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Analysis: Poll adds to pressure on Israel

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst

WASHINGTON, Dec. 14 (UPI) -- The findings of the new UPI-Zogby poll could not come at a worse time for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the powerful pro-Israel lobby in the United States.

As United Press International reported Wednesday, the poll of 6,296 Americans conducted between Dec. 4 and Dec. 6 found that 59.2 percent of them believed it was very important to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

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If the poll's findings came at a time when the Bush administration was feeling secure and riding high, confident that its policies in the Middle East were working, its results could have been easily ignored.

Instead, the poll's results were published right after the Iraq Study Group chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., concluded that resolving the long-lasting and intransigent Israeli-Palestinian conflict was essential to U.S. grand strategy in the region, and to creating a favorable climate to defuse the escalating crisis in Iraq.

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The ISG's conclusion in this area has already sparked fierce controversy and furious attacks, including nasty personal ones, against the ISG's members and leaders. More measured critics have argued that even if progress could be made on easing and defusing Israeli-Palestinian tensions, it would be highly unlikely to have any favorable direct impact whatsoever on the deeply rooted causes of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and on the rapidly worsening Sunni-Shiite conflict there.

However, like seed sown on fertile and well-watered ground, the Baker-Hamilton group's suggestion is being favorably embraced both within the Bush administration and in important Washington political circles outside it.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice now enjoys far greater clout in foreign policy-making following the fall of her arch-nemesis, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. And Rice has repeatedly made clear she wants to see a revived Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The secretary of state defied powerful neo-conservative pressure at a time when the neo-cons still dominated the White House, the National Security Council and the Department of Defense to choose David Welch, a highly respected veteran Middle East hand, as her assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.

Also, the departure of John Bolton from his key diplomatic position as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations removes a passionate opponent of any revival of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A significant indicator will be who Rice decides to appoint in his place. Paula Dobriansky, the undersecretary of state for global affairs, is considered a frontrunner for the position, but State insiders caution that it is not yet a done deal.

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Rumsfeld's successor as defense secretary, who won easy confirmation from the U.S. Senate, is former director of central intelligence Robert Gates, a traditional moderate Republican internationalist with longstanding close ties to James Baker. Indeed, he sat on the ISG and helped shape its conclusions before standing down when he was selected for the defense secretary job.

Under Rumsfeld, Israeli military officials had the run of the Pentagon and enjoyed unprecedented access to Rumsfeld and his top officials. They could count on the enormous clout of the DoD, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Rumsfeld himself to block any diplomatic initiatives by the Bush administration that the Israeli government did not like. But once Gates is running OSD, he appears far more likely to make common cause with Rice to pressure the Israelis to make new concessions on reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Bush and his political strategist Karl Rove are much more likely to give Rice, backed by Gates, the go-ahead to launch a new peace process initiative because of other findings in the UPI-Zogby poll.

A relatively high figure of 44.1 percent of poll respondents gave Bush poor marks for his failure to take a more active role to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. A miserable 7.5 percent of respondents gave him "excellent" ratings on this score and even less -- 3.9 percent -- rating him "good."

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Only 3.6 percent felt Bush should favor the Palestinians over the Israelis while 35 percent said he should favor Israel. But the worrying figure for the Israeli government and its American supporters was that a clear majority of respondents, 55.8 percent, believed the president should choose the middle ground, or be even handed, towards both sides.

Also, an overwhelming majority, 79.1 percent, told the pollsters that Palestinians should enjoy equal rights to Israelis and 64.7 percent favored the creation of a fully independent Palestinian state, with only 15.4 percent opposing it.

These last figures were particularly striking because they came after the hard-line, ferociously anti-Israeli Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, had won parliamentary elections and it now dominates the Palestinian legislature.

Increased pressure from the Bush administration would give Israeli Prime Minister Olmert almost no room to maneuver. Hamas has fired hundreds of Qassam low-tech, short range missiles into Israel from Gaza over the past year. Casualties so far have been light but that has not been for the lack of trying. And since the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005, mainstream public opinion in Israel has hardened dramatically against any further concessions to the Palestinians. Hamas' role in waging the bloody Second Intifada with hundreds of Israeli civilians, including many women and children, killed by suicide bombers, is still a recent and vividly remembered memory.

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Nor does Olmert have the proven record of security success as prime minister, or the legendary military reputation that his predecessor Prime Minister Ariel Sharon enjoyed. Sharon had the stature with the Israeli public, political capital and driving will to unilaterally decide upon and implement controversial and risky policies like the Gaza withdrawal.

Olmert does not. He had zero experience in running military or national security departments or operations when he became prime minister. His defense minister, Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, is widely regarded as a discredited joke in the job. The performance of both men in running Israel's bungled summer 2006 campaign against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon is widely regarded in Israel as abysmal.

Therefore the last thing Olmert wants is to face massive pressure from the U.S. government, Israel's one vital supporter and ally, to make new significant concessions to a Palestinian leadership heavily influenced or effectively controlled by the extremist and unrelenting Hamas, that almost all Jewish Israelis loathe.

Yet the findings of the UPI-Zogby poll will clearly strengthen the hand of the Baker-Rice-Gates forces that want to revive the peace process and push Israel to make new concessions or offers to get it going. That will not be welcome news in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem.

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