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Israel and the Palestinians

View of Israel-Palestinian Conflict

A plurality to solid majority takes an even-handed view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, blaming both sides equally and expressing equal levels of sympathy, though a larger minority takes a more favorable view of Israel than of the Palestinians. A substantial majority feels neither side has made enough effort to seek peace, and a majority questions each side's fundamental commitment to peace. The majority is pessimistic about the potential for resolving the conflict. Americans see the conflict more as a struggle over land than as part of the war on terrorism. An overwhelming majority rejects the idea that Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians are a legitimate means of resisting Israeli occupation. In 2002-2003 pluralities to modest majorities saw Israel's military actions as justified in light of Palestinian terrorism, but a majority was critical of how Israel has conducted its military actions in the West Bank, and a strong majority supported President Bush's call for Israeli withdrawal.

When asked which side they blame more, or for which side they have more sympathy, the plurality or majority--when given the option--say they blame both sides equally or have equal levels of sympathy. When not given this option, large numbers, sometimes even a majority, refuse to answer one way or the other. In every case, a larger minority expresses a more favorable view of Israel than the Palestinians.


When asked to assess blame for the conflict a majority blames both sides about equally. The May 2003 PIPA survey asked, "Who do you think is more to blame for the failure to reach peace in the Middle East: the Israelis, the Palestinians, or both sides about equally?" A solid majority of 65% chose "both sides about equally," up slightly from May 2002, when 58% blamed both sides. Of the remainder, 24% (29% in 2002) blamed the Palestinians more, while 6% blamed the Israelis more (7% in 2002). Just 5% were unable to choose an answer. When Gallup polls have asked how much each side was to blame, overwhelming majorities said both sides deserved at least a moderate amount of the blame. In October 2003, 81% percent said they blamed the Palestinians a great deal (36%) or a moderate amount (45%). In a separate question, 68% blamed Israel (20% a great deal, 48% a moderate amount). Gallup found very similar results in March 2002.

Polls that do not offer respondents the chance to lay blame on both sides generally find more blaming the Palestinians than the Israelis, but a large percentage refuses to answer one way or the other, showing a widespread discomfort with the available response options. (As a general rule, pollsters will try to get respondents to make a choice one way or another, but if there is large-scale refusal to answer, this suggests that many respondents feel that the available response options are not adequate and should therefore be supplemented.)

For example, an April 2002 Fox News poll asked who Americans blame for "failure to reach peace," offering only the options of blaming the Israelis or the Palestinians. Thirty-two percent blamed the Palestinians, 13% blamed the Israelis, but an extraordinary 55% refused to answer the question. In August 2001, Fox News found 17% blaming Israel and 25% Palestinians, with 58% opting out.

A May 2002 Harris Interactive survey asked which side was "mainly to blame for the violence," and only offered the options of saying the Palestinians or Israel. Forty-four percent blamed the Palestinians, 19% blamed Israel, and 37% refused to answer or said something else. An April Newsweek survey found 49% blaming the Palestinians and 12% citing Israel, with 39% giving other responses.

The increased frequency of suicide bombings by Palestinians in early 2002 has been accompanied by a substantial shift toward blaming the Palestinians for the violence, but there has also been some increase in blaming the Israelis. In a half-dozen polls taken between late 2000 and mid-March 2002, only about one-third of respondents blamed the Palestinians for the violence. A majority or plurality did not choose either side. Now, a plurality blames the Palestinians. In addition, as the Israelis have responded militarily to Palestinian attacks, the percentage blaming Israel has also increased, though it fluctuates between roughly 12% and 20%. [1]

Even-handedness is also apparent in the levels of frustration Americans feel with both sides. In the May 2002 PIPA survey, respondents were asked to rate their level of frustration on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 meaning none and 10 meaning a great deal. Again, respondents were quite even-handed. A majority (55%) gave scores that were exactly equal (48%) or within one point (7%). Within the remainder, the gap was fairly narrow, with 21% expressing more frustration with the Palestinians and 14% with the Israelis. Forty percent gave a response over 5 for Israel, while 48% gave such a response for the Palestinians. The mean scores were also very close: Israel scored a 5.4 while the Palestinians scored a 5.8. [2]


Americans also show even-handedness on the question of sympathy, though in this case a larger minority leans in favor of Israel. In May 2003 and May 2002 PIPA polls, respondents were asked to rate their level of sympathy with each side independently on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 meaning none and 10 meaning a great deal.. When the responses were compared, Just over half (52%) gave no more than one point's difference in sympathy between the two sides, similar to the 49% who did the same in May 2002; 30% expressed greater sympathy (two or more points higher) for Israel, slightly lower than the 34% in 2002; and 8% expressed greater sympathy for the Palestinians (10% in 2002). When all the scores were combined, the average scores were favorable to Israel, but by a fairly modest margin: Israel scored a mean of 5.46, while the Palestinians scored a 3.91, slightly lower than the 5.7 and 4.3, respectively in May 2002.

For a number of years, pollsters have asked Americans with which side they are more sympathetic in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- without providing the option of saying both sides equally. Throughout the last decade or so, such questions generally found that around half sympathized with Israel and around one-fifth with the Palestinians. Importantly, a very large percentage (usually 30% or more) refused to answer.

However, there have been significant variations in these numbers over time. In the most recent poll -- a Gallup poll from February 2006 -- 59% sympathized with Israel and 15% sympathized more with the Palestinians; 18% chose neither side over the other. This was the highest level of sympathy recorded for Israel since 1991 and nearly the level just prior to the US invasion of Iraq in February 2003. Sympathy for the Palestinians was at a low point, likely due to the recent election of the anti-Israel Hamas party to the Palestinian leadership. In polls taken after September 11, but before the April Israeli-armed incursions into the West Bank, the percentage showing greater sympathy to Israel also rose to a majority (51-55%). Sympathy for the Palestinians declined to 7-8% -- its lowest level in the past decade - before moving back to the 15% range in early 2002. (ABC News and Washington Post polls taken since 9/11 replaced "Palestinians" with "Palestinian Authority," but have shown similar results and movement.)

Sympathy for Israel also reached as high as 60% during the period immediately following the Gulf War, during which Arafat and the PLO sided with Iraq. By contrast, it fell to just 38% in August 1997, when Prime Minister Netanyahu was coming under criticism for undermining the peace process. [3]

When asked whether respondents are "more in sympathy with Israel or more in sympathy with the Arab nations" (as opposed to the Palestinians), even after September 11 only a plurality has chosen Israel. In CBS/New York Times polls in both October 2001 and April 2002, 48% said they sympathized more with Israel. Sympathy with the Arab nations declined from 19% in October to 12% in April, while those who did not take a side rose from 30% to 40%. Asked in 1998 by the New York Times, 60% said they sympathized more with Israel and 13% more with the Arab nations (both 3%, neither 10%, don't know 14%). This level of sympathy for Israel is something of a high-water mark. In the 1990-1992 period sympathy for Israel ranged from 42-57%, except at the beginning of the Gulf War, when it surged to 64%. [4]

Recently, PIPA asked how people perceived sympathies for Israel and the Palestinians more broadly. Asked is it "your impression that more countries in the world are more sympathetic to the Israeli or the Palestinian position, or is it roughly balanced," a 52% majority said roughly equal, while only 14% said other countries favored Israel and 27% said the Palestinians. [4a]

Results from a July 2005 Pew question indicate that the portrayal of the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the media may have the largest impact on whether Americans have more sympathy with Israelis or the Palestinians. When those who answered the initial question--to which side were they more sympathetic-- were asked to identify which factor had the most influence on their thinking about the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, 30% said that it was "what [they] have seen or read in the media," while 22% said "[their] religious beliefs], followed by 17% who said "[their] education."[4b]

Neither Side Doing Enough

Consistent with their even-handed perspective, strong majorities feel that both sides should do more to try to break the impasse and make compromises. They also question the two sides' interest in peace as a goal. Both Sharon and Arafat are seen as part of the problem.

Americans strongly believe both sides must change, and that both sides need to make gestures to break the cycle of violence. In an April 2002 Gallup survey, strong majorities felt that both the Palestinians (74%) and the Israelis (60%) should "stop their violence against" the other side "regardless of what [they] do." In a January 1998 Los Angeles Times poll, an overwhelming majority agreed that Israelis (75%) and the Palestinians (76%) "must change their attitude before peace can come to the Middle East." [5]

Strong majorities say both sides are not doing enough to work for peace. The May 2003 and May 2002 PIPA polls, for example, found that Americans think neither side has been willing enough to make compromises over the last few years. A strong majority (60%) feels that the Palestinians have been "too unwilling" to compromise (21% feel that way strongly). This is substantially lower than in 2002, when 69% agreed (41% strongly). Just 5% say they have been "too willing," virtually identical to the 6%, who agreed in 2002, while 20% say they have struck the right balance, up somewhat from 11% in 2002. A plurality (47%) also believes that Israel has been too unwilling to compromise, up slightly from 41% in 2002. Again, only a small percentage (10%) said that Israel has been too willing, down slightly from 16 in 2002, and 30% said their level of willingness was about right, similar to the 28% that agreed in 2002. [5a]

In April 2002, Time/CNN found that just 6% rated as "excellent" or "pretty good" Arafat's efforts to "work for a reasonable solution to the future relations between Israel and the Palestinians," while just 23% gave Ariel Sharon such a rating. The majority rated Arafat's efforts as only fair or poor (85%), and Ariel Sharon was rated only fair or poor by 66%. Attitudes about both men on this question have grown increasingly negative over the past year. In March 2002, another Time/CNN poll found that overwhelming majorities say neither Arafat nor Sharon has "done enough to promote peace in the Middle East." Eighty percent report this attitude about Arafat and 68% say the same about Sharon. [6]

Not only do Americans think the two sides have failed to do enough to find peace, but a majority has also questioned whether each side is really interested in peace. Asked in two Newsweek poll questions how they see Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, just 32% said they saw Sharon as committed to peace, while only 16% saw Arafat this way (March 2002). A strong majority of 70% saw Arafat as an obstacle to peace, as did a plurality of 40% for Sharon. In a May 2002 CBS News poll, majorities said that neither Arafat (79%) nor the Israeli government (53%) "wants peace enough to make real concessions" to the other side. Only about a third said Israel wants peace enough to make concessions, while only about 1 in 10 said the same about Arafat. In an April 2002 Time/CNN poll, 72% said Arafat was "too stubborn to make compromises for peace," and 72% rejected a description of him as "someone who genuinely wants peace." Consistent with these negative perceptions of both men, when an April 2002 Fox News poll asked whether a "change in either the Israeli or the Palestinian leadership will be needed to reach peace in the Middle East," a plurality (41%) said that both Sharon and Arafat need to go in order for peace to be realized. Twenty-five percent said just Arafat should go, and 5% felt that just Sharon was the problem. Another 15% felt neither should go, and 14% were not sure. [7]

Substantial majorities of Americans have seen Palestinian leaders as both unable and unwilling to stop the terror attacks. CBS News polls in April and May 2002 found that 3 in 5 do not believe Arafat "can control the actions of Palestinians to prevent more suicide bombing attacks." In March 64% told Newsweek he could not control "extremist Palestinian groups." Even greater majorities, however, say that he does not want to stop the attacks. In the CBS polls, over 8 in 10 said Arafat has not done all he could to stop the attacks. And an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken in April found that nearly 7 in 10 (69%) believed Arafat does not want to stop the bombings. Given Arafat's lack of desire to stop the attacks, 76% say they hold him "responsible" for terrorist attacks on Israel by the Palestinians. Just 15% felt he was not responsible (ABC/Washington Post). [8]

Pessimism About Resolution

For some time now -- at least since the breakdown of peace talks at Camp David in mid-2000--Americans have been quite pessimistic about the peace process. A February 2006 Gallup poll found that a strong majority (65%) believes that there will not come a time when "Israel and the Arab nations will be able to settle their differences and live in peace," while just 32% believe that such a time will come. This has been largely unchanged over the years. In August 2001, 64% held this position. [9]

US efforts to secure peace in the Middle East are also given poor grades. In a March 2006 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll , only 17% felt that the US "has gotten closer to its objectives of peace and democracy" when thinking about the whole Middle East, including Iraq, Iran, Palestine and Israel, while 41% believe that the US has gotten further away from objectives of peace and democracy and 40% believe that things have stayed about the same. [10]

Comparisons to War on Terrorism

Consistent with Americans' view of both sides as responsible for the violence, they do not see the conflict simply as a case of Palestinian terror and Israeli reprisals. In May 2003 and May 2002, PIPA asked, "Do you think that Israel's struggle with the Palestinians is best described as a part of the war on terrorism, like the US struggle with Al Q'aeda; as a conflict between two national groups fighting over the same piece of land; or would you describe it some other way?" In 2003, a majority (54%, up significantly from 46% in 2002) viewed the conflict as a struggle over the same piece of land, while just 17% said it was best described as part of the US-led war on terrorism. Only 21%, down from the nearly 1 in 3 (29%) in 2002, thought of it in some other way, and 9% did not know. This does not mean that Americans do not see some similarity between US actions against Al Q'aeda and Israeli assaults on Palestine. For example, in an April 2002 CBS News poll, 59% agreed with the statement, "The Israelis taking military action against Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians is no different from the U.S. taking military action against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda." About 1 in 3 disagreed. As noted below, a strong majority does believe Palestinian suicide bombings are terrorist acts, and a large minority says the same about Israeli reprisals. [11]

Criticism of Violence on Both Sides

Strong to overwhelming majorities have rejected Palestinian violence against civilians as unjustifiable. Pluralities or slight majorities have seen Israeli military action as justifiable in terms of its goals of stopping Palestinian terrorism, but a majority views it as excessive in practice, and a majority believes that Israel has been punishing the general Palestinian population, not just rooting out terrorists. A strong majority has supported calls for Israel to terminate its military action and withdraw from the territories.

Palestinian Attacks on Civilians Seen as Unjustifiable

An overwhelming majority rejects the idea that Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians are a legitimate means of resisting Israeli occupation. Strong majorities believe Arafat is unwilling and unable to stem the violence.

In the May 2002 PIPA survey, an overwhelming majority rejected the argument made by some Palestinians (though not by the Palestinian Authority, which officially rejects terrorism) that attacks on Israeli civilians are a legitimate means of resisting Israeli occupation. Respondents were presented a position in support of the view that such attacks are legitimate. This argument was developed by studying Palestinian and pro-Palestinian sources that take positions defending such attacks. The Israeli position was developed in consultation with the Embassy of Israel. As shown below, the position that such attacks are justifiable was found convincing by just 42%, while the opposing position was found convincing by an overwhelming 78%. Finally, when asked--after evaluating both positions--whether they thought such attacks are justifiable or not, an overwhelming 76% said they are not.

Other recent polls have also found very strong majorities saying that the suicide attacks are unjustified. In early April 2002, a CNN/USA Today survey (which did not offer arguments on the issue) found that two-thirds (66%) felt that Palestinian actions were "mostly unjustified"; just 22% felt they were "mostly justified." In the same survey, another sample was asked if they would "describe the recent violence committed by the Palestinians against the Israelis as acts of terrorism or as legitimate acts of war against their opponents." In that case, 70% felt they were acts of terrorism. [12]

Most are also not convinced that violence will make the Israelis more willing to compromise. When PIPA (2003) asked whether the "attacks on Israeli civilians have increased or decreased the likelihood that Israel will be ready to compromise with the Palestinians," a strong majority of 66% said the attacks would decrease the likelihood of compromise. Only 23% said the attacks would make the Israelis more willing to compromise, while 11% did not know. [12a]

Israeli Military Incursions 2002-2003

A plurality or slim majority viewed the 2002-2003 Israeli incursions into Palestinian territories as justified in principle. In an early April 2002 Gallup survey, 53% said they would describe Israeli actions as "legitimate acts of war against their opponents," but a surprisingly high 39% said they would be better described as "acts of terrorism." In the same survey, a plurality (49%) said that Israeli actions in the West Bank were "mostly justified." Forty-one percent felt they were "mostly unjustified." When asked more specifically about surrounding Arafat's Ramallah compound with tanks and personnel to "pressure him into putting an end to [the terror] attacks," nearly two-thirds (65%) felt that particular action was justified (CBS News, April 2002). [13]

Nonetheless, majorities were critical of various aspects of Israeli military action. Consistent with the view that there is no commitment to peace on either side (discussed above), a slight majority feels the Israelis were too quick to use force in response to Palestinian attacks. Asked in an April 2002 CBS News poll whether "the Israelis have tried hard enough to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict with the Palestinians or have…been too quick to get military forces involved," just 30% felt they had tried hard enough on the diplomatic front. A slim majority of 51% said they had been too quick to use armed force; 19% were not sure. [14]

Pluralities to majorities criticized Israel for the way it uses military force. According to an ABC/Washington Post poll taken in late April 2002, a fairly strong majority (61%) also said that Israel has not "done all it reasonably can do to try to avoid civilian casualties in the Palestinian areas." Fewer than 1 in 3 believed Israel had done enough to avoid civilian casualties. In early April, the public was sharply divided as to whether the military response had "gone too far." Forty-six percent felt it had, while 44% felt it had not (Time/CNN). As with Arafat, Americans are not confident that Sharon has the ability to control the most virulent partisans on his side. [15]

A key issue was whether Israel's actions were, as Israel claimed, simply meant to root out the terrorists' infrastructure there, or if Israel is also trying to punish the general Palestinian population -- something that would be a violation of international law. In the May 2002 PIPA poll, when respondents were initially presented this question, a majority said they believed that Israel has been trying to punish the population. Thirty-six percent said they believed that the Israelis "have only been trying to root out terrorists, though they may have hurt some civilians unintentionally." However, 55% said they have been either "primarily trying to punish the population" (21%) or "primarily trying to root out terrorists, but in some cases have also tried to punish the population" (34%).

Naturally, the question arises: What if each side were given the opportunity to hear both sides of this issue-would it have an effect on their views one way or the other? To find out, PIPA consulted with representatives from the Embassy of Israel and the Palestinian mission at the UN to develop the best presentation of their positions on this issue. Near the end of the questionnaire (so as not to affect other responses), respondents were read each argument and asked to evaluate how convincing they found each one. As shown below, 52% found the Israeli argument convincing, while 53% found the Palestinian argument convincing. When asked after hearing the arguments, the percentage saying that Israel was only trying to root out terrorists slipped 6% to 30%, while the percentage saying that Israel was, at least in some cases, punishing the population rose to 58%.

Americans also felt Israelis should be willing to engage in quid pro quo. In May 2003, PIPA told respondents that "Israel has many means for putting pressure on the Palestinians that the Palestinians do not have, such as setting up roadblocks. However, the Palestinians' means of putting pressure on the Israelis is largely limited to using violence." When asked "if the Palestinians refrain from using violence, [whether] the US should tell Israel that it should refrain from using forms of pressure not available to the Palestinians," a strong majority (70%) said it should. Only 19% disagreed, while 12% did not know.[16]

On Military Action in the West Bank

Israeli Argument
(written in consultation with Israeli Embassy)
Palestinian Argument (written in consultation with Palestinian UN mission)

To capture the organizers of terrorist attacks that killed scores of Israeli civilians, Israeli forces had no choice but to seek out the terrorists. Israel was forced to do this because the Palestinian Authority has reneged on its own commitment to prevent terrorism. The Israeli forces had orders to avoid hurting civilians and to surgically target the terrorists. The extensive damage that occurred was in the context of difficult house-to-house fighting. Israel only acted like the US in Afghanistan in seeking out terrorists who murder its citizens.

Israeli forces have killed women and children, bulldozed entire neighborhoods crushing the people living there, fired missiles into densely populated areas, blocked access of ambulances, and cut off electricity and water to whole towns for long periods. The Red Cross has declared that Israel has violated the Geneva conventions, UN agencies have protested Israeli actions, and the UN has created a fact-finding team which Israel is resisting. Clearly these actions are designed to hurt innocent Palestinian civilians, not just to target terrorist groups.
Convincing 52% Convincing 53%
Conclusion Before After
The Israelis have only been trying to root out terrorists, though they may have hurt some civilians unintentionally 36% 30%
The Israelis have been primarily trying to punish the population 21% 21%
The Israelis have been primarily trying to root out terrorists, but in some cases have also tried to punish the population 34% 37%

Perhaps most significant, majorities have supported international calls for Israel to end its incursions. In the May 2002 PIPA survey, 63% approved of Bush's call for Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian towns, while just 27% disapproved. As early as the beginning of April, a strong plurality (47%) approved of the "United Nations Security Council resolution calling on Israel to withdraw its troops from certain occupied territories." Just 28% were opposed and 25% were not sure (CBS News). [17]

Americans also perceive Israel's military actions as possibly self-defeating. Asked in the PIPA surveys in May 2003 and May 2002, "Do you think that the recent Israeli military intervention in the West Bank has increased or decreased the likelihood of further suicide bombings against Israeli civilians?" 67% and 62%, respectively, said the likelihood of bombings had been increased, while just 22% and 15%, respectively, said it had been decreased. In 2003, 11% did not answer. In 2002, 5% percent volunteered that the intervention made no difference, and 17% did not know. [18]



Report Contents

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

[full report]
May 30, 2003