An in-depth poll conducted by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Initiatives (PIPA) found that a majority of Americans do not agree with the views advocated by pro-Israeli hawks in the White House and Congress.
They do not favor supporting Israel in its war against Palestinians; nor do they view Israel's recent invasion of Palestinian territories as part of the broader war on terrorism. The public instead wants the United States to work in conjunction with the United Nations and other countries to broker or even impose a final settlement to the Israeli/Palestinian war.
According to the poll -- which posed more than 50 detailed questions to 801 respondents -- two-thirds of Americans want Washington to be strictly even-handed in its approach to the conflict. But 58 percent say President Bush has taken Israel's side in the ongoing conflict.
But the poll also shows that Americans strongly condemn Palestinian suicide bombings and feel greater sympathy for Israel than before 9/11. A strong majority, however, objects to Sharon's military actions last month and his refusal to accede to Bush's appeals to withdraw from reoccupied towns. An overwhelming 76 percent say Israel should allow the United Nations to investigate its military operation in Jenin. Moreover, almost two-thirds of the respondents see Israel's recent military attacks on towns on the West Bank as counter-productive. Sixty-two percent say the likelihood of future bombings has been increased by the attacks; while only 15 percent say the likelihood of such attacks has diminished.
Most Americans also do not perceive the Israeli invasion as a struggle against terrorism. In contrast to a CBS poll taken in mid-April -- cited in Monday's (New York Times -- the PIPA survey conducted during the first week of May found that an overwhelming majority of Americans disagree with Congress's view of the conflict.
This month both houses passed resolutions -- which might as well have been written by the right-wing lobbying group American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) -- expressing strong support for the Israeli offensive, linking it to the broader war on terrorism. When respondents were asked to describe the war, 46 percent agreed with the statement that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was one "between two national groups fighting over the same piece of land." Only a small minority of Americans (17 percent) described it as a part of the war on terrorism, "similar to the U.S. struggle with al-Qaeda."
The PIPA survey's detailed findings suggest that official Washington's strong support for Sharon is not shared by the general public.
"What this poll makes clear is that recent actions by Congress are out of step with the American public and their views on the crisis in the Middle East," says Steven Kull, PIPA's director. "Americans clearly hold both sides equally responsible for the current situation and are willing to increase pressure on both sides to achieve a peace deal."
The Bush measures that enjoy strong popular support include taking on an active role in the Middle East conflict and asking Israeli forces to withdraw from Palestinian territories. The poll also showed that the public sides strongly with Secretary of State Colin Powell in the battle within the administration for control over Mideast policy. Powell's efforts to rein in Sharon have often been foiled by pro-Likud members within the administration, including sometimes the President himself. Four out of five respondents said they approved of Powell's meeting with Arafat last month, while 82 percent said they favored his initiative to convene a major international conference with the European Union (EU), Russia and the United Nations, to deal with the conflict.
"It's quite pro-Colin Powell," says Jerome Segal, a leading expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations.
But other members of the Bush administration have already begun "downplaying" the significance of the conference that is supposed to take place as early as next month. The fact that such a large majority of Americans support the idea, however, suggests that it should not be "a window-dressing kind of conference," said Segal. "The president has to get serious about this."
Unlike the "lone cowboy" approach favored by the Right, most Americans favor a more multilateral approach to the Middle East crisis. More than two-thirds of the respondents agreed with the notion that the United Nations or a group of leading nations, including the U.S., should take the lead in resolving the conflict. The same percentage favored allowing the UN Security Council to decide the territorial boundaries of the two sides. And an overwhelming 77 percent said Washington should participate in an UN-sponsored multinational peacekeeping force to enforce any final peace accord achieved between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The disconnect between official Washington and public opinion -- aside from the fabled strength of the pro-Israel lobby - may have something to do with just how much these views will count come election time. For most people, U.S. policy in the Middle East will not affect their votes, or even spur them to contact their elected representative or senator.
"Even though you have a balanced public, if you're asking the question who will pound [a politician] more on this issue, there's an imbalance" between supporters of Israel and the Palestinians, says I.M. "Mac" Destler, an public opinion expert at the University of Maryland.
But Kull says the public has shown more interest in the conflict recently. Three-quarters of respondents said they were following Mideast events either very closely or fairly closely -- an unusually high percentage for a conflict that does not involve the deployment of U.S. troops.
"What has happened in the last few months is that a larger portion of the population are looking at this as a priority issue," said Shibley Telhami, a Mideast specialist at the Brooking Institution. "If so, it becomes more difficult [for the administration] to ignore."
And the prospects for peace may be just a little brighter this week. American support for a negotiated peaceful settlement is echoed in the most recent Israeli polls. A new survey conducted by the Dahaf Institute last Friday found that 59 percent of Israelis believe that a withdrawal from the occupied territories -- which includes the evacuation of most of the settlements there -- will rekindle the peace process. The same percentage said they would support a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians under U.S. sponsorship that includes a withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a compromise on Jerusalem.
The poll results are reinforced by the revival of the Israeli peace movement, which held a massive rally -- with anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 protestors -- to demonstrate in support of the Saudi peace plan in Tel Aviv (which includes dismantling the settlements) over the weekend.
Jim Lobe writes on foreign policy issues for AlterNet, Inter-Press Services and Foreign Policy In Focus.