The news from the Holy Land was mostly good as the New Year began. On Jan. 9, Mahmoud Abbas was chosen in open elections to succeed Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian people. On Feb. 2, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced they would participate in a peace summit. The two met in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, on Feb. 8 and verbally agreed to suspend the hostilities that have gripped the region since the Palestinians launched a second intifada in September 2000.
It appears one or another (or both) of these events, widely reported as reasons for new hope in the Arab-Israeli conflict, inspired optimism about the region among some Americans. In a Feb. 7-10 Gallup Poll*, 49% of Americans said they believed there will come a time when Israel and the Arab nations will settle their differences and live in peace, up from 37% two months earlier.
But, as is so often the case, that optimism faded quickly; this time, most likely because a Palestinian suicide bomber bombed a Tel Aviv nightclub on Feb. 25, killing four Israelis and injuring about 50 others. A Feb. 25-27 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll* conducted on the heels of the attack found a nine-point drop in optimism from earlier in the month. According to that poll, just 40% of Americans agree the conflict will be resolved, while 56% disagree.
The latest 40% figure is not the lowest level of optimism Gallup has recorded on this measure. That low came in the summer of 2001 -- a time of severe hostilities between the two sides -- when only 32% of Americans felt the Arabs and Israelis would eventually settle their differences.
The Feb. 7-10 measure of 49% is not technically the highest level of optimism recorded (that was 51% in May 2003), but it is consistent with the upper end of the range for this trend.
Peace Not Around the Corner
Even optimism about Middle East peace is tempered with a good dose of realism about the timetable. Only a small fraction (4%) of Americans who predict peace believe it will come about in the next year. Altogether, about half of Middle East optimists (52%) believe peace will be achieved within the next five years, while 43% say it will take longer than that.
When factoring in the majority of Americans who are pessimistic about the outlook for peace, only one in five Americans (21%) expect peace to occur within the next five years, while another 17% say it will take longer.
They say hope springs eternal, but not when it comes to Americans' outlook for peace between Arabs and Israelis. The cycle of U.S. optimism about the chances for peace in the Middle East closely follows the cycle of peace accords and violence that define recent Arab-Israeli relations. At their most encouraged, 51% of Americans have said they believe peace is within reach. At their worst, just 32% have been hopeful.
Late last week, Palestinian militant groups brought together by Abbas agreed to halt violence against Israel for the duration of 2005, if Israel will release 8,000 Palestinian prisoners and agree to a similar cease-fire. Israel reportedly welcomed the offer and agreed to aspects of it, with some counter terms of its own. Presuming this holds until the next polling opportunity, it will be interesting to see how Americans react to the news.
Perhaps as long as U.S. optimism shifts within the fairly narrow (32% to 51%) historical range, those attitudes should be considered "normal." But when, and if, the level of optimism reaches well above the 50% line, then it may be a sign that real changes are at hand.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,008 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 7-10, 2005, and 1,008 national adults, aged 18 and older, Feb. 25-27, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.