, thus raising questions about the potential consequences of escalation for U.S. interests in the region. American diplomats report that even Kuwaitis, who are understandably obsessed with the Iraqi threat, want to discuss nothing but the Palestinian-Israeli situation these days. The mere story that Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, to protest U.S. policy, refused to visit the White House has made him an instant hit in the Middle Eastern media.

Does this mood represent an unjustified concern by Arab leaders who are out of touch with the public? To get a rare view of Arab public opinion, I commissioned a survey (through Zogby International) in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon. The results indicate that Arab leaders may even be underestimating public opinion on this issue.

In each of four countries surveyed, about 60 percent of the public reported that the Palestinian issue “is the single most important issue” to them personally, and more than 20 percent more ranked it “among the top three most important issues.” Remarkably, this is true even of public opinion in Kuwait, which has had a troubled relationship with the Palestinians since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. In all, about 85 percent of people in the five states ranked the Palestinian issue among the top three issues.

The results from the fifth state, Egypt, were even more impressive: Seventy-nine percent of Egyptians said that the Palestinian issue is “the single most important issue” to them personally. This is the more surprising because Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel and had been accused by other Arabs of “selling out.”

What explains this amazing ranking of the Palestinian issue in such places as upper Egypt and the Arabian desert? It is not the new satellite media, such as Qatari al Jazeera TV, as has been so widely speculated. The results were robust even among those who don’t watch such media, including in Egypt, where satellite receivers are scarce. These media may be a factor in getting the public to the streets, but not so much in setting its preferences.

Two factors explain the importance of the Palestinian issue that cannot be ignored. First, the Palestinian issue remains an “identity” issue for most Arabs, regardless of what they think of Yasser Arafat or the Palestinian Authority. Most Arabs are shamed by their inability to help the Palestinians and feel personally insulted when the Palestinians seem slighted. The way the United States behaves toward the Palestinians is taken as a message to all Arabs.

Second, the Arab narrative about the failure of the Camp David negotiations and the eruption of violence is the mirror image of the Israeli narrative: Arabs blame Israel for what happened and continues to happen, in the same way that Israelis place the blame on Arafat. Whereas Israelis understandably focus on the innocent casualties of horrifying suicide bombings, Arabs focus on daily pictures of dead Arab civilians, helicopter gunships attacking Palestinian targets and demolitions of homes of ordinary people who look like their cousins.

Do these opinions mean that Arabs are ready to go to war over the Palestinian issue? Probably not. Instead, the survey reflects a serious psychological mood that no Arab government can ignore, and suggests that the Palestinian issue cannot be sidestepped. It helps explain why, one year after the collapse of the Camp David Summit between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the American-backed order in the Middle East of the past decade is under serious assault.

Although some of the pressure on this order emanates from a changed international environment, especially the increasing assertiveness of Russian foreign policy, it is mostly an outcome of the collapse of the peace process. No regional policy can be successful without restoring serious Palestinian-Israeli negotiations that revive public hope.