Public opinion is shifting in the U.S.: some members of Congress are developing a clearer understanding of Middle East realities, but extremist ideologies and fear of political pressures continue to hold sway on Capitol Hill.

Recent polls show real movement in public opinion. The public still has greater sympathy for Israelis, in large measure because five decades of negative stereotypes and biased news coverage have shaped attitudes toward the people of the Middle East. Opinion, however is turning against Israeli policy and Americans increasingly want their government to be balanced and fair to both parties.

Interestingly, polls show a widening partisan split in attitudes. A recent Zogby International poll demonstrates this. When asked “should Israel end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza,” Americans said “yes” by a margin of 58 percent to 29 percent. Among Democrats, however, the margin was 69 percent to 21 percent, while for Republicans the margin was 48 percent to 39 percent, a gap in the margin of almost 40 percent.

The reason, of course, was the attitudes of the religious right wing who only support an Israeli withdrawal by a margin of 49 percent in favour to 38 percent opposed. This group constitutes a substantial portion of the Republican Party’s base vote.

On the other hand, two key Democratic Party base vote groups, African Americans and Hispanics, support an end to Israel’s occupation by a margin of 68 percent to 24 percent.

There is also a significant age gap reflected in this poll. Americans under 30 years old support Israel pulling out of the West Bank by a margin of 70 percent to 22 percent. Those over 50 years old, on the other hand, only support this by a 55 percent to 29 percent margin.

This same poll also shows that 71 percent of the U.S. public now supports a Palestinian state, with the same partisan and age gaps also present.

Some of this was in evidence at the two competing demonstrations that occurred in Washington. The pro-Israel rally was estimated at between 25,000 and 40,000 persons. It was white, largely Jewish or conservative Christian. The larger pro-Palestinian march and rally was estimated at 75,000 and included large numbers of Arabs and Muslims and a significant number of students and minorities.

But even with all of this, now that the marches are over and the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC (American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee), has ended its annual convention, politics in Washington have returned to normal. While there are a few more voices urging a more balanced policy, for the most part the scene is surreal.

Many members of Congress, it appears, live in an alternate reality shaped by politics and not facts as they are. How else can one explain some of the bizarre statements some elected officials have recently made, or some of the equally strange letters and bills being circulated on Capitol Hill.

Some examples:

• Despite some initial concern from the State Department, a few members of Congress are pressing forward plans to add a supplemental $200 million to Israel’s aid package to assist their “war on terrorism;”

• Republican Congressional leader Tom DeLay joined Democrat Tom Lantos to sponsor a resolution “in solidarity with Israel in its war against terrorism.” The resolution is both provocative and blatantly one-sided. It has been opposed by the State Department, which fears that its passage will harm U.S. diplomacy.

• Then there are the so-called “Arafat Accountability Act” and the “Syria Accountability Act.” The anti-Palestine act seeks to re-establish the U.S. ban on the PLO and the Palestinian Authority by closing their U.S. offices and denying visas to their representatives. The anti-Syria bill, if passed, would freeze Syrian assets in the U.S. and impose tough new sanctions on that country.

Not as dangerous as the bills, but equally troubling because of the messages they send, are the letters to the president organised by groups of members of Congress. Because they require no vote and create no new policy, members can be quite extreme and irresponsible in drafting these missives.

Despite all of this extremist activity, even in Congress there are signs of positive movement. Some thoughtful members of Congress are deeply concerned over the cycle of violence in the Middle East and the damage that it poses to the region and to U.S. relations in the Arab world. Many are deeply troubled by the Sharon government’s excessive violence against the Palestinian people. One member of Congress sent a letter to the Israeli ambassador, decrying “the fact that Prime Minister Sharon is continuing this appalling wave of violence.”

Dozens have signed other letters supporting Secretary of State Colin Powell’s peace mission, urging that it be balanced and sustained. And a congressional resolution endorsing U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1397 and 1402 is continuing to gather support.

The next few weeks will be interesting, as moderate voices in Congress, supported by the State Department, go against their more hard-line colleagues. The contest will, on one hand, be between sober and thoughtful voices who see the dangers of the present course of events in the Middle East and those members of Congress whose views are shaped by extremist ideologies or simply fear of political pressure from organised lobbies.

The task now before us is to translate the shift in public opinion and the realities of the Middle East conflict into a new political force that can shake Congress out of its surreal world.

The fight for reality and justice will not be easy. But the effort must be made. It is an uphill battle. But it is a climb that must be made.

James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute. This slightly abridged version of his syndicated column is reprinted with permission from the author.