Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

New Survey Says Public Blames Israel, Palestinians Equally for Crisis

May 9, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The majority of Americans believe both Israel and the Palestinians are equally responsible for ongoing violence in the Middle East, according to a new poll.

That contradicts numerous recent polls that have found that Americans favor Israel over the Palestinians.

“There is a silent majority that has not been getting a lot of attention,” said Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. “The public takes a much more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Kull’s recent poll of 802 Americans finds that 58 percent of Americans believe both Israelis and Palestinians are responsible for the failure to reach peace in the Middle East. Almost 30 percent say the Palestinians are responsible, with 7 percent blaming Israel.

The survey, which has a 3.5 percent margin of error, found that 67 percent believe the United States should not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 22 percent think America should take Israel’s side and 3 percent want the United States to favor the Palestinians.

That contrasts with what respondents perceive as current U.S. policy: Some 58 percent said they believe the United States favors Israel, and 22 percent said America is being even-handed.

Kull and other analysts at the University of Maryland say the poll results show a major disconnect between Congress and the American people. Just last week, lawmakers overwhelmingly passed resolutions supporting the State of Israel and equating its military incursions with the U.S. war against terrorism.

But Americans may not see it that way. The poll found that only 17 percent believe the Middle East conflict is part of the U.S. war against terrorism, and 46 percent said it is a conflict over land.

“Congress misperceives the public,” Kull said. “They tend to focus on those who speak out.”

Others, however, say it’s Kull and his pollsters who are mistaken.

Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, said he considers the survey biased.

It was “designed to demonstrate that the American government should be more even-handed,” he said.

The poll finds that 70 percent of Americans think President Bush did the right thing by getting more involved recently in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and more than half would support tougher measures against Israel if it does not comply with U.S. demands.

“The message of this poll is that the president has considerable running room,” said Jerome Segal, director of the Jerusalem Project at the University of Maryland. “The American public wants more involvement and wants it to be even-handed.”

Almost 80 percent of respondents said they supported Secretary of State Colin Powell meeting with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and 52 percent want Israel to be forbidden to use U.S.-made weapons in its military operations.

The poll questions were written in consultation with the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission at the United Nations. The respondents were given both sides’ arguments about key issues in the conflict, and their views were gauged.

More than half of the respondents said they believed Israeli invasions of the West Bank were intended, at least in part, to punish the Palestinian population. Another 30 percent said the primary purpose was to root out terrorism, and civilian casualties were unintentional.

Three-quarters of Americans rejected Palestinian arguments for targeting Israeli civilians as unjustifiable. But more than half of the respondents said Israel should not be building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Another key message from the poll, Segal said, was the amount of support the Palestinians would receive if they were to use nonviolent forms of protest. More than 80 percent of respondents said they would favor additional pressure on Israel if suicide bombings ceased.

The pollsters said they were struck by the fact that three-quarters of respondents said they follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at least fairly closely, and by the amount of support for U.N. intervention.

The poll was taken before Tuesday’s suicide bombing, which killed at least 15 people. The attack likely would increase support for Israel by several points, Kull said.

Other recent polls by media organizations have given mixed assessments of public support regarding the Middle East. An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken in April found that half of the 1,207 people surveyed felt the Palestinians were to blame for the violence in the Middle East, compared with 19 percent who blamed Israel and 18 percent who blamed both sides.

That poll also found that 59 percent of Americans equated Israel’s military actions with the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

A Gallup poll taken last week found that 24 percent of Americans think the United States should take Israel’s side, compared with 2 percent who think the United States should side with the Palestinians and 68 percent who want to remain neutral.

The Gallup poll found that 45 percent believed the Bush administration was favoring Israel, and 43 percent believed it was being even-handed.

Kull said the wide discrepancy in results is based on the fact that most surveys do not offer respondents the choice of saying that both Israelis and Palestinians are responsible for the violence, and count only those who volunteer the answer. His poll, however, specifically provided that option.

“We’re asking the question that fits more with what people want to say,” he said.

Tobin, however, said the phrasing of the questions is problematic.

“Given the construction of the questions, the responses are predictable,” he said, adding that Americans tend to move to the middle in assessing conflicts, and are more likely to choose neutral answers if the option is given.

“Americans’ tendency is to be fair and even-handed, but that does not really touch on how they really feel about the Middle East,” he said.

Tobin said his organization would rewrite the questions “the way nonpartisan social scientists are supposed to ask them,” and examine the differences.

Recommended from JTA