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Middle East

American Public Opinion About the Situation in the Middle East

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

by Joseph Carroll

On Monday, the Israeli military killed Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, the group that has claimed responsibility for carrying out numerous suicide bombings against Israelis. For a number of years, The Gallup Poll has been asking Americans about their views of the Middle East situation.

Americans' Sympathies in the Middle East Situation

Gallup periodically asks Americans whether their sympathies in the Middle East situation lie more with the Israelis or more with the Palestinians. Historically, Americans have sympathized more with the Israelis. The latest results, from a mid-February poll, show 55% of Americans sympathize more with the Israelis, while just 18% sympathize more with the Palestinians. More than a quarter of respondents sympathize with both equally, with neither side, or do not have an opinion at all.

The results on this question have remained fairly consistent, on average, over the past three years. The percentage of Americans who sympathize more with the Israelis averaged 50% in 2001, 49% in 2002, and 52% in 2003. During the same period, sympathies for the Palestinians averaged from 13% to 15%. In the latter part of the 1990s, Americans still sympathized with the Israelis, but to a slightly lesser extent, with 38% in 1997, 46% in 1998, and 43% in 1999.

Favorable Opinion Toward Israel and the Palestinian Authority

Not only do Americans tend to sympathize more with the Israelis, but they also are more likely to say they have a favorable opinion of Israel than the Palestinian Authority.

Nearly 6 in 10 Americans, 59%, have a favorable opinion of Israel, according to a Feb. 9-12 Gallup Poll. Thirty-five percent of Americans in the poll have an unfavorable opinion of Israel. The current results show a decrease in the public's positive opinion of Israel from last year, when 64% had a favorable opinion of Israel. However, the 2004 results are essentially the same as the results in 2002. The percentage of Americans with a favorable opinion of Israel averaged 62% over the past eight years, with a high of 68% in May 1999 and a low of 54% in January 2000.

Only 15% of Americans have a favorable opinion of the Palestinian Authority, while three-quarters of respondents, 76%, have an unfavorable opinion. The Palestinian Authority ranks second from the bottom of a list of 22 countries measured by Gallup this year, viewed only slightly more positively than North Korea. These results show little change since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Prior to the attacks, the public's opinion of the Palestinian Authority was just slightly higher, at 22% in February 2001.


The Middle East as a Threat to U.S. Interests

Another question in Gallup's Feb. 9-12 poll asked Americans to evaluate 11 potential threats against the vital interests of the United States. Perhaps not surprisingly, many Americans, 82%, mention international terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction to unfriendly powers (mentioned by 75%) as a critical threat to U.S. interests in the next 10 years. However, at 58%, the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is third on the list. Substantial numbers of Americans also view Islamic fundamentalism, immigration, economic competition from low-wage countries, and the conflict between North Korea and South Korea as critical threats. Fewer Americans say the India-Pakistan conflict, the situation between China and Taiwan, and the military power of Russia are critical threats to U.S. interests.

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