WASHINGTON — AS Iraqi Scud missiles fell on Israel last January, Israel's standing in the eyes of the American public received an unexpected boost. With a February Harris poll showing 83 percent of Americans holding a positive view of Israel because of its restraint under fire, Israel's claim to continued high levels of United States aid has been strengthened.
"The polls suggest it's not a good time to talk about cutting aid to Israel," says a State Department source.
But the Scud attacks did more: By drawing attention away from the Palestinian uprising they helped retrieve Israel from the consequences of the longest sustained period of press criticism it has ever had to endure.
"Based upon the three surveys we have conducted during the past two years [since the start of the uprising], it is now clear that American public opinion is shifting profoundly," wrote John Martilla, the head of the Boston polling firm of Martilla and Kiley. He was commenting on an unpublished survey conducted two months before the start of the Gulf crisis for the American Jewish Congress. "Possibly for the first time ever, fundamental American sympathies now lean more toward the Palestinians on the Wes t
Bank than toward the Israelis (33 percent to 31 percent)."
The survey also recorded "deep disaffection" among Americans with the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and its policies, while two-thirds of Americans opined that Israel was receiving too much aid from the US.
"By any reckoning, these are terrible results for Israel," the Boston firm reported.
Six months later, the public relations damage from the uprising has been undone. Since the Gulf war pro-Israel sentiment has soared, surpassing the record levels recorded after Israel's victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
"There's been a shift that's fairly dramatic," says Mr. Martilla. "Before the war, everyone was looking at the Israeli-Palestinian issue. When the Gulf war came it forced people to look at the whole region. In that context Israel's importance to the US shines through."
Polling analysts predict that the country's high standing will be sustained if Americans don't refocus exclusively on the Palestinian issue, just as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev remains popular among Americans despite their disapproval of his handling of dissent in the Baltics.
But if memories of the Scud attacks and Israel's forbearance fade, and if Mr. Shamir's right-wing Likud government is once again seen as denying Palestinians' rights to a homeland and self-rule, the process of erosion could start again.
"How long will [Americans] remember the Scuds?" asks another State Department official. "Likud is not the world's best propaganda."