Canada calling: neutrality on Mideast favoured, polls find

Neutrality on Mideast favoured, polls find


UPDATED AT 2:12 PM EST Friday, Nov 12, 2004

OTTAWA — Private polls conducted for Canadian Jewish groups show that many Canadians have a negative view of Israel and an overwhelming majority want the federal government to remain neutral in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The poll results, coupled with a series of focus groups that demonstrated Canadian ambivalence toward Israel, helped shape the Jewish community’s response yesterday to the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Rather than castigate Mr. Arafat as a terrorist, which was the first impulse of some Jewish leaders, the Canada-Israel Committee issued a low-key, simple statement that looked toward a possible peaceful future rather than dwelling on the violent past.

The polls found an overwhelming majority of 89 per cent “believe that both Israel and the Palestinians equally share responsibility for ongoing violence” in the conflict.

Much to the dismay of Jewish leaders, the polls suggest that many Canadians believe Israel has links to terrorist organizations.

Moreover, Canadians who say they are well-informed about the Middle East conflict also are more likely to be sympathetic to the Palestinians.

“The Palestinians are viewed as the underdogs, and Canadians traditionally identify with the underdog. We need to change this perception,” the committee’s communications advisers said.

About 60 per cent of poll respondents believed the Palestinian Authority has connections with terrorists.

However, the summary says, “one of the most surprising findings of the research was that more than one-third of Canadians (36 per cent) believe that Israel has links to terrorist organizations.”

The private polls were conducted at various times over the past 18 months for the Canada-Israel Committee to help devise a communications strategy to counter what many Jewish leaders believed was a media bias in favour of the Palestinians.

What the pollsters found, however, was a basic lack of sympathy for the Israeli cause among Canadians, and widespread ignorance of the fact that Israel is a democracy.

“Less than half of Canadians surveyed (42 per cent) said that Israel is a democratic state. Similarly, a large majority of Canadians do not believe that Israel has freedom of speech or freedom of religion,” says a summary of the internal polling data made available to The Globe and Mail.

“Only 11 per cent said that the media is biased against Israel. More significantly, one-third of Canadians believe that the media is being unfair to the Palestinians,” says the summary prepared by GPC International, communications advisers for the committee.

Shimon Fogel, the chief executive of the Canada-Israel Committee, said the poll results “are a reality check for my constituents.”

Advocates for Israel have to show self-discipline in their public comments about the Palestinian cause “and don’t just do what feels good,” Mr. Fogel said.

The polls show an overwhelming majority of 83 per cent of Canadians believe Ottawa should remain neutral in its approach to the Middle East conflict. Most respondents said they thought Ottawa was, in fact, neutral.

But 32 per cent said they felt federal policy was tilted toward Israel, and only 4 per cent believed policy favoured Palestinians.

(c) 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.