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The Middle East by Numbers

American public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is split--and often schizophrenic.

7:00 AM, Apr 18, 2002 • By DAVID SKINNER
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IF BUSH'S STRATEGY in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a bit muddled, so has American opinion. Although both the administration's stance and the weight of public sentiment favor Israel, they both contain surprising elements suggesting various other possibilities, most of them dreamlike. For instance, the White House has its Powell and Cheney trips, apparent exercises in wishful thinking and moral equivalence that happily come to nothing. And the American people, too, have had their moments of happy illusionment.

A Gallup poll published on April 9 "shows that most Americans want the United States to refrain from taking either the Israeli or Palestinian side." And yet, the same report shows that about half of the respondents say their own sympathies are with Israel. Call this a public/private distinction. Publicly, Americans want America to appear neutral. Privately, they hope Ariel Sharon continues to pursue Palestinian terrorists.

But then again, maybe not. The report also says that "large majorities want both the Israelis and the Palestinians to stop their violence against each other, regardless of what the other side does." Of course, such questions seem particularly vulnerable to the power of suggestion. If the question were phrased, say, "Does Israel have the right to respond militarily to Palestinian terrorism?" respondents would be less dubious about the use of force.

We know this for a fact because the same survey makes this very point. By 49 percent to 41 percent, Americans say "Israeli actions against Palestinians are justified." Furthermore, 53 percent say, "Israeli violence against the Palestinians can be described as legitimate acts of war." Call this one the abstract-versus-concrete distinction: Large majorities of Americans are in favor of Israel laying down arms, unless those arms are being used against Palestinians, in which case they are necessary to combat terrorism. Or put it this way: Americans are in favor of peace, except during wartime.

A Gallup poll published yesterday points up another interesting wrinkle in American support for Israel, this one relating to the right. While 67 percent of respondents identified as Republican support Israel, a slightly lower 59 percent of respondents identified as conservative support Israel. Party affiliation, the Gallup report concludes, thus trumps ideology as a correlative of sympathy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even more than the conservative movement, the GOP, onetime hat-rack of Pat Buchanan and many other non-interventionists, is heartily pro-Israel.

The poll oddities don't stop there. A recent Time/CNN poll found that while three-quarters of respondents thought Powell should meet with Arafat, only one in five thought he'd succeed at brokering some agreement. The same poll showed that 60 percent supported cutting off or reducing economic aid to Israel if it did not withdraw immediately from Palestinian territories. Thus Americans are in favor of diplomacy and the peace process--indeed other polls show hardy support for various settlement proposals--but don't really believe in them. And again, they huff and puff over Israeli withdrawal, but it's not clear how firm that position is.

Into this math bee come still more numbers, including a minor downward tweaking of Bush's approval ratings. A Marist Institute poll released two days ago said that while 59 percent believe the United States has a responsibility to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only 49 percent said they were confident in Bush's ability to handle the situation. Meanwhile, confidence in Bush's overall "ability to handle foreign policy/the war on terrorism" fell 9 points since January, from 73 percent to 64 percent. Over the same period of time, Bush's job approval ratings fell from 81 percent to 74 percent, which the Marist Institute attributes to Democrats and independents getting off the Bush bandwagon. Analysts disagree on whether these decreases are merely the effect of "gravity"--partisanship slowly pulling back toward earth Bush's no-longer-heavenly-but-still-lofty approval numbers--or a result of Bush's lack of progress in the Middle East. In most polls, however, one constant remains. Actual support for the Palestinians remains low--a fraction of the support Israel enjoys. Not very imaginative, but it's a start.

One way to look at these numbers is that Americans are credulous to the suggestions of pollsters and the media, so much so they can sound like the United Nations in their hunger for agreements and disarmament. But if that is true, they must also be permeable to the suggestions of popular presidents. And with the diplomatic option now kaput--the Powell trip having accomplished nothing--conditions appear to be ideal for the president to shape public opinion and clarify the aims of American policy in the Middle East.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.