The Public Opinion War

There’s the diplomatic front, the PR war and the actual battlefield.

Now the Middle East conflict is also playing out in the American street. For months, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups have demonstrated with some regularity in New York and other cities nationwide.

The street activism reached a crescendo in the past two weeks.

On April 15, more than 100,000 pro-Israel supporters poured into Washington for a rally that was said to be the largest ever on behalf of the 54-year-old Jewish state.

Then on April 20, tens of thousands of "anti-war, anti-racism" protesters converged on the nation’s capital — the media said it was between 35,000 and 50,000 — in defense of the Palestinians, against the campaign in Afghanistan and against the assault reportedly in the works for Iraq. Another rally that day in San Francisco reportedly drew between 30,000 and 50,000, and several others took place across the country.

And on April 22, outside the annual conference of the influential pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, several hundred Palestinians, socialists and environmental activists chanted slogans such as "Long live the intifada" and demanded that the United States staunch the flow of military aid to Israel.

The real prize at stake: American public opinion, and ultimately, U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Even with much of the Third World, the United Nations and Western Europe solidly behind the Palestinians, it’s clear that the position of the United States is the only position that truly matters. Pro-Israel advocates say the United States is proving itself to be Israel’s "indispensable ally" now more than ever.

Which is worrying the other side.

The United States has become the main player on the international stage, Edward Said, a Columbia University professor and a member of the Palestine National Council, wrote recently in the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat.

"However, we have never realized the importance of methodical organization of political work on a popular level, in an effort to bring about a situation in which the ordinary American does not immediately think of ‘terrorism’ whenever he hears the word ‘Palestinian.’ This kind of work provides real protection for the gains achieved on the ground through our resistance to Israeli occupation."

While pro-Palestinian advocates like Said bemoan the inadequate level of pro-Palestinian organization here in the United States, Jewish observers note with admiration and worry the huge strides made toward leveling the playing field.

There was a time when the American Jewish activism reigned supreme.

Yet, as the Arab and Muslim American population has grown in this country, these groups have observed how certain pressure groups got their points across.

"Many in the Arab and Palestinian American community have been wise to learn from the history of activism in this country, whether for good causes or bad, if it was against Vietnam or South Africa’s apartheid, or for Zionism," said Mazin Qumsiyeh, a co-founder and spokesman for Al-Awda, the Palestinian Right to Return Coalition, which has been involved in organizing numerous pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

With that wisdom has come greater savviness in public advocacy, say some Jewish observers.

For example, pro-Palestinian demonstrators are trying to appeal to a wider swath of society by portraying the conflict as one that transcends politics and land, and is more about fighting racism and defending human rights.

The Palestinian cause is "not about two sides, not about two tribes, but clearly an issue between those who care about human rights vs. a small and getting-smaller group of people who think tribal," said Qumsiyeh, a geneticist at Yale University, characterizing Israel supporters in the latter group.

In many ways, pro-Palestinian activists now match the Jewish community move for move: a flurry of large newspaper ads published by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in April in The New York Times, Washington Post and International Herald Tribune seemed to be a page taken from the Jewish playbook.

Sometimes, they also succeed in putting the Jewish community on the defensive: Jewish students are now struggling to counter Arab and Muslim activists who recently launched on several university campuses a campaign to divest from Israel, similar to that taken during the 1980s against South Africa.

What prevents their message from penetrating a wider audience, pro-Palestinian activists routinely say, is "Zionist influence" over the media and lawmakers. Jewish leaders, not surprisingly, disagree.

"They are trying to emulate the example set by American Jews, whether in the streets or other means, but there’s a fundamental misunderstanding on their part," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which was a co-organizer of the April 15 rally.

"The American people support us because they agree with us. And the congressional leadership comes to our rallies, not theirs, because at ours, everyone supports the administration."

In contrast, he said, they criticize the administration, and what they say is not in sync with the view of the lawmakers and "what is seen as America’s interest."

More effective than the activists on the ground, Hoenlein said, are the Arab spokespeople who appear frequently on CNN and speak directly to viewers. Hoenlein conceded, though, that pro-Palestinian supporters in America have gained the upper hand on college, and even high school, campuses.

To a large degree, it seems, anyone who cares about what happens in the Middle East likely has his or her mind made up about who’s to blame. Polls in the United States seem to bear that out. Over the years, they have shown consistently stronger support for Israel, and the intifada hasn’t changed it dramatically. But there are other tangible reasons for such rallies.

Primarily, they’re aimed at attracting media attention, in hopes of snatching air time on the 6 o’clock news or some ink in the next day’s paper. In fact, a rally’s success is often gauged not by attendance, but by the amount of media coverage it garnered.