U.S.-Jewish support for Arab-Israeli peace climbing

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

NEW YORK — American Jewish support for the Israeli-Arab peace process has jumped in the wake of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, according to a new American Jewish Committee survey.

The survey found that 79 percent of the respondents support the "Israeli government's current handling of the peace negotiations with the Arabs."

That figure is up 11 points from 68 percent in a similar survey released in September but is still lower than the 84 percent after the 1993 signing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.

At the same time, an overwhelming number of those surveyed believe that criticism of the peace process is legitimate.

The survey comes as the American Jewish world continues to wrestle with the political and religious chasms that erupted over the peace process after the November assassination.

Most responding to the recent survey also endorsed U.S. economic aid to the Palestinians, when told the Israeli government supports such aid.

But almost half do not think that the Palestinians are interested "in a true and lasting peace with Israel" and more than three-fourths believe that the Palestine Liberation Organization "is not doing enough to control terrorist activity against Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian extremist groups."

A resounding 85 percent have a favorable view of Labor Party Prime Minister Shimon Peres, while 37 percent report an unfavorable view of Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud opposition party.

At the same time, confusion about key players in the Israeli political system surfaced as nearly half of the respondents — or 46 percent — said they were not sure whether the two men belonged to the same party.

For David Harris, the AJCommittee's executive director, the survey's overriding finding is that American Jews "support the peace process and have faith and trust in the democratically elected government" of Israel.

It also shows that "it will take time to overcome the lingering suspicions" Jews have of the PLO, which has been "Israel's implacable enemy for decades," Harris said.

The survey was undertaken to measure the impact of the assassination on attitudes toward the peace process as well as on levels of attachment to Israel, which, according to the results, have remained unchanged since September.

The survey was conducted by Market Facts Inc. in telephone interviews with 1,013 self-identified Jews between Jan. 10 and 16, but not on Saturday. The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America and a vocal critic of the current peace process, said he was disturbed by the "blatantly biased wording" of the aid question as well as some of the other survey questions.

"When the question was asked in an unbiased manner five months ago, 63 percent of American Jews opposed aid to the PLO," Klein said.

The current survey suggests that support for the peace process is much higher than the confidence in Israel's negotiating partners.

When asked whether the Palestinians and Syrians "are interested or are not interested in a true and lasting peace with Israel," the respondents were about evenly divided.

"American Jews recognize the basis of the peace process goes beyond intentions" of the Arabs to Israel's concrete interests, said Gary Rubin, executive director of Americans for Peace Now.

For Rubin, the recent rise in support for the peace process goes beyond the Rabin assassination. He said it is also due to the conclusion arrived at since the last survey that the interim accord with the PLO, from the Israeli redeployment to Palestinian elections, "has been successful."

Meanwhile, the majority of respondents, 59 percent, said they do not agree that U.S. Jewish organizations have not done enough to "show support for the peace process."

Organizations here have been under fire from some Israeli political leaders and U.S. activists for not doing enough to mobilize support and letting opponents take over the field.

Several survey questions revolved closely around the Rabin assassination. For example, participants were asked to identify which groups contributed most to the "climate of hate that led to the [Rabin] killing."

Forty percent said "opponents of the peace process in Israel and the United States" contributed "heavily" to the climate of hate, while 85 percent said these opponents contributed "heavily" or "somewhat."

Fully 31 percent said "West Bank settlers" contributed "heavily" to this climate, while 24 percent said the same about "Orthodox rabbis in Israel and the United States."

Fourteen percent leveled the same criticism at "both sides of the political spectrum."

Nonetheless, a resounding 90 percent of respondents said the killing "should not be used as a reason to stifle debate about the peace process" and 79 percent disagreed with the statement that criticism of the peace process is "no longer legitimate."