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U.S./U.K.: Despite Close Ties, Allies See Two Different Worlds In Mideast

Nothing, it seems, divides U.S. and European public opinion quite like the Middle East. While Americans feel more sympathy toward Israel, Europeans are much more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. That is also the case in the U.K., America's strongest European ally. A recent opinion poll says the British public is much more pro-Palestinian than it was 18 months ago, and that a majority has a dim view of how U.S. President George W. Bush is handling the crisis, despite his high approval ratings in his home country. Why are the perceptions so different?

Prague, 7 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Demonstrators at a rally in support of Israel gathered in London's central Trafalgar Square yesterday. It was one of the biggest shows of support for Israel ever held in Britain, bringing together some 30,000 British Jews and their sympathizers.

But those shouting solidarity with Israel and cheering figures such as former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke at the rally, find themselves more and more in the minority in Britain.

An opinion poll published last week in the country's "The Daily Telegraph" newspaper shows that support in Britain is swinging toward the Palestinians. Eighteen months ago, a similar poll found that British sympathies were more or less evenly divided between Israelis and Palestinians. Today, twice as many Britons say they sympathize with the Palestinians, while pro-Israeli sentiment has barely grown.

Half of those polled by the firm YouGov believe Israel's military action in the West Bank and Gaza will make the country as a whole a more dangerous place in which to live. And two-thirds said Israel would best secure its own future by withdrawing behind its original frontiers and pulling out its West Bank settlements.

A clear majority -- 70 percent -- said the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is broadly pro-Israeli. And more than half (59 percent) believe Bush is doing a "poor" or "very poor" job of handling the Mideast crisis.

Contrast that with the U.S., where the situation is reversed. A "The Washington Post"-ABC poll conducted last month showed Americans are far more sympathetic to Israel (49 percent) than to the Palestinians (14 percent). And 57 percent said they approve of how Bush is handling the crisis.

So how to explain the differences in views between such close allies?

First, there's the historically close relationship the U.S. has enjoyed with Israel. It's seen as a friendly island of democracy surrounded by autocratic Islamic states where anti-American sentiment runs strong. Support for Israel comes from fundamentalist Christian quarters, too, as they see Israel as the rightful home of God's chosen people.

Other Americans are receptive to the comparison Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon makes between the Palestinian suicide bombers and the terrorists who struck American cities last September. That means they believe Israel is entitled to strike back, just as America did against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Sharon spoke last night at a conference of the Anti-Defamation League in Washington. "There is a moral equivalency and direct connection between America's continuous operations against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Operation Defensive Shield (Israel's West Bank operation), and any other Israeli Defense Forces' operation to defeat terrorism. They are acts of self-defense against the same forces of evil and darkness, bent on destroying civilized society."

By contrast, many in Britain deplore what they see as Israel's heavy-handedness and its brutal disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians. Thanks to the IRA, the British also know what it's like to experience terrorist attacks on their home territory -- but they also appear to realize that a purely military response not only doesn't solve the problem, it can even make it worse.

As in other European countries, there is also a large Muslim community in Britain, which might also influence opinion.

In their views on the Middle East, the British are simply more in tune with the rest of Europe, says Anthony King, a professor of government at Essex University in the U.K. He points to another distinguishing British trait -- a tendency to stick up for the weaker side.

"What there is, indeed, is a very strong sense of siding with the underdog. After all, legally, the Palestinian territories are occupied territories according to UN resolutions. People not just in Britain but I'm pretty sure in most of Europe think of Israel as an occupying power and don't like the way that Israel, as an occupying power, is behaving."

There's also the question of how media coverage differs on both sides of the Atlantic. Take the Israeli army's recent operation in the Jenin refugee camp.

British media focused heavily on the suffering of Palestinian civilians and on Israel's refusal to allow a UN fact-finding mission to investigate Palestinian claims of a "massacre." U.S. media reports, meanwhile, also played up reports that Hamas activists had booby-trapped many of the buildings in the camps. This would appear to support Israeli claims that Jenin was a "terrorist stronghold" and that much of the damage was self-inflicted.

And what of the dim view many British people have of how Bush has handled the crisis?

Again, in Europe, it's not Britain that's out of step, it's the U.S., says Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform. He says many people were dismayed at how Bush first took a hands-off approach to the Middle East, and then got involved but in an apparently muddled way.

"For example, when he told Sharon to withdraw his forces from the recent occupation in April of the West Bank and Gaza without delay, and Sharon said, 'No.' Then Bush, a few days later, described Sharon as a man of peace. So I think even Bush's greatest fans in Western Europe -- and I speak as someone who generally [thinks] he's done a pretty good job as president, actually -- even those of us who generally regard him as having done a very good job -- for example, in the war against terrorism and the war in Afghanistan -- find it impossible to say very much good about the way he's handled the Middle East so far."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is regularly criticized -- even by those in his own party -- for cosying up too closely to Washington. And now it seems the British are giving Bush the thumbs-down for his Middle East policy.

What are the implications for future British support of U.S. foreign policy, including a possible strike against Iraq? Grant says, "It is perhaps rather harder for Mr. Blair to persuade British public opinion to support military action on Iraq, against Iraq, with Britain fighting alongside the Americans, if public opinion is very hostile to the way America is handling the Middle East. That, perhaps, does make it harder for Blair to persuade British public opinion to support such action."