The gap between public policy and public opinion

Development Policy27 Jun 2011Jojanneke Spoor

Phyllis Bennis is the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington, and a Fellow at the Transnational Institute (TNI) in Amsterdam. At the 2011 TNI Fellows Meeting (3-4 June) she talked about the US response to the Arab Spring. An interview.

How do you face that challenge? What are you doing to capitalize on this momentum?

Education. I work with the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. The focus is on US policy. We don’t focus primarily on what Israel does, but on what the US does to enable them. There is a huge and growing gap between public opinion and public policy. An increasing number of Americans are against settlements.

About a year ago the US Campaign did a national poll to find out what people thought about settlements. It said: Israel is building new settlements. Which of the following two sentenced most reflects your view?

  • Israel is building settlements for security purposes, they have the right to build wherever they want.
  • Israeli settlements are built on expropriated Palestinian land. They should all be torn down and the land returned to its original owners.

It was a fairly provocative way of defining it, but those were the two choices. It turned out that 63% of Democrats chose door number 2. That’s 63% of president Obama’s party. And yet there is no recognition of that shift in discourse in the actual policies.

The Arab Spring gives us the opportunity to broaden the gap in order to make it more difficult for the US government to ignore public opinion. If the price gets too high for a certain political position, they will pull back. Our job is to escalate the political price. The Arab Spring has given us the opportunity to do that. We are far from success, but we have new options and opportunities that make me a little bit optimistic.

What does that mean in practice?

We use this moment to educate people about what a new foreign policy would look like. What would it mean to have a foreign policy that is based on international law, human rights and equality, rather than Israel, oil and stability. How do we do that? How do we propose developing new ties with Egypt in the face of a brand new government coming to power in the context of the Arab Spring? It’s about education. People have lived for two generations with the triple play of US policy in the region. They don’t know any different. It is our job to say, ‘it could look different.’

So the actions of people in the Middle East are contributing to the education of people in the US.

Exactly. That is not their reason for doing it. But we can take advantage of it. At the end of the day, that’s how I think we can bring the most solidarity in the immediate sense to these people and their new governments. If we’re successful in educating enough people -raising the political price of the status quo- it will lead to a change in policy and that will encourage and support the stability of the new realities in the Middle East.

What is role for scholars and academics in this struggle?

Some of us have direct participatory ties with social movements. I work, for instance, with the US and global Peace Movements. My last four books have been these primers of frequently asked questions. On Israel-Palestine, on Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. That can be useful. But there is also the vision. Susan George is a visionary. Ten years from now people will look at her writing and think ‘wow, she got it fast, she got it right, she got it early.’ Intellectuals have different roles to play.