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Israel and the Palestinians

US Role in General

The majority of Americans want the US to play an active, but not a domineering, role in the Middle East peace process. A very strong majority of Americans wants the US to play an even-handed role in this process, but a majority feels that in fact the US favors Israel. This support for an even-handed approach extends to the idea of equalizing the level of aid between Israeli and the Palestinians in the event of a peace agreement, and a slight majority favors the idea of the parties sharing Jerusalem as an international city.

Support for an Active, Non-Domineering US Role in the Middle East Peace Process

Most polls show a solid majority favoring the US taking an active role in the Middle East peace process. In September 2003 NBC/Wall Street Journal polls asked whether "the US should be involved in trying to get Israel and the Arab nations to reach a peace agreement, or should the United States let Israel and the Arab nations deal with this themselves?" A solid majority (56%) said the US should be involved, while 37% said the US should leave the matter to the state parties. During the height of the Israeli-Palestinian clashes, in March 2002, 71% said the US should be "increasing diplomatic efforts to broker a peace settlement," while 23% thought the US should not (Newsweek). Immediately after the terror attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001 a Los Angeles Times poll found that 62% supporting the US role as "mediator between Israel and the Palestinians." The lowest level of support for an active role was in a June 2003 Fox News poll that asked about involvement "in the Middle East peace process." A plurality of 48% wanted the US to be more involved (37%) or stay the same (11%), while 43% wanted to be less involved (40%) or get out completely (3%). [1]

When President Bush made a major speech on the growing conflict in April 2002, he effectively abandoned the "hands off" course US policy had taken in the first year of his presidency. In PIPA's May 2002 survey, a very strong majority (70%) said he "did the right thing" by "getting involved in trying to reduce the level of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians." Just 23% said he "made a mistake." When asked to think back about the role of President Clinton in attempting to broker peace, a strong majority (59%) also said that he did the right thing by "getting as involved as he did" in the process; only 30% felt that was a mistake.[2]

In the months following the renewal of violence in Israel, Americans also wanted the US to remain active in pursuit of peace. In an October 2000 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 58% said the US "should stay involved in the effort to find a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" and just 32% thought the US should "withdraw from this effort and allow the people in the region to resolve this conflict on their own." [3] In a Newsweek poll, also from October 2000, just 34% thought it was "not in the best interests of the US to get involved," while 54% said the US should be involved -- 31% "because of our historic commitment to Israel" and 23% because the Middle East is an "important source of oil." [4]

In striking contrast to a strong majority's willingness for the US to stay involved and be more diplomatically active, there is a lack of support for the US playing a domineering role. When PIPA asked in May 2003 if President Bush should take "a strong leadership role in trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflictInstead, a very strong majority favors a more multilateral" only 43% said that he should, while 47% thought it was "not a good idea."[5] Instead, a very strong majority favors a more multilateral approach, with either the UN (preferred by a plurality), or a group of leading nations including the US, taking the lead (for details, see "Multilateral Approaches").

This preference that the US not play a domineering role in the process is so strong that when presented the options of either taking the leading role or not getting involved in the process, a modest majority prefers the latter. ABC/Washington Post asked: "Do you think the United States should take the leading role in trying to arrange a peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, or should the US mainly leave that to the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves?" Given only these two alternatives, just 42% opted for the US taking the leading role, while a modest 54% majority said the problem should mainly be left to the parties (April 2002). [6] Similarly, CBS has asked whether the US "has a responsibility to try to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, or isn't that really this country's business?" Again, the response has been divided: 47% thought it was not "the business" of the US, while 43% thought the US did have a responsibility. [7]

A majority is also wary of a scenario in which the US, acting alone, would develop a peace plan and then press the parties to accept it. In April 2002 a 55% majority did not want the US to "present a comprehensive peace agreement to all sides…and demand that they accept it"; only about a third (36%) thought the US should do this (Time/CNN). In the same month CNN/USA Today got virtually the same scores with a similar question. [8]

Consistent with the opposition to a domineering role, Americans are divided about how useful the US could be in fostering a peace agreement. In May 2002, a CBS poll found that a plurality (48%) believed that "establishing peace in the Middle East" is not something the "American government" can do anything about. Forty-seven percent felt the US could do something about it. In June 2003, Gallup asked if "George W. Bush's actions will result in a real and lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians." Forty-six percent said yes, but 53% said no.[9]

Americans also reject the idea that the US is indispensable to the the resolution of the conflict. In a May 2003 PIPA poll, asked if they believed that "the only way that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can possibly be solved is if President Bush takes a strong leadership role," 59% disagreed with that statement, while only 32% agreed.

The most recent polls show Americans feeling that the US is doing enough in its efforts and resisting the idea of the US doing more. Asked in a January 2005 PIPA poll if "the US should or should not invest more political effort and resources than it did in the past four years toward resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict," a strong majority of 64% said it should not. Only 31% said it should. When asked in a Public Agenda poll in January 2006 to give the US a grade on "doing our best to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians," 44% gave a grade of A or B and another 36% gave a grade of C, similar ratings to those given in June 2005. Only 21% gave the US a D or F on achieving the goal.[9a]

Support for Even-Handedness

Although more Americans show sympathy for Israel than for the Palestinians, a strong majority has consistently felt that the US should play an even-handed role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since December 1998, Gallup and other organizations have asked respondents many times whether the US "should take Israel's side, take the Palestinians' side, or not take either side." Strong majorities have consistently said the US should take neither side. In July 2000, 74% endorsed this position. Shortly after September 11th, 2001, this number dropped to 63% (Israel's side rising to 27%) then recovered to 70% in early November (Israel's side 20%). Israel's military actions of April 2002 had little impact on this majority view. CNN/USA Today/Gallup found 71% in April for the US taking neither side (take Israel's side, 22%); PIPA in May found 67% for the US taking neither side (take Israel's side, 22%). By 2003, preference for the US taking neither side in the conflict had risen to pre-September 11th levels. In PIPA and CCFR polls in May 2003 and December and July 2004, 73%, 77% and 74%, respectively, said the US should take neither side. [10]

IWhen presented the option of "making a major effort to be seen as even-handed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" as a means of addressing the problem of terrorism, strong majorities have endorsed the idea. In In CCFR polls in 2004 and 2002, 64% and 66%, respectively said they favored doing so. In a November 2001 PIPA poll, 63% endorsed the idea. In no case was opposition greater than 3 in 10.[11]

Perhaps most significant, a majority believes that the US is not playing such an even-handed role. Asked in May 2003 and May 2002 PIPA polls, "Do you think the United States generally does take Israel's side, take the Palestinians' side, or not take either side?" only 29% in 2003 (22% in 2002) said that the US takes neither side, 57% and 58% respectively said that the US takes Israel's side and 3% and 4% respectively said it takes the Palestinians' side. In April 2002, Harris asked, "Do you think that United States policy in the Middle East is more supportive of Israel, or more supportive of the Palestinians, or equally supportive of both?" Fifty-one percent said US policy was more supportive of Israel, but 33% said US policy was equally supportive of both sides (more supportive of Palestinians, 3%).[12]

HWhen questions ask respondents whether they want to explicitly criticize the US for supporting Israel the numbers saying that the US is not being even-handed are lower. An April 2002 Fox poll first spelled out that "Historically, the United States has sided more with the democracy of Israel in the Middle East conflict" and then posed a choice between "continu[ing] to support Israel" or "try[ing] to be more evenhanded." In this context a lower percentage (50%) said the US should try to be more evenhanded, while 33% said the US should continue to support Israel. Harris (May 2002) found only 34% saying US policy is "too supportive of Israel" while 39% plurality said US policy "has the balance just right." [13] In a July 2004 CCFR 32% said the US favors Israel too much while 35% said US policies are "fair," and a large 28% said they didn't know. [13a] A July 2005 Pew poll found just 22% saying they wanted to see the US supporting Israel less, while 47% wanted to support Israel "as much as in the past,"and 16% wanted the US to support Israel more.[13b]

But more recently there seems to be a greater readiness to criticize the US. In January 2006, a Public Agenda poll asked if the criticism that "U.S. policies are too pro-Israel for the U.S. to be able to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians" was justified or not. Sixty-two percent said that it was totally (14%) or partly (48%) justified, while 25% said it was not justified at all. In June 2005 62% said it was totally (21%) or partly (42%) justified.[14]

To give this concept of even-handedness more substance, PIPA in November 2001 presented two options for controversial policy issues -- the level of aid to Israel as compared to aid to Palestinians, and the status of Jerusalem.

Relative Aid Levels: Respondents were asked, "If the Palestinians come to terms with Israel in a peace agreement, do you think the US should equalize the amount of aid it gives to Israel and to the Palestinians, or should the US continue to give Israel more?" A strong majority of 62% said that they would support giving an equal amount, while just 23% favored continuing to give Israel more. PIPA repeated this question in May 2002 and 2003 with similar results-clear majorities (57% in 2002 and 67% in 2003) said they would support equalizing the aid, while less than one quarter (22% and 24% respectively) said they would favor continuing to give Israel more.[15]

Status of Jerusalem:
In November 2001, PIPA presented the following question:

As you may know, there is currently a major conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians about the future status of Jerusalem, because both parties see it as their traditional capital. It has been proposed that Jerusalem become an international city that would be policed by an international police force, so that they can each have their capitals in different parts of the city. Do you think the US should or should not support this idea?

A slight majority of 51% said that the US should support this idea, while 34% said that it should not, and 16% did not answer. [16] (For more on attitudes toward possible multilateral solutions of the Jerusalem issue, see "Support for Major UN Role")

Support for an even-handed approach may not only be prompted by a sense of wanting to be fair. Americans do not overwhelmingly feel that US relations with Israel are more important than its relations with the Arab nations who clearly back the Palestinians. Asked in an October 2001 ABC News poll, "What do you feel is more important at this time -- US (United States) relations with Israel, or US relations with the Arab nations?" a slight plurality (39%) said the Arab nations, while just 36% said Israel (14% volunteered "both," 3% volunteered "neither," and 9% expressed no opinion). [17]



Report Contents

View PIPA/Knowledge Networks study [pdf files]
Americans on the Middle East Road Map

[full report]
May 30, 2003