Public, Leaders a Poll Apart

Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull
Steven Kull
Steven Kull Senior Research Fellow and Director, Program for Public Consultation, School of Public Policy - University of Maryland

May 26, 2002

When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently visited Washington, he repeatedly equated Israel’s military actions in the West Bank with the U.S. war on Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization that carried out the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The U.S. Congress agrees with him. It overwhelmingly passed a resolution expressing unequivocal support for Israel’s military moves and stating that “the United States and Israel are now engaged in a common struggle against terrorism.”

But a national public opinion survey conducted mostly after the congressional resolution was passed (May 1-5) by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes suggests that the American public’s perspective on the Middle East conflict is more nuanced than that of Congress. The poll of 801 randomly selected Americans was funded by the Schooner Foundation and has a margin of error of 3.5% to 4%. Its results have important implications for the U.S. role in the Palestinian—Israeli conflict because public opinion gives the president more leeway than conventionally assumed in developing policy options. Only 17% of the survey’s respondents said that Israel’s struggle with the Palestinians was best understood as a Mideast version of the war on terrorism. Yes, 76% of the respondents said the Palestinian suicide attacks on Israeli civilians were unjustifiable. But the vast majority thought the conflict was best described as a struggle between two national groups over the same piece of land.

The survey revealed other differences between how Congress and the U.S. public viewed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most significant, a majority of the respondents blamed both sides equally for the failure to reach peace and expressed equal levels of frustration with each side. Of the remainder, less than one-third favorably viewed the Israelis; significantly fewer had a favorable view of Palestinians.

Such even-handedness suggests a policy course quite different from one infused with the certain convictions of Congress: Two-thirds of the survey’s respondents said the U.S. should not take sides in the conflict. Perhaps more significant, only one in four thought that the U.S. was not now backing a party in the conflict.

These findings don’t mean that Americans want to see the U.S. get out of the Middle East. Quite the contrary. Americans want the U.S. government to put more pressure on both sides to declare a cease-fire and return to the negotiating table. If the two sides still refused to end their fighting, 61% of the respondents said they would threaten to withhold aid to Israel and 64% said they would withhold some spare parts from Israel’s military. As for the Palestinians, 63% of those polled would threaten to stop some aid to them and 50% said they would consider not dealing with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. If the Palestinians ended the suicide bombings and used only nonviolent forms of protest, the number of Americans who favored putting more pressure on Israel would rise to 84%.

How does one explain the difference between this poll and other recent ones whose findings seemed more solidly pro-Israel? As in the other polls, the respondents in the University of Maryland survey were more inclined to view Israel favorably. But their more pronounced even-handedness was the result of being presented with more options when answering.

Giving more options is especially important when large numbers of respondents refuse to answer a question. For example, an April 16 Fox News poll asked respondents which side they blamed more for the failure to reach peace in the Middle East. More named the Palestinians (33%) than the Israelis (12%), but a remarkable 55% did not answer. The University of Maryland survey offered the option of blaming both sides equally, and 58% of its respondents chose that response; less than one-third blamed the Palestinians.

When polls have surveyed sympathy for each side, a larger percentage has felt comfortable choosing a side. In a May 13-14 CBS News poll, 47% of the respondents said they were more sympathetic toward Israel. But 36% had no opinion. In the University of Maryland poll, respondents were asked to rate how much sympathy they had for each side in separate questions on a scale of 0 to 10. Half gave ratings no more than a point apart; only one in three gave Israel a significantly higher rating.

The surveyed Americans strongly supported (70%) President Bush’s renewed commitment to finding a peaceful solution in the Middle East. They also seemed to like the administration’s increased engagement in the region.

Two-thirds approved the president’s call for Israel to withdraw its military forces from Palestinian cities, 75% supported Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s recent meeting with Arafat, and a similar number backed Bush’s endorsement of a Palestinian state.

The source of this support is not only Bush’s post-Sept. 11 popularity. It is also Americans’ nuanced perspective on Israel and the Palestinians. While they overwhelmingly reject suicide bombings and don’t much like Arafat, most Americans have reservations about Israel’s behavior too. More than half the respondents in the University of Maryland’s poll thought that Israel’s operations in the West Bank were not only designed to root out terrorists but also to punish the population.

The poll’s respondents also wanted the U.S. government to place a greater emphasis on multilateralism. Eighty-two percent liked the idea of an international conference, and when asked who should take the lead in resolving the Middle East conflict, only 13% named the United States. Instead, a strong majority said either the United Nations or a group of leading nations, including the U.S., should lead.

The poll’s respondents wanted to see the U.N. take an even bigger role. If the Israelis and Palestinians cannot resolve Jerusalem’s status, which was the key stumbling block at Camp David and the January 2001 talks at Taba, a clear majority supported the idea of the U.N. taking control of the disputed areas. Solid majorities also favored the idea of the U.N. Security Council deciding where the border should be between Israel and a new Palestinian state or of the U.N. governing the territories as a trustee.

It is clear from the University of Maryland survey that Americans are paying close attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how the U.S. is handling it. It also showed that their views of the combatants are more complex and less partisan than those of Congress—an opening the White House can well exploit in charting its course of action in the Middle East.