US Arabs see gains in their battle for public opinion

An ocean away from war-torn Lebanon, a battle sparked in part by the Israeli invasion last summer continues unabated throughout the United States. It's a battle for public opinion in the United States, and it's being waged by about 30 increasingly sophisticated Arab-American organizations. Their opponents: a well-entrenched group of about 300 Jewish-American organizations.

Though they rarely meet head-to-head in public forums, Arab-American and Jewish-American groups are competing indirectly on college campuses, on radio and television programs, in newspapers, in advertisements, and through various public-relations campaigns. They are trying to convince a largely uninterested American public of the righteousness of their cause, or - on occasion - the unrighteousness of their opponents' cause.

Last summer, with the war in Lebanon featured nightly on US television news programs, Jewish-American leaders were deeply concerned that such close-up views of the invasion and the Israeli siege of Beirut might sway American public opinion toward the Arabs. Opinion polls taken at the time indicated a noticeable erosion of support for Israel.

Jewish-American leaders weren't the only ones watching the polls. The leaders of Arab-American groups saw an opportunity to present the Arab cause to an American public more skeptical about the Israeli government (though still decidedly pro-Israel).

And for the first time, the largest component of the more than 2 million-strong Arab-American community - Americans of Lebanese descent - was being personally touched by events in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Lebanese Americans, who in the past have generally shunned involvement in Arab causes, began donating money and supporting Arab-American organizations, according to Arab-American leaders.

''It is better than it's ever been, and it's going in the right direction,'' says David Sadd, executive director of the National Association of Arab-Americans (NAAA), a Washington-based lobbying group. ''There is a growing inclination for policymakers to listen; there is a growing ability to get our message to the media; there is a growing ability to support politicians financially.''

Richard Cohen, spokesman for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, says, ''I think the Arab-American community is showing increasing cohesion and strength and is getting its act together in a really effective way. (It is) more politically active than ever.''

Just how strong the Arab-American groups have become and just how much - if any - support for Israel has been eroded is unclear. Despite the Lebanon invasion and Arab-American efforts, Congress in December handily approved the largest aid package ever to Israel, totaling almost $2.5 billion for fiscal year 1983.

In addition, a January Gallup poll indicates that American support for Israel has rebounded to pre-invasion levels.

According to a booklet printed in January by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, ''a sophisticated, well-coordinated campaign was launched (by American-Arab groups) . . . to exploit the events in Lebanon. . . .'' This was done, according to the book, in an effort to ''destroy Israel's positive image in the US.''

The book, entitled ''Pro-Arab Propaganda In America,'' charges that the campaign was launched by a ''pro-PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) support network.''

Some Arab-American leaders contend the Anti-Defamation League's book is an overreaction to a perceived threat. ''They have had the field to themselves for so long that they are afraid of smaller groups with a different view,'' says Khalil Jahshan, director of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates.

Mr. Sadd of the NAAA says the strongest force currently helping to undermine Israel's image in the US is Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his policies, which have angered US officials.

''It hasn't taken us to wage a propaganda campaign. Begin is waging his own, and we are sitting here, frankly, taking advantage of it,'' he says.

Mr. Jahshan says there has been ''a definite erosion of Israel's image in the US,'' but he adds, ''We are not naive enough to take credit for that.''

He says that as a result of the Lebanon invasion, more Americans are questioning US relations with Israel.

Sadd says, ''We don't have to be as strong as the Jewish community. They are arguing for basically preferential treatment for Israel, we are simply arguing for fair treatment for everyone over there.''

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