IN the weeks leading up to the announcement of a Middle East peace conference in Madrid, Americans signaled their continuing support for Israel, in spite of less than complete agreement with certain aspects of Israeli policy.Ever since Gallup began to ask the question at the time of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the American public has consistently expressed more sympathy for Israel than for the Arab nations or the Palestinian Arabs. In its latest asking (August), Gallup found 59 percent sympathizing with Israel, 21 percent with Palestinian Arabs. When several years of data from the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Surveys are combined, we find that on a 10-point scale from -5 to 5, 45 percent held to a positive view (2 to 5) of Israel, while 31 percent were neutral (1 and -1) and only 24 percent responded negatively (-2 to -5). This generally positive impression was shared by a broad range of age, socioeconomic, educational, ideological, and religious groups. AMERICAN opinion about Israel is not uncritical. Before last week's announcement, the public was as likely to consider Israel an obstacle to peace as they were the Arab nations. Opinion was split on Israel's establishment of settlements in the occupied territories. These criticisms do not, however, indicate a desire for change in American policy toward Israel: two-thirds say the US should keep its ties to Israel about the same as they are now; 59 percent want to maintain about the same amount of aid to Israel; and more people (50 percent) think Israel has the right amount of influence on American foreign policy than think it has too much (37 percent) or too little (7 percent). The desire for continuity in the Bush administration's policies was reflected shortly before the conference was announced when 62 percent backed the president's handling of relations with Israel.