As a nation addicted to public opinion polls, we seem to have no difficulty with results having to do with who or what we like. But the minute the pollsters start poking into foreign policy and/or national security issues (MX deployment, entanglement in the affairs of country X, trade protection), the findings tend to get caught up in controversy over "loaded" questions or "biased" questioners.
Such, unhappily, has been the case with a new survey making the rounds here. It attempts to capture American opinion on the Arab-Israeli conflict in general and the Palestinian problem in particular, in the aftermath of the Lebanese war.
I say "unhappily" because it is as easy to make too little as it is to make too much of the findings of the poll, conducted by Richard Wirthlin's polling organization. The poll was commissioned by a three-year-old nonprofit research outfit called Arab Studies Inc. By picking and choosing among its diverse findings, you can make too much of those that the institute itself singles out:
5 That 76 percent of the 1,020 persons sampled (with a claimed margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent) favor the right of the Palestinians to establish an independent state.
> That American attitudes about the "Arab-Israeli conflict are changing dramatically."
That Americans are "apparently ready to support a much more evenhanded U.S. policy toward Israel and the Arabs than recent official pronouncements and congressional actions have indicated."
So sweeping a reading of the poll's returns is as unjustified as the effort to belittle the whole exercise on the grounds that Arab Studies Inc. is largely underwritten by companies and individuals with an acute interest in the welfare of the Arab world. The institute admits to that -- and more. It says it commissioned the poll precisely because it could find no comparable effort to deal directly with the Palestinian side of the argument until as recently as 1978. It could find none at all that have been "either sponsored by any Arab organization r informed by concerns that reflect areas of interest to the Arabs, particularly the Palestinian vantage point."
It even went so far as to admit to a questioning technique founded on the premise that the American public knows so little about the Palestinians that it was necessary to prepare follow-up ("push") questions reflecting the Palestinian point of view.
In a way, this acknowledgment, up front, adds force to the poll's most significant findings. It shows an increasing awareness on the part of the American public that the old "pro- Israel, pro-Arab" formulations don't work. It reflects a real and growing public awareness of a legitimate Palestinian grievance. And it suggests a public sensitivity to the intricacies of the so-called Arab-Israeli struggle that may well be running (not for the first time) ahead of the familiar Washington reflexes.
One general trend is hard to refute. Asked to think back a year ago about where their sympathies were (with the Israelis or the Palestinians), 59 percent said they were with the Israelis, while 13 percent allied themselves with the Palestinian cause. Today the figures were only 39 percent with the Israelis, while support for the Palestinians had grown to 23 percent.
One reason for this shift could be that some 69 percent "disapproved" of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. But when the question was put differently (Do you think the Israelis were justified in invading Lebanon to stop rocket attacks and remove the PLO?), 42 percent said yes, and only 50 percent continued to disapprove.
And so it went; with each effort to refine the questioning, there were significant refinements in the public view. Some 76 percent thought the Palestinians had a "right" to establish an independent state, the United States having supported the idea in a 1947 U.N. resolution. But many thought that might not be the best solution, and only 55 percent thought the United States should "help" bring it about. A majority (55 percent) opposed U.S. recognition of the PLO as the official representative of the Palestinians. But 83 percent favored Palestinian representation of some sort at peace negotiations.
If there is a lesson in all this, it lies less in the actual numbers than in the evidence that the American public is entirely capable of absorbing the complexities of the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict when it is presented, as it rarely is from Washington, in all of its complexity.