Americans, Europeans differ on Mideast sympathies

US citizens stand by Israel – and 45 percent are willing to see US troops deployed to the region to help stop violence and keep peace.

In the days and weeks since Israeli tanks crunched the soil of the West Bank, one thing has become increasingly clear: Public sympathies on the Middle East are remarkably different in America and Europe.

Americans tend to feel close bonds with Israel, while Europeans feel a greater empathy for the Palestinians.

The trend has been evolving for years, shaped by factors such as America's larger Jewish population and Europe's greater reliance on Arab oil. But with the newest round of fighting – by many measures, the worst in 20 years – the divergent paths of opinion in Europe and the United States have become all the more stark.

In a new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, for example, Americans were twice as likely to say US policy should become more pro-Israel (20 percent) than pro-Palestinian (10 percent). Some 42 percent said the current US policy – which has included strong support of Israel – should be maintained.

In the US, people like Beth Loach are not uncommon. Crunching a waffle cone as she window shops in Walnut Creek, Calif., she voices no hesitation.

"We should support Israel morally," she says, pausing near Pottery Barn. "It's time to put an end to terrorism over there. They've taken enough bombing."

In Europe, by contrast, nearly three-quarters of Germans condemn the actions of the Jewish state. France saw a spree of synagogue fire-bombings. A supermarket chain in Norway has even boycotted Israeli products.

Public opinion is not uniform on either continent, especially on an issue as complex and divisive as the Middle East. In the new poll, Americans generally said Israeli settlements in occupied territories bore some responsibility for the recent Palestinian suicide bombings, for example.

But America has remained Israel's best friend for more than 30 years. In Gallup polls, Americans' support of Israel has never dipped below 37 percent since it began polling on the subject in 1988. Support for the Palestinians has never ticked above 16 percent.

Add to that America's changed attitude toward terrorism, and many here see Israel's incursions into the West Bank as just another front in the war that began in Afghanistan. With that, "the background is very much attuned to what Israel is saying," says Shaul Gabbay, director of the Institute for the Study of Israel and the Middle East at the University of Denver.

Throughout Europe, though, that sympathy is lacking. Fewer polls mean public sentiment is harder to gauge, but clues are plentiful. Pro-Palestinian protests have been and more frequent than pro-Israeli gatherings, bringing together 50,000 in Rome, 20,000 in Paris, and thousands more in Belgium, Sweden, and Greece.

Perhaps the greatest rebuke, though, has come from Germany – a country that, ashamed by its Holocaust history, has been Israel's strongest defender in Europe. Now, that devotion is ebbing. The "latest offensive has brought about a change of mood in Germany, and now the old German reluctance to voice its criticism of the Jewish state has melted away," wrote the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Germany's most influential newspaper.

In many ways, governments – as the elected voice of the people – offer a telling view of the intercontinental dichotomy. While the United States Congress remains nearly unanimous in its support of Israel, Germany has stopped arms sales to the Mideast nation – the most concrete action of protest yet taken in any European capital. Others aren't far behind. The European Parliament last week passed a resolution calling on members to suspend preferential treatment of Israeli exports.

Economics is one reason European policies on the Mideast have been less centered on Israel. Dependence on foreign oil, for instance, is almost total, providing a greater incentive for open relations with Arab states.

Yet there is a deeper connection as well, fueled by a tide of Arab and Muslim immigrants to Europe. By contrast, Jews in Europe are among the smallest of minorities. In America, they make up 2.1 percent of the population, versus 0.3 percent in the 15 nations of the European Union.

Even within the separate tracks laid down by Europe and America, there is room for concord. Both sides are eager for a solution to the conflict. The Monitor/TIPP poll found that 48 percent of Americans rated resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict as the top US priority in the Mideast – ahead of finding terrorist Osama bin Laden or ousting Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

"A majority of Americans across the board favors the Saudi peace plan," says TIPP pollster Raghavan Mayur.

Some 45 percent of the respondents said they would support using US troops as peacekeepers. Here in Walnut Creek, most don't agree with that step. But many echo the calls that have from across the ocean for greater American engagement.

Thumbing a newspaper at a curbside bistro, Peter Davison looks up through his rectangular glasses and offers his only advice: "[President] Bush wanted to let them solve their problems by themselves, but it isn't ever going to happen. We should have been involved earlier than we were."

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