Everlasting love

Shmuel Rosner

Haaretz

Elul 19, 5765

WASHINGTON - Five Knesset members were in America two weeks ago: Yuri Stern, Yair Peretz, Eliezer Sandberg, Gilad Erdan and Gila Gamliel - not close friends. They came, they flew south, they met preachers and believers from large Christian congregations, and went back. There were good conversations, they say. It's no surprise - the two sides agree on everything: The disengagement is problematic, the administration must not be allowed to pressure Israel, the Palestinians must be told to dismantle the terror organizations before Israel continues to speak to them. And they also talk about a new initiative: tens of thousands of signatures on a petition to transfer the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. It won't help, it won't harm.

Meanwhile, the ties between the Jewish state and its supporters are strengthening. Whoever doubts the importance of this connection should look at the Harris Poll that came out a week ago. Every year, the survey examines the popularity of various countries in American citizens' eyes. The good news is that there has been no significant change. Perhaps that's why there's been no excitement. Nonetheless, isn't it nice to see that America still likes us?

Britain is the most popular country, with 74 percent of respondents seeing it as an ally and another 18 percent classifying it as friendly. In effect, almost every American likes its big sister. Next come Canada and Australia, which 48 percent of respondents and 44 percent, respectively, consider allies and an additional 37 percent and 36 percent consider friendly.

And then - surprise. Little Israel - not Anglophone, far away, foreign and strange - ranks a respectable fourth place, and with no major gap between it and its predecessor on the list. Forty-one percent of respondents consider Israel an ally, 31 percent consider it friendly, and only 6 percent see it as unfriendly or as an enemy. And the most astounding part is that these were basically the same results as last year, and two years ago.

In addition, U.S. President George W. Bush appeared before an audience of Jewish supporters of Israel twice in one week: last week, during the festivities marking 350 years of Jewish settlement in America, and yesterday, during a conference of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Twice he spoke about Israel with warmth and friendliness.

Our two countries have a lot in common, said Bush: They're both communities of immigrants who fled from religious persecution, they're both democratic, and both were created out of a basic belief that there is an omnipotent God who watches human deeds and takes all living beings into account. It's an arguable description, but it led Bush to a conclusion that Israel will certainly be happy to adopt: These ties have made us into natural allies, and they will never be broken, he said.

The Harris Poll shows that the public - not just on the conservative side of the political map - agrees with Bush. Israeli pollster Prof. Camil Fuchs has pointed out another noteworthy statistic: A relatively low 9 percent of respondents said they were not sure or didn't want to share their opinion about Israel. This means that most Americans have formulated an opinion about Israel, for the good. In contrast, when it comes to countries like Brazil, Greece and Norway, a relatively large percentage simply don't know what to say.

The countries that appeared in the poll were selected by the interviewers. Arab countries, for instance, don't show up on the survey, and in their absence China makes the bottom of the chart. That's another reason for the conflict between Israel's Defense Ministry and the Pentagon over selling security material to China. And who else is particularly unpopular? Pakistan. Here's a possible explanation for the sudden thawing of ties between that country and Israel.

This is a study that sits comfortably. There are others whose results aren't so optimistic, like the extensive research conducted a few months ago by Dr. Frank Luntz from the Israel Project. He found worrying phenomena when he ran focus groups of students at respected institutions. Almost all the students interviewed said they had become distanced from the Israeli position and moved closer to the Palestinian one in the last few years. Luntz concluded that unless there is quick and decisive action among the generation of future leaders, one can expect less flattering Harris Polls to come. Some consider his research "historic," while others see it as a reason to invest in pro-Israel public relations, even though the situation appears to be stable.

In any case, the Israeli-American romance is blooming. A Haaretz poll taken a few months ago shows that Israel also loves America - and it is well known that it's easier to love when you're loved. There are many explanations - strategic, political, cultural, and even literary. America simply loves stories of initiatives that succeeded against all odds, crazy initiatives.

And so, on a Tel Aviv summer night, a group of American students on a Taglit-birthright israel trip will go to a small hall on Rothschild Street, where the establishment of the State of Israel was declared, and the counselor will ask: Do you know what U.S. secretary of state George Marshall, who opposed the declaration, said when he heard that Ben-Gurion was about to make it? The old man has lost his mind.