CBS Poll: Americans Back Israel

In this April 30, 2009 photo, former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun arrives for questioning in a corruption scandal at the Supreme Public Prosecutor's Office in Seoul, South Korea. A news report said on Saturday, May 23, 2009 that Roh appears to have died after a fall while mountain climbing. (AP Photo/Yonhap, Kim Ju-sung) ** KOREA OUT **
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Americans' sympathies are with Israel in the current fighting in the Middle East, and most say Israel's recent action sending troops to surround Yasser Arafat’s headquarters was justified, according to a CBS News poll.

But many also have concerns and criticisms about Israel's response – with nearly seven in ten believing Israel’s actions will only lead to more suicide attacks.

By a margin of five to one, Americans sympathize more with Israel. Fifty-two percent say that, while just 10 percent sympathize more with the Palestinians. Fifteen percent, however, sympathize with neither. Americans reactions today are not much different from the sentiments they have expressed in the past.

By nearly three to one, Americans say Israel was justified in taking military action in response to the latest wave of terrorist bombings that began last week. Sixty-five percent think the response was justified, 23 percent that it was not.

However, while Israel's actions are supported, there are also criticisms: By 51 percent to 30 percent, Americans say Israel was too quick to get its military involved and should have tried harder to reach a diplomatic solution

In addition, by 47 percent to 28 percent, Americans support the United Nations resolution passed over the weekend for Israel to withdraw from some of the occupied areas.

But what may bother Americans most is the worry that Israel’s military actions may only have made things worse. Sixty-three percent say Israel’s military response has made terror attacks against the Jewish state more likely. Hardly any think the attacks have made Israel safer.

In addition, Americans don’t think the Palestinian suicide bombers represent all other Palestinians. 33 percent think the bombers do represent most Palestinians, while 53 percent say they represent the views of only a few.

Fifty-nine percent say what happens in Israel is very important to the United States, but there is no consensus on exactly how the U.S. should respond to events there and not even a consensus on whether the U.S. has a responsibility to do anything.

Forty-four percent think the U.S. has a responsibility to try and resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, while 46 percent say that’s not the business of the U.S.

Barely half the public thinks the U.S. could do something to establish peace in the Middle East. Forty percent think it could not. As for specific actions, there is narrow support for sending U.S. peacekeepers to the area – an option that the Bush administration recently rejected.

By 49 percent to 43 percent, Americans would support sending U.S. troops as part of a peacekeeping force, although by a similar margin, they doubt that U.S. peacekeepers could make a difference.

In general, while American sympathies lie with Israel, there is as much support for doing nothing as there is for taking a public stand in support. And on the other side, there is more support for keeping quiet than there is for criticizing the Palestinians and their leader Yasser Arafat.

Despite their ambivalence, Americans are following events in the Middle East. Seven in ten say they are paying close attention to news about the fighting.

So far Americans – many of whom express a desire to stay out of the Middle East conflict - approve of the way President Bush has handled the situation – though the level of support on this issue is lower than the still near-record high approval ratings for Mr. Bush’s handling of his job overall and for his handling of the campaign against terrorism.

Fifty-nine percent approve of how Mr. Bush is handling the situation in the Middle East, while 23 percent disapprove. Another 18 percent have no opinion. And while 56 percent say Mr. Bush’s level of involvement in the Middle East is about right, 25 percent would like to see more presidential involvement (up from 18 percent in December). Twelve percent would like even less.

As many Americans think the president lacks the experience to get personally involved in the Middle East situation as think he has the right kind of experience to do that. Less than half, 44 percent, say Mr. Bush has the experience to try and negotiate a peace settlement.

Evaluations of the president’s abilities in this area, though mixed, are somewhat improved from those voters expressed during the 2000 campaign. Then, 36 percent said he had enough experience, while 54 percent said he did not.

Despite their ambivalence about U.S. involvement in the Middle East conflict, many Americans see a link between what happens there and what could happen in the United States. Nearly half – 46 percent -- say that the current fighting between Israel and the Palestinians makes a terrorist attack against the United States more likely.

In fact, the expectation that there will be another terrorist attack against the U.S. in the near future has increased in the last month – reversing a trend of declining concern since last October. More than a quarter now say that another terrorist attack against the U.S. in the next few months is very likely.

Nearly nine in ten Americans continue to support the U.S.-led attacks in Afghanistan that began after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but there is a growing expectation that those battles will spread to a larger war between Western countries and Muslim countries. More than three-quarters think that is likely, with a third saying it is a very likely prospect.

Support for the U.S. expanding the fight against terrorism from Afghanistan to other countries like Iraq, Somalia and the Philippines, where the U.S. believes terrorists are hiding, remains high, even if the U.S. gets little or no support from its allies. However, support for unilateral expansion has dropped since the beginning of the year. Sixty-eight percent now would approve of the U.S. leading such military attacks, and 58 percent continue to approve even if other countries refused to support the U.S. In January, support for going it alone was ten points higher – at 65 percent.

There is little sympathy for Yasser Arafat and most Americans think he has not done enough to encourage peace in the Middle East. Opinions of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are somewhat better, but many Americans also doubt his commitment to the peace process.

Most of the public is withholding judgment on Sharon as a person – nearly two-thirds express no opinion, positive or negative, about him. Most have a view of Arafat – and it is decidedly negative. In fact, his 2 percent favorable rating ranks as among the lowest ever recorded.

The Sharon-led Israeli government also scores better than Arafat on the perception that it wants peace enough to make real concessions in order to achieve it. But many have doubts about Israel, too. Thirty-three percent say the Israeli government is willing to make concessions, but 47 percent say it is not.

The public is clearly negative on Arafat’s commitment to peace. In fact, it is now even more negative than it has been in the past. Just 14 percent believe Arafat wants peace enough to make real concessions in order to get it, and only 10 percent believe he has done all he can to achieve peace.

But many Americans also believe that what may be required to reach the goal of peace with Israel is out of Arafat’s control. By more than two to one, the American public believes Arafat is unable to control the actions of Palestinian suicide bombers.

This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 616 adults interviewed by telephone April 1-2, 2002. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus four percentage points for results based on the entire sample.

For detailed information on how CBS News conducts public opinion surveys, click here.