Prof. Yaacov Shamir, a senior fellow of the Truman Institute The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, kindly provided me with cross tabs for the Israeli side of a survey of Israeli and Palestinian opinion that was published a week ago. While the headlines from this poll tended to follow the press release of the Truman Institute – “Increase in Palestinians’ and Israelis’ willingness to compromise amidst climate of fear and mistrust” - the detailed results tell a much more complicated and more interesting story, parts of which I’m about to tell.
First I have to say, though, that the Truman survey, while consistent and serious in tone, is also somewhat problematic. The Institute is one “for the advancement of peace”, which might point to slight political bias, or at least to a clear political agenda. But more importantly, the survey itself has an intrinsic flaw: It is very complicated. Take, for example, this question:
“Israel will have the right to use the Palestinian air space for training purposes. The Palestinian state will have sovereignty over its air space, its land and its water resources. In addition, Israel will maintain two early warning stations in the West Bank for 15 years. The multinational force will remain in the Palestinian state and its border crossings for an indefinite period of time. The task of the multinational force will be to monitor the implementation of the agreement, and to monitor the territorial integrity of the Palestinian state and its border crossings given its being demilitarized. Do you agree or disagree with this item?”
Now think about the poor chap (or the lady) that is holding his phone in one hand, frying an egg for his daughter in the other hand, with a headache after a full day’s work, worried about his teenage son that didn’t yet bring back the car as he had promised. Think about him/her, and now answer the question.
Well, do you?
And what if the “warning stations” remain for 13 years and not 15? And what if they remain for 9 years? And what countries would you like to be part of the “multilateral force”? Would you say yes if it were Turkey and Norway? If it were France and Angola? I think you get the point. Complicated questions are a good way to ruin a survey. But this one is not ruined if one cares to look at the questions which normal people can more reliably answer.
Truman’s press release contends that “58% of Israelis and 50% of Palestinians support a permanent settlement package along the Clinton parameters; 39% of Israelis and 49% of Palestinians oppose such a settlement”. Not exactly true. 37% of Israelis (and 42% of Jewish Israelis) say they “definitely disagree” to have a divided Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine. What’s interesting is what happened to all those strong opponents when they are being asked: “And now after we went over the main features proposed as part of the Israeli Palestinian permanent settlement please tell me the extent to which you support or oppose such a permanent settlement in general, when you consider all features together as one combined package?” Apparently, most of them disappear. Only a meager 14% would “definitely” not take the “package” – a package that includes the division of Jerusalem that they said they’d strongly oppose.
What does this mean? There are two options. The optimistic one would be: Israelis might not like each part of the deal, but when all are presented as package, they’d go for it. The pessimistic one – or skeptical one: Confusing questions make interviewees suspicious. They hear “security” they say yes, they hear “Jerusalem” or “refugees” they say no, they hear “combined package” they say yes – would you say no to a nice package? In other words: All answers are worthless.
The number I find most revealing in this survey is specifically relevant this week, as the parties went back to fake negotiations. Less than 30% of Israelis would accept Mahmud Abbas’ conditions for going back to talks. Among Jewish Israelis it is 22%. So, when Prime Minister Netanyhau refuses to budge he isn’t just right but also politically smart. The Israeli public does not accept these conditions. On the other side, 78% of Palestinians support Abbas’ “intention” to go back to the UN unless Israel caves in to the conditions he has set. If Israelis would not accept the conditions and Palestinians stick to the conditions, no resumption of talks is politically possible for either of the parties.
And sure enough, both Israelis and Palestinians understand this. Both publics do not think that the chances for imminent peace are very good. In fact, 70% of Israelis believe that the Palestinians do not want peace – they want to “conquer” Israel (21.5%), and maybe also “destroy much of the Jewish population” (45%). 80% of Palestinians think likewise about Israel (60% for conquer and destroy, 20% for just conquer). The level of trust is low, very low, and each side focuses on its own national goals without thinking much about compromise.
This leads to what I think is the most interesting question for which the Truman pollsters are giving some kind of answer: What is the ultimate goal of Israelis?
The poll suggests four possible paths of developments:
1. Israel with a Jewish majority
2. Greater Israel
3. A democratic state (with equal political rights to all)
4. Peace (that is, low probability for war).
False choices? I agree. One can envision a democracy with a Jewish majority and peace (that is what the Clinton parameters are all about, aren’t they?). But such prioritizing games do reveal something about the ethos of a place and the strong feelings of citizens. For Israelis – Jewish Israelis – the choice is clear. Jewish first, the rest later. Almost 40% of Jewish Israelis vote for the first option. Only 12% vote for greater Israel – that is not a priority for Jewish Israelis, not even for the many who now oppose the evacuation of settlements (more than 48%).
Some would point to such numbers as proof that Israelis do not care much for democracy or peace. But there’s no proof here, as the choice – as said above – is false. Israelis want peace and democracy but they want to have them in the context of a Jewish state. Thus, the only lesson to learn here is fairly simple: Those wanting to convince Israelis to compromise and to negotiate and to give up on other dreams, should frame their message accordingly: That is the only way to retain Israel as a Jewish state. Such a message can work – it will work – if there’s a deal on the table that is convincing enough to the majority of Israelis.