Support of PLO declines sharply since 1993: U.S. sympathy for Israel at 20-year high, poll shows

NEW YORK — Fifty-eight percent of Americans sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians in the Middle East conflict, the first time in 20 years of polling that support has reached that high, according to a nationwide New York Times poll published Sunday.

However, only one-quarter of Americans think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat has kept his part of the peace accords.

American Jews were more likely than others to support a Palestinian homeland, the poll showed.

Fifty-seven percent of 1,395 people polled said they had a generally favorable opinion of Israel, while only 11 percent had such an opinion of the PLO. Nearly half — 49 percent — view Israel as a "special place," while 18 percent said they once had viewed it as special, but no longer did, the Times reported.

There were significant differences in attitudes toward Israel and the PLO over the peace process.

Between 1989 and 1998, Americans steadily increased their view that Israel "had done enough to prove it is interested in peace." In 1989, 17 percent answered "yes."

That percentage rose to 37 percent in 1993 and to 43 percent in 1998.

In contrast, the sentiment toward the PLO's efforts was erratic. In 1989, 14 percent said the PLO "had done enough to prove it is interested in peace."

That rose to 29 percent in 1993 but dropped back to 15 percent in the 1998 poll, the Times reported.

In the "personal approval" category, Netanyahu seemed largely an unknown.

Eleven percent of Americans said they had a favorable opinion of him and another 11 percent said they had an unfavorable opinion, while 77 percent said they had no opinion.

Ten percent said they had a favorable opinion of Arafat, while 42 percent had an unfavorable one. The rest said they had no opinion.

Only one-quarter of those polled said Netanyahu had mostly kept Israel's peace agreements, and one-quarter said Arafat had kept the Palestinian side.

In an unusual development, the 232 American Jews among those polled were likelier to favor a "Palestinian homeland in the occupied territories."

Some 45 percent of American Jews said they favored a homeland, while 42 percent were opposed.

In general, 38 percent of all Americans supported a Palestinian homeland, while 28 percent were opposed and 34 percent said they had no opinion.

The gap in opinion, the Times said, was probably because American Jews are more knowledgeable — and therefore less undecided — on the question of a Palestinian homeland. Only 13 percent of the Jews polled said they had no opinion.

And although most Americans did not know that Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, 58 percent favored maintaining the current level of support, according to the poll.

A majority did not think Israel exaggerated the military threat from Arab countries.

However, the depth of support for Israel seemed limited in the event of war.

Forty-four percent of Americans would want to stay out of the conflict if Israel seemed in danger of being defeated by Arab armies.

Twenty-four percent would favor sending arms and equipment, while 22 percent would favor sending troops.

In contrast, only 7 percent of American Jews advocated not sending troops, according to the telephone poll, which was conducted from April 15 to 20.

A plurality of Americans have always sided with Israel, but this poll was the first in 20 years of polling in which a strong majority of 58 percent said they sympathized with Israel over the Palestinians.

That was up from 48 percent in 1997. In both years, 13 percent said they sided with the Palestinians.

Politics, religion and history were cited as the reasons behind Americans' support for Israel. Seventy-six percent said the United States has a vital interest in Israel.

Asked what the word "Israel" brought to mind, 26 percent said war or conflict.

The next-largest, 13 percent, mentioned the Holy Land or the Bible.

Sixty-four percent agreed that "because of what happened to the Jews during World War II, Israelis are right to defend their homeland at any cost."