Few Americans regard Ariel Sharon's forced resignation as Israeli defense minister as sufficient punishment for him, according to a Washington Post-ABC News opinion poll.

In addition, with Israeli troops still in much of Lebanon, many U.S. citizens are questioning whether Israeli leaders sincerely want peace with Arab nations.

Despite these trends, Israel appears to be regaining much favor lost in U.S. public opinion after the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians in two Beirut refugee camps last September. Overall, Israel is viewed today about as sympathetically compared with Arab nations as before its invasion of Lebanon last June.

These seemingly contradictory findings are only some of the complexities found in attitudes toward the Middle East. Another is the clear indication that among Americans most critical of the Israeli government's handling of the Sharon affair are better-informed citizens who strongly support Israel on most issues.

After a commission investigating the camp massacres determined that Sharon had "indirect responsibility" for them, it recommended that he resign or be fired, and the Israeli cabinet voted to accept the report. Sharon resisted, then resigned as defense minister but was kept as a cabinet minister without portfolio.

Sixteen percent of respondents in The Post-ABC News poll said Sharon's punishment was about right or too severe, and 41 percent said it was not severe enough. As in earlier surveys, most of those polled showed little knowledge of Mideast events, and 43 percent, the largest single group, had no opinion on the Sharon matter. Among the minority who seem to follow Mideast events somewhat closely, 58 percent said Sharon's punishment was not tough enough, 23 said it was about right or too severe and 19 percent expressed no opinion. Such citizens comprise one-third of those interviewed.

The poll finding that is perhaps most critical of Israel came in response to this question: "Would you say the leaders of Israel sincerely want to be at peace with the Arab nations, or not?" In all, 44 percent said "no," and 38 percent said "yes," with 18 percent expressing no opinion.

If Americans are questioning Israeli leaders' long-term intentions, they are more skeptical about those of Arab leaders. Only 29 percent in the poll said the latter "sincerely want to be at peace with Israel," while 52 percent said Arab leaders do not want peace.

Overall, 52 percent say their sympathies are more with Israel than with the Arab nations in the Mideast dispute, while 16 percent say they sympathize more with the Arabs. That figure is virtually the same as was found in a Post-ABC poll three months before the Lebanon invasion. In September, at the height of the furor over the massacres, support for Israel as opposed to Arab nations had dipped to 48 percent, with 27 percent saying they sympathized more with Arabs.

A further indication that support is shifting back to Israel comes from comparing views toward Israel and Egypt. Forty-five percent in the new poll said Israel was the "better ally of the United States," while 28 percent favored Egypt. In the September survey, Egypt was seen by 46 to 36 percent as the better ally.

In the new poll, a random nationwide sample of 1,504 people 18 and older was interviewed by phone Feb. 25-March 2.