James Zogby’s Column
There is almost no good news in the most recent Zogby International poll on the U.S. public’s attitudes toward some Middle East countries and the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict.
The poll surveyed the views of 1004 Americans during the period of October 17 through October 21, 2001. The poll has a margin of error of +3.2%.
The results show that there has been a precipitous decline in the support that Americans give to two key U.S. Arab allies: Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In fact, the ratio of favorable to unfavorable views for both countries is the worst ever recorded in ZI polls.
When asked their attitude toward Egypt, for example, only 38% of Americans indicate a favorable view, while 34% held a negative view. Even more troubling are Americans’ attitudes toward Saudi Arabia. In the December 2001 poll, Saudi Arabia was seen favorably by only 24% of Americans, while a shocking 58% indicated that they had a negative view of the Kingdom.
In the same poll, Israel had a favorable rating of 59% and an unfavorable rating of 28%. The Palestinian Authority was seen favorably by only 10% of the U.S. public, and negatively by 72%.
To understand the dramatic shift that this represents, it is important to compare the current poll with earlier Zogby International polling on this subject. Chart I, below, details the changes in U.S. public opinion toward these four countries since 1993.
Chart I Favorable-Unfavorable attitudes toward countries
Country 1993 1996 1998 1999 Jan 01 Oct 01 Dec 01
Israel 61-20 62-14 55-22 58-18 — 68-14 59-28
Egypt 64-13 51-14 47-21 45-13 62-16 60-15 38-34
Saudi Arabia 36-41 40-34 39-36 44-33 56-28 49-33 24-58
Palestinian Auth. — — — — — 16-64 10-72
What Chart I shows is that all of the countries being surveyed now have higher negatives than at any time in the past nine years. Israel’s negatives, for example, have doubled since October 2001. And the Palestinian Authority’s positive numbers have dropped while their negatives have risen in the same two-month period.
The change for Egypt and Saudi Arabia has been even more dramatic. The Kingdom has completely reversed its rating in the past year. While in January 2001, Saudi Arabia recorded an all-time high favorability rating of 56% and an all-time low of 28%, its rating is now 24% favorable to 58% negative. Egypt, which always had the highest ratings of any Arab country and a negative rating which was oftentimes lower than that of Israel now records an almost equal negative and positive rating.
While we did not ask open questions in this poll, which would allow respondents to tell us why they held the attitudes that they expressed toward both countries, we did learn something of those attitudes from another question in the poll.
When we asked whether or not Americans felt that these countries were good or bad allies of the United States, we received the following results, recorded in Chart II.
Chart II Good or Bad ally
Israel Egypt Saudi Arabia
-very good ally 23 5 3
-generally a good ally 29 23 19
-pretty good, but a problem 29 32 36
-not a good ally 11 21 31
It may be recalled that in the October 2001 poll when we asked respondents to give us a reason why they held negative views about Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the reasons given were directly related to the propaganda campaign that was being actively waged against both countries. Among the top responses given were: “their relation to the terrorists”; “don’t know where they stand”; “don’t trust them”; and “their government”.
Since the October poll numbers already demonstrated the beginning of a decline in U.S. attitudes toward both countries, it may be assumed that the largely unanswered anti-Arab propaganda campaign waged effectively since September 11 has continued to eat away at U.S. attitudes. This may account for the deeper decline in evidence in the December 2001 poll.
In another area of investigation, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the December 2001 Zogby International poll shows the U.S. public to be less affected by the events of September 11. When we asked “who is to blame for the current problems in the conflict: Israel, the Palestinians or both equally”, we find that 61% still say that both parties are equally to blame. This despite the fact the percentage of those who blame the Palestinians has risen to 24%, while those blaming the Israelis are only 4%.
A comparison with earlier years shows how responses to this question have changed, shown in Chart III.
Chart III Who is to blame?
1997 1998 2001
Israel 6 6 4
Palestinian Authority 13 9 24
Both 55 62 61
It appears that the vast majority of Americans still prefer that the U.S. Administration pursue a balanced approach to resolving the conflict.
When we ask respondents to describe how the Administration pursues Middle East peace, thirty-nine percent say that the Administration favors Israel, two percent say that the Administration favors Palestinians, while 45% say that the Administration steers a middle course and is balanced.
But when we ask how they feel that the Administration should approach Middle East peace, only 17% say that U.S. policy should favor Israel, two percent say it should favor Palestinians, while a significant 72% say that U.S. policy should be balanced and steer a middle course. Again, comparing these responses with earlier polls reveals an interesting trend.
Chart IV How does the Administration pursue Middle East peace?
1997 1998 2001
-lean toward Israel 24 25 39
-lean toward Pales. Auth. 3 4 2
-steer a middle course 38 40 45
Chart V How should the Administration pursue Middle East peace?
1997 1998 2001
-lean toward Israel 15 12 17
-lean toward Pales. Auth. 3 2 2
-steer a middle course 56 64 72
In other words, the Bush Administration is perceived by Americans to be more pro-Israel than the previous Clinton Administration-with 39% seeing Bush as pro-Israel, as opposed to only 25% who saw Clinton as favoring Israel. But only 17% want the Bush Administration to be pro-Israel, while 72% (the largest percentage yet in 5 years of asking this question) would prefer that the Administration “steer a middle course” in the pursuit of peace.
What these results show is that a tremendous task confronts those who value the U.S.-Arab relationship and the pursuit of Middle East peace. The campaign against Saudi Arabia and Egypt has take a dramatic toll on the attitudes of the U.S. public. The downward slide can be arrested and reversed, but it will require a concerted effort. It is not the U.S. public that is at fault. They have, for months now, been fed a steady diet of anti-Arab information. Those who are seeking to disrupt and discredit the relationship are working overtime. And the efforts of September 11 have come to be felt and interpreted through the screen of misinformation provided by those who have sought to hurt U.S. ties with Arab countries.
Work must be done and it should begin before more damage occurs.
Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.