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Holy land?

Interview: Gero Schließ, WashingtonJuly 29, 2014

In Europe, criticism of Israel's actions in Gaza is slowly picking up steam. In the US, however, public opinion is still very much pro-Israel. DW talked to former Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat about the sentiment there.

Image: Reuters

DW: Ambassador, Israel is losing the public relations war outside the United States, but here in the US the reaction has been muted with polls showing most Americans still supportive. Why is that?

Stuart Eizenstat: The Gaza reaction goes back to the basic context of how Americans view Israel and Hamas. First of all, there has traditionally been much more support for Israel going back decades here than in Europe and the reason is a mixture of things.

Many Americans see Israel as the holy land, something even as Christians they think is important to preserve. And as a democratic bastion in a sea of autocrats and dictators, as a country dedicated to the kinds of rule of law and other values that Americans cherish and contrast to the absence of that in many of the Arab countries.

There is a view that organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, are all part of the Islamic terrorist threat that we saw in 9/11. The view of many Americans is all tied together with other similar terrorist organizations. So when a Hamas rocket goes into Israel, it's viewed as part and parcel of an attack against the West by Islamic radicals.

But how do the Americans see civilian casualities among the Palestinians?

l remember that Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon pulled lock, stock, and barrel out of Gaza, took all the settlers out, 7,000 of them, dismantled every single Israeli institution and indeed was willing to transfer to the Palestinians those things of value, like flour, hot houses, and things, which by the way, once Israel left were totally destroyed. So instead of getting peace and tranquility, once Hamas took over from the Palestinian authority, they gave them not roses but rockets. And that speaks volumes. And Americans have a very clear recollection of that history. Also, if one goes back years and asks the basic question, 'Do you support Israel or the Palestinians?' you always get the same response from Americans. By factors of four and five to one, people support Israel over the Palestinians and that's a constant thread.

Others say that the Americans support Israel because of the failure of the Arab Spring movements to spread democracy in the Middle East. Do you agree?

That's only one factor. Americans see that Arab countries have no rule of law, no democracy, no empowerment of their citizens, and since the Arab spring, where there was a hope that some of those democratic western values would be implanted, instead Americans see chaos in the region. And yes of course there's a concern. I don't think Americans are insensitive to the fact that Palestinian civilians are being killed.

Stuart Eizenstat
Stuart EizenstatImage: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Europeans obivously have a different sense of it. We've seen a lot of pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Paris, Amsterdam, or Berlin. Why don't we see any demonstrations like that in Washington?

I have spent and continue to spend an enormous amount of time in Europe. I think it's too easy to say and I reject the notion that there is endemic anti-Semitism in Europe.

I don't think that's the factor. And in fact if you go back to 1967 and the Six Day War, Israel was the darling of European public opinion and even the democratic left and the academics. It was a sort of a David and Goliath notion; little Israel fighting off the combined armies of all the Arabs. Public opinion instinctively identifies with the weaker of the two parties which they now see as the Palestinians. There is however an additional factor. In many of the key countries in Europe you have Muslim populations approaching or over 10 percent and a radicalized youth who have not been well integrated. We have a much smaller Muslim population in the United States, one that's more deeply integrated.

And you have a large and influential Israeli community.

Well, out of a population of 320 million, there are about six and a half million Jews. So it's not a large population but it's very politically engaged and active. But again I think the Muslim population in the United States is a much more assimilated, integrated community than it is in Europe where it's never been properly assimilated and integrated.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) did a massive study a few weeks ago of some 100 countries on anti-Semitism asking - quite apart from the Gaza and Israeli conflict - traditional questions that measure anti-Semitism: Do Jews have too much power, do they have too much influence, are they more loyal to Israel than to their own country? And what the ADL found is that for Americans, around 20 percent hold those views. In Europe, the figure is closer to a third.

The polls also say that older Americans tend to take Israel's side, while the younger generation doesn't. So numbers among the young and Democrats may be a long-term problem for Israel.

I think this is an issue. Polls quite clearly show Republicans tend to be more supportive of Israel and more supportive of Israel during conflicts like Gaza. Democrats, who tend to have some of the same views on human rights and empathy for the poor, tend to identify more with the Palestinians. Now they're not going to go out to the ramparts and go after synagogues as you see in Europe, but in terms of holding views that are not as symmetrical with all of Israeli policies particularly the settlement policies which bother Democrats more than they bother Republicans, yes, that's a concern and it's a long-term concern.

Stuart Eizenstat served as the United States Ambassador to the European Union from 1993 to 1996 and as the United States Deputy Secretary of the Treasury from 1999 to 2001.