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Israel and the Palestinians

Israel and the Palestinians

Importance of the Middle East to the US

A very large majority of Americans see the resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict as an important foreign policy goal and as crucial to winning the war against terrorism. Most Americans think that US policy toward Israel is a reason for negative feelings toward the US, but are divided as to whether this is a major or minor reason. In the wake of September 11 numerous polls found that a majority believed US policy in the Middle East was a factor prompting the September 11th attacks, but the public was divided about whether this means that US Mideast policy should be reevaluated.

A very large majority of Americans see the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an important foreign policy goal for the US. Asked how much they view "the development of a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli situation in the Middle East" as an important "foreign policy goal" for the US, in June 2003 Gallup found that 87% considered this an important goal (50% very, 37% somewhat). Just 11% thought it was not important. The percentage saying that this is a very important has been at 50% or above, three of the last four times this question has been asked. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Gallup also found a majority (57%) saying that "paving the way for a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians" was a goal worth going to war over. The percentage saying Middle East peace is an important policy goal has fluctuated only modestly over the last decade. When a 2003 May PIPA poll asked how high a priority "efforts to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians" should be, a 59% majority said it should be a "high priority" (47%) or "one the highest priorities" (12%) for the US. Only 39% said the conflict is a "low priority" (30%) or "not a priority" (9%). [1]

A majority believes that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is necessary to secure peace in the Middle East region. Asked in an April-May 2003 Gallup International poll, 64% agreed that "there can be no peace in the region without a settlement of the Israel/Palestine issue," Only 21% disagreed.[1a]

When asked about the potential consequences of the conflict in the Middle East, a majority feels they are substantial for the US. In a June 2004 German Marshall fund poll, an overwhelming majority (83%) said that "military conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors" is an important threat to the US over the next 10 years (including 38% saying it is an "extremely important" threat." Similarly, a July 2004 CCFR poll found 82% saying such conflict was an important threat (43% "critical" threat). A poll of US voters in December 2004 found 81% saying that "US support for Israel makes us more vulnerable to terrorism." Only 13% felt it makes the US less vulnerable (Opinion Research Corporation). In 2002, 77% felt it was at least somewhat likely (37% very likely) that "violence between the Israelis and Palestinians might lead to a wider war involving other countries in the Middle East region" (Newsweek). According to a May 2002 TIPP poll, a slim majority (51%) also felt "the current Middle East crisis will have a significant negative impact on the US economy." [2]

The public feels it is particularly important to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem in order to win the war against terrorism. In a May 2003 PIPA poll, a majority of 55% said that if the "conflict between Israel and the Arab countries was largely resolved" it would reduce the likelihood of terrorism "a lot" (13%) or "some" (42%), while 43% said it would reduce the likelihood "not very much" (30%) or "not at all" (13%). [3]

More broadly, Americans view events in the Middle East as vitally important for US foreign policy, and appear to regard the Middle East as the most important region in the world in terms of US interests. In April 2002, when asked whether America's "vital interests" were at stake in the Israeli-Palestinian situation, 61% said yes. Just 35% said no. In May 2000 a Gallup survey asked, "How important do you think what happens in each of the following areas of the world is to the United States today?" When asked about the Middle East, a 53% majority said it was "vitally important" and another 34% said it was "important but not vital." Just 10% believed it was not important. The Middle East was the only region that a majority felt was vitally important. In comparison, 39% felt Western Europe was vitally important, 36% felt the same about Asia, and all other regions were deemed vitally important by 30% or less. [4]

Effect of Mideast Policy on World Views of US

Most Americans think that US policy toward Israel is a reason for negative feelings toward the US, but are divided as to whether this is a major or minor reason. In an October 2005 Pew poll, Americans were asked how much "US support for Israel" is a reason "why people around the world are unhappy with the US." Thirty-nine percent called it a major reason, while an additional 39% said it was a minor reason, while 13% said it was not much of a reason.[5]

Polls in the Wake of September 11

In the wake of September 11 a series of polls asked Americans about the relationship between the attacks and US Mideast policy. A strong majority of Americans said that US Mideast policy played a significant role in prompting the September 11th terrorist attacks. In May 2002, a CBS News poll found that 73% said that when thinking about the terrorist attacks, they placed "a lot of the blame" (23%) or "some of the blame" (50%) on "United States policies in the Middle East over the years." This is actually up 5% from September 2001, when a CBS/New York Times poll found 68% saying US policies in the region deserve at least some of the blame. Even more dramatic, in the May 2002 poll the percentage laying "a lot" of the blame on US policies was up 9% over September 2001. [6] In an October Newsweek poll, 58% said that they saw "opposition to US ties to Israel and US policies toward the Palestinian situation" as a "major reason" that motivated the terrorists, while an additional 23% saw it as a "minor reason." Asked the same question in late September, 68% said it was a major reason and 21% a minor reason. [7] In a September Los Angeles Times poll, 58% said that they thought that the attacks were "a direct result of United States' policy in the Middle East" (were not, 23%). [8] A strong majority (59%) also said that "many people in the Middle East and other non-western nations believe the United States itself bears some responsibility for the hatred that lead to the terrorist attacks," while just 27% rejected this view of beliefs in much of the world (Pew September 2001). [9]

September 11 increased the felt need to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In a May 2002 PIPA survey, an overwhelming majority (73%) felt that the September 11 attacks made "resolving the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians" more important for the United States; only 12% felt the attacks made settling the conflict less important. According to an April Fox News poll, a majority (54%) considers "find[ing] a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as part of winning the overall war on terrorism." Only 34% felt that is not the case. Indeed, when asked in April 2002 which was most important -- overthrowing Saddam Hussein, catching Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, or finding a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict - a strong plurality (49%) chose resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Thirty-one percent felt catching bin Laden was most important, and 15% placed priority on ousting Saddam Hussein (TIPP). [10]

Americans were divided, though as to whether the US should modify its Mideast policy. Asked in an October 2001 Newsweek poll, "Should the United States consider changing its policies in the Middle East to try to reduce the violent backlash against the United States?" 46% said that it should, while 43% said it should not. [11]

But only a small minority said the US should respond by distancing itself from Israel. Asked three times by an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, "Has the war on terrorism made you think that the United States' relations toward Israel should be closer, more distant, or stay the same?" only 13-16% said the US should be more distant, while 29-33% said they should be closer and 42-48% said they should stay the same. [12] Similarly, Pew found just 19% favored the US taking "Israel's side" less, while 16% said more and 56% opted for no change (October 21). [13] In October ABC News found that only 13% favored decreasing US support for Israel (decrease 13%, keep same 68%). [14]

At the same time, consistent with the divided attitude about reevaluating US Mideast policy, when asked," Do you think that a major cause of US problems in the Middle East today is that the United States has paid too much attention to Israel and not enough attention to the Arab countries?" 39% said yes and 46% said no (CBS/New York Times, October 2001). [15]



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Americans on the Middle East Road Map

[full report]
May 30, 2003