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Poll shows desire for fairness in Mideast

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002


A new national poll indicates that the bellicosity of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the U.S. Congress' saber-rattling support of Israel's policies and the Jewish nation's military stance against the Palestinians do not reflect the sentiments of most American citizens.

Fifty-eight percent of the 801 respondents to the Program on International Policy Attitudes survey said the United States government should play an "even-handed" role in handling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The respondents were equally sympathetic toward both sides in the crisis -- again pitting public opinion against that of most U.S. senators and representatives. Respondents blame Israelis and Palestinians equally for failed peace efforts.

The study, using the results of polls and focus groups, is significant because the major consultants in fashioning the questions were the Israeli Embassy and the Palestinian Mission to the United Nations.

Conducted from May 1-5, the survey asked a wide range of questions. Among them:

Would an international peace conference be valuable?

Who is to blame for the conflict? Should the U.S. take sides?

Should the U.S. exert leverage on Israel and the Palestinians by withholding aid?

Did President Bush misstep by demanding that Israel withdraw from the West Bank? Should he now tell Israel to stop using American-supplied weapons in the territories (and now Gaza)?

Is rooting out terrorism Israel's real objective, or is the objective punishment of the Palestinians?

Should Israel be permitted to continue building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza?

Are Palestinian suicide bombings a legitimate tactic of resistance?

Should the U.N. assume a bigger role in resolving the conflict?

Should the U.S. lead and press for a more multilateral approach?

Steven Kull, director of PIPA, Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, and Jerome Segal, director of the Jerusalem Project at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, presented the survey findings on Wednesday to the National Press Club in Washington.

As Bush continues to help Sharon marginalize Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, the president should be reminded that 78 percent of the PIPA respondents expressed approval for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's meeting with the then-imprisoned Arafat last month. Americans may not like Arafat, but they apparently accept his legitimacy.

Each time Bush attacks Arafat, suggesting that Arafat is irrelevant, without equal criticism of Sharon -- the individual mostly responsible for provoking the current conflict with his brazen visit to the Temple Mount -- the President of the United States makes the entire Palestinian population irrelevant. After all, they elected Arafat as their official, Oslo-sanction leader. Ordinary Americans apparently understand this point better than the elected crowd in Washington.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the study shows that 75 percent of those polled closely follow developments in the Mideast. I had assumed, like most elected officials, that most ordinary Americans do not pay attention to the conflict and agree with the president and Congress on their one-sided support of Israel.

"The American public appears to have a different image," Telhami said. "There is a congressional misperception of this because their attention tends to be focused on those who call and write and are vocal."

As one who believes in even-handedness in the Middle East, I consider other poll results sober and encouraging.

Sixty-two percent of those surveyed said, for example, Israel's invasion of the West Bank, which began after a series of suicide bombings, has increased the possibility of more terror attacks. Unlike Congress, the president and influential televangelists, 55 percent of those polled want our government to put greater pressure on Israel to make compromises when negotiations resume. This figure, Kull said, rose to 64 percent when presented in conjunction with a hypothetical Palestinian rejection of suicide bombings, toward peaceful tactics used by the American civil rights movement.

While Sharon, other Israeli leaders and many American Jews insist on painting the incursions in the West Bank and Gaza as the "same war," as part of the U.S.-led war on terrorism initiated after the twin towers' attacks, only 17 percent of respondents think so. The majority, 45 percent, saw the Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting for what it is truly is: a self-destructive dispute over land that has dragged on since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.

A related poll conducted in Israel shows that 67 percent of Israeli citizens favor the involvement of the United Nations in drawing new boundaries and Israel's participation in an international Middle East peace conference. In other words, ordinary Israelis and ordinary Americans understand the realities on the ground far better than elected officials, organized Jewish groups and pundits.

How can President Bush and Congress be so out of step with most ordinary American citizens? Elementary: Money, votes, fear.

The nation's powerful Jewish lobbies -- with their unmatched clout and deep pockets -- scare politicians (incumbents and wannabes) to death.

Simply stated, most elected officials will do almost anything to stay on the Beltway's gravy train. This "almost anything" includes shamelessly taking sides in a campaign that dehumanizes Palestinians -- not just during periods of violent conflict but every day, all the time.

U.S. elected officials continue to give a green light to Israel's mission of folly: seeking security by beating the Palestinian people into submission.

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