By Ray Hanania
Although a Gallup poll released last week shows that slightly more than a majority of Americans support Palestinian statehood, claims that the survey reflects rising backing for their rights are exaggerated.
Instead of recognizing that they must work harder to build on their weak support in America, many pro-Palestinian activists are using support for the two-state solution to argue that the backing for Palestine is trending upwards. Maybe so, but breadcrumbs are not really bread at all and we should not pretend that we have enough to make a loaf.
Advocates for Palestinian rights cite the Gallup poll data, which shows many things. Some 52 percent of those surveyed support Palestinian statehood, while 37 percent oppose it. That 37 percent is worrisome and the 52 percent is weak. Gallup and the activists argue that a record high 25 percent sympathize more with the Palestinians than the Israelis. However, even though 25 percent is a record, that still leaves 75 percent that either sympathize more with Israel (58 percent) or say neither/both/no opinion (17 percent).
The poll also highlights another number that is increasing, but that hasn’t really gone high enough to ease the concerns of the Palestinians: It shows that a majority of those surveyed who identify as being Democrats want to see the US government pressure Israel more. However, it also notes that more Americans want the US government to pressure the Palestinians “to resolve the Middle East conflict” (44 percent) than Israel (34 percent). Again, that figure of 34 percent, although it is on the rise, isn’t something Palestinians should be cheering.
Even though the poll clearly shows that support for the Palestinians is increasing, it is concerning that those numbers were so low in the first place and that support for Palestinian rights was even worse in the past than it is now.
So how should Palestinians interpret the poll? Well, they shouldn’t be touting it as evidence that Americans increasingly favor the Palestinians because that conclusion is misleading. They should be focusing on the negatives and wondering how, after more than 70 years of conflict and occupation, Americans still don’t appreciate the truth of the conflict, which is that Israel is the oppressor and the Palestinians are the victims.
The Palestinians should be looking at the numbers and asking themselves how they can do a better job of winning over the American public.
It is down to what I believe is a cultural problem. Arabs and Palestinians don’t like to linger on bad news. They — or we, for I am Palestinian — don’t like to admit mistakes or admit to being beaten, using that admission to correct the problems and allow us to return and win.
But success doesn’t come from wishful thinking. Success is a process the Israelis have nailed down. It demands that, in addition to hope and determination, one can acknowledge one’s faults. The only way to correct faults and improve is to acknowledge them. Palestinians or Arabs who admit a fault are often denounced as a fatalist or an “Uncle Tom” — someone who betrays their sacred cause.
I don’t want a sacred cause built on hope. I want strategic, creative thinking to be driving the creation of a Palestinian state, including a clear agenda and plan as to how we intend to win over the hearts and minds of the American people, the majority of whom don’t believe in our inalienable rights. Instead of just denouncing Israel’s atrocities at the many conferences that are held in the US and around the world, Palestinian activists and leaders should be spending more time developing effective strategies that address public perceptions.
The perceptions of Americans are highly susceptible to effective messaging. But such messaging is not cheap. Pro-Israel groups spend millions every year to present the country’s cause in the most positive light, while demonizing Palestinians. By contrast, Palestinians and Arabs spend so little it is as if they don’t believe in public relations and spin. In America, it’s not what you say but how you say it that counts. Arguably, perception is more important than the truth of a situation.
Conveying anger and suffering doesn’t create a sympathy that transforms into active support. Palestinians need to tell their story more effectively in a language that Americans can relate to. I don’t just mean English, but rather the familiar, colloquial English that is sometimes called “baseball English.” We need to speak to Americans not in chants, protests or the unfamiliar voice of political rhetoric, but in an endearing manner using everyday language that is based on building familiarity and the recognition, not fear, of strangers.
Maybe this is too much for the Palestinians, many of whom thrive on the conflict by building careers as conference phenoms. If the Israel-Palestine conflict were ever to be resolved, you can bet that a large percentage of such activists would find themselves out of a job, as they would no longer be needed to increase Palestinians’ anger.
You want to save Palestine? Stop using the word “no” and start looking for ways to advance our image in the eyes of the audience that is most important when it comes to changing world affairs: The American public.
Are the Palestinians’ supporters so poor they can’t invest $100 million to develop and apply an effective PR strategy to win American hearts and minds? Or are we just too lazy? It is, after all, so much easier to get emotional and to yell and scream than it is to reach into the heart of the suffering and pull our people out.