Questions and Answers About the Middle East

by Frank Newport

Americans more optimistic now that peace may come to the Middle East

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, N.J. --

There's a growing sense of momentum in the Middle East, with indications that President Bush may travel to meet with the Israeli and Palestinian Prime Ministers some time in the next several weeks. Does the American public agree that this should be a high priority objective for the United States?

Yes, it is important, but not quite as important as it was last year. Almost nine out of 10 Americans agree that the development of a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli situation is at least a somewhat important foreign policy goal for the United States.

In fact, for the last 12 years (Gallup first asked this question in March 1991), 80% or more of Americans have agreed that peace in the Middle East should be a very or somewhat important foreign policy goal for the United States.

Peace in the Middle East as a
Policy Goal for the United States

There has, however, been some variation in the percentage of Americans who consider the Middle East conflict to be "very" important for the U.S. to help resolve. Last year -- in February, March, and April 2002 polls (during heightened violence between the Israelis and Palestinians) -- well over 50% of Americans said that a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be a very important goal for the United States. In our latest Gallup Poll, conducted May 19-21, 44% said that the development of a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli situation in the Middle East should be a very important U.S. foreign policy goal. Another 42% said it should be a somewhat important goal.

Still, current attitudes are not at an all time low. The "very important" number dropped to 32% in January 2000. This suggests that Americans evaluate the significance of government involvement on a situational basis, presumably based on what else may be on the international agenda, how overtly hostile the two sides are being toward each other, or the emphasis that the U.S. administration is giving the situation.

Do Americans continue to maintain their historic sympathies for Israel over the Palestinians in the conflict?

Yes, Americans continue to be more sympathetic to the Israelis than to the Palestinians -- although the precise numbers vary considerably from year to year.

Middle East Sympathies Trend
Both, neither, (vol.), and no opinion not represented in graph

The May 19-21 Gallup Poll shows that when Americans are asked to state where their sympathies lie, 46% say they are more sympathetic to the Israelis, 16% say they are more sympathetic to the Palestinians, while the rest say "both" (12%), "neither" (14%), or that they don't have an opinion at all (12%).

Gallup has asked this basic "sympathies" question 24 times since 1988. The percentage of Americans sympathetic to the Palestinians is remarkably consistent. It has ranged from an all-time low of 7% found twice -- just after the February 1991Persian Gulf War, and again in September 2001, just after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 -- to a high point of 16% in February 2001 and May 2003.

On the other hand, most of the variation from poll to poll comes from the percentage of Americans who are sympathetic to the Israelis. The highest level of sympathy came during the first Persian Gulf War as Iraqi scud missiles fell on Israel. At that point, 64% of Americans said they were more sympathetic to Israel.

The lowest levels of sympathy for Israel came in May 1988, when only 37% were more sympathetic to the Israelis, and again in 1996 and 1997, when just 38% were more sympathetic to the Israelis.

Sympathy for Israel was actually quite high (at the 58% level) in February of this year, as the United States prepared for another war with Iraq, but has now reverted to a level much more consistent with the Gallup Poll average for this question.

What are the differences in support by subgroup?

The table below shows those subgroups in the American population whose average level of sympathy for the Israelis and for the Palestinians is above the sample average by at least five percentage points.

The most significant differentiators appear to be politics and ideology. Those most likely to express sympathy with the Israelis include conservatives, Republicans, college graduates, older men, those with higher incomes (and those with incomes between $30,000 and $49,000), those living in the South, and those living in rural areas.

Those most sympathetic to the Palestinians include liberals, younger Americans, non-whites, those between the ages of 30-49, and independents. As can be seen from the table below, sympathies for the Palestinians over the Israelis is still relatively low even among these groups.

 

Are your sympathies more with the Israelis or with the Palestinians?

% Saying "Israelis"

%

Conservative

62

Republican

62

College graduate

54

Male 50+

54

$75K+

53

South

52

Rural

52

White

51

$30K-49,999

51

Total/Average

46



 

Are your sympathies more with the Israelis or with the Palestinians?

% Saying "Palestinians"

%

Liberal

26

18-29

22

Non-white

21

$30K-49,999

21

Independent

21

Total/Average

16



The "road map" to peace in the Middle East is complex, but ends with the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Even though Americans are more sympathetic to the Israelis than to the Palestinians, do they support the idea of a Palestinian state?

Yes. Gallup has asked Americans for their views on the creation of an independent Palestinian state in several different ways over the last nine years. In every instance, a plurality has favored the concept.

In a 1994 poll conducted for the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, Gallup asked, "Do you favor or oppose the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza strip?" The results showed that 39% were in favor, 20% were opposed, and a quite high percentage of 41% of Americans said they had no opinion.

These results are generally consistent with those Gallup has measured in the years since. Last May, 48% favored the idea, 27% were opposed, and 25% had no opinion.

In June of last year, a version of the question was used that tied the establishment of a Palestinian state to the cessation of suicide bombing attacks against the Israelis, and found much broader public support for a Palestinian state, with a substantially reduced "don't know" response:

 

Do you favor or oppose the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank if the Palestinian government demonstrates that it can end the suicide bombings in Israel?

Favor

Oppose

No opinion

2002 Jun 21-23

74%

18

8



Apparently, including the clause about "demonstrating that it can end the suicide bombings in Israel" caused a number of people who claimed to have no opinion to express support for the whole concept -- perhaps because "ending the suicide bombing" sounds like a worthwhile goal in and of itself. To some degree this wording approximates the conditions for peace contained in the proposed road map for peace.

It seems like the search for Middle East peace has been going on now for decades. Are Americans at all hopeful that something may come out of the present process?

The American public has apparently been caught up in the more optimistic spirit emanating from the White House (and to a degree, from the Middle East). Fifty-one percent of Americans agree that there will come a time when "Israel and the Arab nations will be able to settle their differences and live in peace," a question that has been asked off and on over the last six years. Forty-six percent say that there will not be peace.

Will There Come a Time When Israel and
the Arab Nations Can Live in Peace?

These seem like less than overwhelmingly optimistic sentiments. Yet, the public is more optimistic than Gallup polls indicated in 2002 and 2001. Today's feelings are about on par with the optimism level in 1999 and 2000.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,005 national adults, aged 18+, conducted May 19-21, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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