WASHINGTON - A majority of global publics say their governments should "not take either side" in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, instead supporting a call for the United Nations to play a greater role in regional peace, according to a new international poll of 18 countries released here Tuesday.
World public gave low marks to Israeli, Palestinian, U.S. and Arab leaders when asked how well the international actors were doing to resolve the 60-year old conflict, according to the poll conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org.
On average 58 percent of those polled said that they believed their country should not take a side, with only 20 percent saying their country should favour the Palestinians and just 7 percent saying the Israelis.
In contrast, those polled think the U.N. Security Council should take a robust role in resolving the dispute. On average 67 percent of those polled on the issue favoured the idea of a stronger U.N. force while just 20 percent opposed it.
"Why is it important? World public opinion does matter. Public opinion matters. When somebody says I don't care what anyone else says, they're lying," said Steven Kull, director of the Programme on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, who oversaw the poll.
"What we're dealing with here is the force of legitimacy," he continued. "Legitimacy creates order of the states, and legitimacy is a big factor in relations between states."
Most Security Council members support sending U.N. peacekeepers to enforce an eventual Israeli-Palestinian agreement, including majorities in China (81 percent), France (74 percent), Britain (67 percent), the United States (61 percent), and a plurality of Russians (47 percent).
Predominantly Muslim publics in the Middle East also support the proposal, including Turks (65 percent), Egyptians (64 percent), and Palestinians (63 percent).
Most publics polled would support an even higher level of U.N. commitment: If Israelis and the Palestinians reach a peace agreement, the U.N. Security Council should offer security guarantees to both Israel and its Arab neighbours. Eleven of the 16 countries polled said the Security Council should make a commitment to protect Israel if it is attacked by its Arab neighbours, while 13 of the 16 thought it should do the same for Arab countries in case of an Israeli attack.
On average, 45 percent favour providing such guarantees to Israel and 55 percent providing them to Arab countries.
Interviews were conducted in 18 countries that represent 59 percent of the world population, and which include most of the larger nations -- China, India, the U.S., Indonesia, Nigeria, and Russia -- as well as Mexico, Peru, Great Britain, France, Spain, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Thailand and South Korea.
The Palestinians territories were also polled, but not every nation was asked every question.
No country favours taking the Israeli side, including the U.S., where 71 percent favour taking neither side. Iran (64 percent) and Egypt (86 percent) are the only countries in which a large majority of those polled took a strong position on behalf of Palestinians, while Turkey (42 percent) maintained a smaller plurality.
Israel received the worst ratings. When asked whether Israel was "doing their part in the effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," respondents in 13 of the 15 countries offered negative views. On average 54 percent said Israel was not playing a positive role while just 22 percent said it is.
In predominantly Muslim countries, such as Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, and including the Palestinian territories, negative opinions of Israel were expectedly higher. And experts say that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict continues to occupy a place of primacy in the hearts and minds of Arab populations.
"It is the prism of pain through which Arabs see the world. It trumps Iraq. It trumps the Sunni-Shi'a divide," said Shibley Telhami, an expert on Arab media and opinion, who teaches at the University of Maryland and serves as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Centre.
"If you're an Israeli government official, what you need to note is the huge gap between Arab governments and the public on these issues that they care most about," said Telhami, "the kind of pressure that Arab governments are facing and the kind of positions that they're taking."
Whether it is the Jordanian, Egyptian or Saudi Arabian government, "that gap is growing," he said, as is the "degree of pessimism."
Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of the Beirut Daily Star, who attended the discussion at Brookings Tuesday, suggested that Arab populations are "shifting away from a passive or acquiescent protest into a more activist response to the conditions that plague their lives, whether it's corruption or abuse of power or Israeli occupation or Western troops coming into the region."
Telhami cited the immense popularity of Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in the Arab world as evidence of the "defiance prism". Nasrallah is Shi'a though the majority of Arabs are Sunnis. Yet, the Hezbollah leader remains the most popular political figure among Arabs in the region.
"It is essentially an anti-American position, it's an anti-Israeli position. It's a defiance," said Telhami. "In particular it's a defiance of Israelis and evaluation of the world through the conflict between Israel and the Arab states."
The poll of 18,792 respondents was conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org, a collaborative research project involving research centers from the world and managed by PIPA.
© 2008 Inter Press Service