Polls From a Distant Land: Israelis and Palestinians Despair, But Shouldn't

Gili Yaari/NurPhoto/Sipa via AP Images

Peace activists protest in Tel-Aviv on October 24, 2015. 

Even while living seven time zones east of Washington, it's hard to avoid fixation on the U.S. election. The Hebrew press covers it heavily, both because America looms so large in Israeli life and because this year's campaign, like a disaster movie, inspires fearful fascination. So I suffer from Poll Anxiety Disorder, constantly checking my phone for the latest numbers from America.

Enough. As a replacement drug, I decided to take a dive into Israeli and Palestinian polling about the chances for peace. The figures show hopelessness on both sides—and provide good reason to believe the pessimism is unjustified. Assuming that America elects a sane president, this could be important for her foreign policy team to know.

Let's start with some basics: The latest Peace Index shows that 63 percent of Israelis strongly or moderately support peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; 32 percent are opposed (again, strongly or moderately). That's a very clear majority in favor.

Here's the catch: The same respondents were asked if they thought such negotiations would lead to peace “in the coming years.” Only 29 percent said yes; 67 percent said no.

To restate that: Over a third of Israelis said they support peace negotiations yet despair of them succeeding.

This is no fluke. The Peace Index, a joint project of Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute, has surveyed the Israeli public every month for years. The questions about negotiations are asked each time. The figures fluctuate. But in recent years, the pattern seems consistent: support for talks; pessimism about peace.

The Peace Index didn't ask about support for a two-state outcome. This question appeared in the joint Israeli-Palestinian poll conducted by the IDI and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), which is headed by pollster Khalil Shikaki. The results were published in August. Among Israelis, 58 percent were in favor of a “solution based on the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel,” and 33 percent were against.

But notice this: When respondents were asked whether they thought a majority of Israelis favored a two-state outcome, only 30 percent said yes. 

The simplest reading: A whole lot of Israelis who want a two-state agreement mistakenly believe they are in the minority.

Let's move to Palestinian opinion. In PSR's latest survey of the West Bank and Gaza, there was a virtual even split on the two-state question: 49 percent for, 50 percent against. Shikaki's team also asked about support for the best-known alternative, “a one-state solution in which Jews and Arabs enjoy equal rights.” Just less than a third (31 percent) were in favor, two thirds were against.

To parse this: It appears that one-fifth of respondents, 19 percent, favored neither of these solutions to the conflict. It's possible some would settle only for a more extreme and less likely outcome.

Most likely, many or most of the Palestinians who opposed both the one-state and two-state proposals belong to the despair camp: They can't imagine any way out of the conflict.

One more fascinating set of figures comes from the joint poll. Palestinians and Israelis were asked what they thought the other side's “long-range aspiration” was.

Over half the Palestinians, 54 percent said Israel's aspiration was to annex the occupied territories and expel all Arabs. Another 27 percent said it was to annex the West Bank and continue denying political rights to the Palestinians there. Just 16 percent said Israel aimed at giving up all or some of the occupied territories while guaranteeing its own security.

This is a far more dismal view of Israeli intentions that what emerges from the polling of Israelis. If you take “Israel's aspirations” to mean the strategic goal of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, then the 27 percent have a fairly accurate assessment: annex and keep Palestinians disenfranchised. If you understand “Israel's aspirations” to refer to the majority of the public, then the small, optimistic minority of Palestinians is apparently right. 

The Israeli evaluation of Palestinian aspirations is also skewed toward bleakness. Thirty-five percent of the respondents said the Palestinian goal is to conquer Israel and “destroy much of the Jewish population.” Another 18 percent said the Palestinians aspire to take over all of Israel (without the massacre). Just 37 percent said the strategic goal is to regain some or all of the West Bank and Gaza.

In reality, the aim of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has consistently been to establish an independent state, next to Israel, in what are today the occupied territories. If you look back at the polling numbers, the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian public either wants that outcome, or a single state where Jews have equal rights.

Dark bottom line: Both Palestinians and Israelis believe that the other's intentions are much worse than they are.

These distorted evaluations aren't just the result of Israelis and Palestinians having little daily contact, or of living in separate media universes. They're a particularly harsh example of what cognitive psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon have described as consistent biases in human thinking—biases that favor hawks. Forty years of psychological research, they wrote in a 2007 Foreign Policy article, shows that people tend to “exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries” and to assume that concessions offered by the other side have hidden hostile intent. Human beings—Palestinians and Israelis included—are an unduly suspicious species.

Here are some implications. First, a two-state outcome is still the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that garners the most support on both sides.

Second, the despair about getting there is partly due to badly misreading the other side's mood. A peace breakthrough may require a grand move that demonstrates real desire to reach peace. That's what Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's 1977 visit to Israel did. Neither the obstructionist Netanyahu nor Abbas, in the fading twilight of his career, can provide the same drama. What's worth remembering, though, is that Sadat's initiative came only after four years of Egyptian-Israeli negotiations, intensely pushed forward by Washington. Outside intervention was essential.

Third, one reason for pessimism in Israel is that the doves themselves believe that they are politically weaker than they are. The leader of the largest opposition party, Isaac Herzog, shares this unjustified defeatism. Rather than rallying the majority that supports a two-state outcome, Herzog has accepted that there's no chance of getting there. Instead, he has sought support by moving rightward. Labor could make a small but significant step toward peace by sending Herzog back to his law office.

To expand the point: Pessimism is unrealistic, because it denies that people can bring change, and irresponsible, because it excuses you from trying.

Fourth, the next U.S. administration—should a responsible person win the election—must rethink the cliché that America can't want peace more than the sides to the conflict do. In principle, this is mistaken, because America could have both strategic and moral reasons for wanting peace more than Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But it's also a mistake to think only in terms of what governments want. In Israel, Netanyahu wants the status quo. The majority of the public doesn't.

Oops, I'm back to the U.S. election. So here's one more thing to learn from the latest Peace Index: Asked which American nominee would be better for Israel, respondents preferred Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a margin of 42 to 24 percent. (So much for the narrative of Israel as Trump country.)

Now watch this: Asked which candidate would put heavier pressure on Israel to renew negotiations with the Palestinians, 57 percent said Clinton; just 7 percent said Trump. The most reasonable conclusion is that an unmeasured but significant number of Israelis prefer Clinton even though—or because—they expect her to push their government back to the negotiating table. This is a cause for hope—and one more reason that I keep checking the poll numbers from America.

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