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Poll Finds American Public Wary Of U.S. Middle East Intervention

By Richard Morin

and Claudia Deane
THE WASHINGTON POST -- As the Israeli military operation on the West Bank winds down, the American public is wary of seeing the United States continue to take the lead in brokering deals between the two warring sides, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News Poll.

A narrow majority -- 54 percent -- said the United States should stand aside and let Israel and the Palestinian Authority take the lead role in crafting a peace agreement. Six in 10 say they want Israel to negotiate directly with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to end the current conflict -- a move rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

A majority also fault both sides for failing to control the bloodshed that has enveloped the region in recent months, the survey found. Most Americans blame Israel for not doing enough to prevent Palestinian civilian casualties during its military incursion into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But an even larger majority fault Arafat for not doing more to end the wave of terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens.

In question after question, the poll suggests the American public is frustrated and largely confused about what, if anything, the United States can or should do to bring Israel and the Palestinians closer to peace. Many Americans doubt that either side is truly serious about reaching an agreement.

The survey also suggests that the Bush administration will get little guidance from the public as it plots its next move in the Middle East. On the one hand, Bush would appear to have a relatively free hand in setting policy. On the other hand, most Americans agree that the United States has a “vital interest” in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. That suggests the public could punish the administration if the conflict worsens.

“I don’t know that there can be a resolution at this time. I think they both are so set in what they want, and it’s so opposite,” said Paula Schapp, 34, a homemaker in Tulsa. “I am pretty open to see what (the Bush administration) tries next, because I don’t know what I would do if I was in control.”

“I think we should be a little bit more aggressive,” said Cruz Castro, 45, a construction worker in Sacramento. “The U.S. has already put itself up on the table as a leader for peace. So it has to get involved.”

The survey found that many Americans question the motives of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. More than four in 10 believe Israel’s goal is to seize control of the West Bank and Gaza. But the public was equally suspicious of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority: 43 percent percent said the goal of the Palestinians was to “destroy the state of Israel.”

These mixed, ambivalent views also are reflected in the public’s evaluation of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s trip last week to the Middle East. Barely four in 10 said Powell’s trip improved the prospects of peace, while half said it did not.

But few blame Powell or President Bush for the mission’s failure. Among those who felt no progress was made, the overwhelming majority blamed either the Palestinians (31 percent) Israel (15 percent) or both sides equally (30 percent) rather than faulting Powell (11 percent).

Even more ambivalence is apparent when Americans are asked to look to the future. If Israel continues to defy Bush and refuses to withdraw entirely from Palestinian areas it recently occupied, about half of those interviewed said the United States should withhold military or economic aid from Israel -- but just as many disagreed.