Posted on January 01, 2001 in Washington Watch

Even with Israeli’s public relations effort to contain the negative fallout from its current crisis with the Palestinians, American public opinion continues to signal its support for a balanced approach to resolving the Middle East conflict. This is a central conclusion of a recent poll commissioned by Abu Dhabi Television and the Washington-based Arab American Institute and conducted by Zogby International of New York. The poll interviewed 1012 randomly selected U.S. voters from December 18 to 21, 2000. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.2 percent.

Principle findings of the Abu Dhabi / AAI poll are that a majority of Americans:

  • support a Palestinian state by a margin of 63.5 percent to 15 percent;

  • support not moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by a margin of 57 percent to 23.5 percent;

  • want President-elect Bush to steer a middle course in pursuing Middle East peace–71.5 percent, as opposed to 17 percent who want Bush to favor one or the other of the parties to the conflict;

  • and want President-elect Bush to pressure Israel and the Palestinians equally in an effort to make a peace agreement.

The poll makes it clear that many Americans continue to have sympathies with the state of Israel. When asked, for example, “with whom do their sympathies lie,” 30 percent of those interviewed said Israel, while 11 percent said they sympathized with the Palestinians. 22 percent of those polled said they sympathized with both parties, and 29 percent said neither. These numbers, however, represent a steady movement toward a leveling of U.S. attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, Gallup polls taken in the midst of two earlier periods of Israeli-Palestinian crises (during the aftermath of Israeli’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and in 1988 at the start of the Palestinian intifada) showed more than 40 percent of Americans claiming greater sympathy toward Israel. This marked a decline from the 1960’s and 1970’s when more than 60 percent of Americans had claimed greater sympathy toward Israel. Today the number is at 30 percent.

This leveling trend also shows itself in judgments made regarding the current violence in the Middle East. When asked who is to blame for the current violence, 6.5 percent say Israel, while 14.5 blame the Palestinians. On the other hand, 61 percent blame both parties equally.

American voters are also divided on the issue of whether or not Israel is guilty of using excessive force against the Palestinian uprising. 32 percent of those interviewed said that Israel was guilty of using excessive force. 25.5 said that the force used was the “right amount,” while 12 percent suggested that it was not enough. What is apparent here is that while Israel retains some of the support it had developed over the years, Americans are becoming more balanced in their understanding. In a July 2000 AAI/ZI poll, we found that this growing sense of balance extended to how Americans viewed resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with substantial majorities supporting a Palestinian state and the rights of Palestinian refugees to return. We found, for example, that by two to one, Americans favored a solution to Jerusalem that allowed for a shared or divided city. This support for a balanced or “shared” policy toward Jerusalem has continued to gain support during the past six years, as can be seen in Chart I:

I. Opinion of Jerusalem
Entirely Israeli Shared or Divided
1995 18.5 30
1997 20 24
1999 24 39
2000 22 43.5

This December 2000 Abu Dhabi /AAI poll finds that those attitudes continue to hold sway. When asked whether they agreed with President-elect Bush’s promise “to begin the process of moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem” or with the position of President Clinton who has said that “no U.S. action should be taken with regard to the Embassy until the Israelis and Palestinians agree to the final status of the city”–57 percent agreed with President Clinton’s view. Only 23.5 percent agreed with Bush’s campaign position.

A similar development can be observed in the support the American public is giving to a Palestinian state. When asked whether or not there should be an independent Palestinian state, 63.5 percent agreed. Only 15 percent disagreed with that proposition. Here too there can be observed a continuous growth in public opinion support (see Chart II).

II. Opinion of a Palestinian State
Favorable Unfavorable
1980 33 32
1982 37 45
1997 47 13
1998 41 24
1999 54 21
July 2000 56 13
Dec. 2000 63.5 15

Finally when asked to describe Clinton’s approach to pursuing Middle East peace, 29.5 percent said they felt that Clinton learned toward favoring Israel. Five percent said that Clinton leaned toward the Palestinians, while 50.5 percent of all those polled described Clinton’s policy as “steering a middle course.” When these same American voters were asked how George W. Bush should pursue Middle East peace only 15.5 percent said he should lean toward Israel. 1.5 percent said he should favor the Palestinians, but an overwhelming 71.5 percent said that the new President should pursue a policy that favors neither side. This last item further amplifies the growing movement in U.S. opinion in the direction of support for a more balanced Middle East policy. Chart III, which traces responses given to this question during the past four years, shows that those who support a “middle course” have grown from 56 percent in 1997 to today’s 71.5 percent.

III. How Should the Administration Pursue Peace?
Lean Toward Israel Lean Toward the Palestinians Steer a Middle Course
4/97 15 3 56
9/97 15 2 61
9/98 12 2 63.5
2000 15.5 1.5 71.5


Partisan Split

One of the most striking observations that emerges from this poll is the deep partisan split that characterizes the current Middle East peace debate in the United States. In the responses to almost every question noted above there is 10 percent to 20 percent difference between the positions taken by Democrats versus those taken by Republicans, or by those who describe themselves as liberals versus those who call themselves conservatives. And in almost every instance the more negative anti-Arab or anti-Palestinian positions taken by Republicans or conservatives can be seen to be the result of the strong current of religious conservatives within their ranks.

For example, while both Democrats and Republicans support an independent Palestinian state, Democrats do so by a margin of 69.5 to 10 percent while the Republican margin is less at 58 to 20.5 percent.

And on the “use of force” issue, 39.5 percent of Democrats felt that Israel uses excessive force, while only 26 percent of Republicans agreed with that proposition.

And Republicans show greater sympathy with Israel with 39.5 percent saying they favor the Jewish state and only 9.5 percent saying they support the Palestinians. Among Democrats the differences between those sympathizing with Israel and the Palestinians is only 24.5 to 12 percent. Among those who describe themselves as liberals the margin is even closer at 22 percent favoring Israel to 15 percent supporting Palestinians. For those who are religious conservatives, on the other hand, the margin is a huge 48.5 percent for Israel to 8.5 percent for the Palestinians.


It remains to be seen whether Bill Clinton can succeed in bringing about an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement during the short time he still has in office.

What is clear, however, from the results of this poll is that the Palestinians move into their dealings with the next U.S. Administration with their case better understood by U.S. public opinion. It is clear that U.S. opinion is, today, more desirous than ever before of a balanced U.S. approach to the Middle East conflict.

This new reality is one of the accomplishments of the past decade – but it needs to be acted on or taken advantage of, if it is to be an accomplishment that has any meaning.

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