Israeli Polls: Jews want to ignore the conflict, Arabs think nothing will change

The majority of Jewish Israelis think the international community will impose some sort of ‘substantial pressure’ on Israel soon. But they are disinclined to let such criticism affect the country’s policy.

A section of Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank. (Activestills.org)
A section of Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank. (Activestills.org)

A majority of Israelis see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an existential problem, according to January’s monthly Peace Index survey conducted by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute. Indeed, a stabbing a day and a war every two years is no way to live. Yet Israeli Jews regularly vote for parties who perpetuate the same policies, and rarely protest Israel’s military rule over the Palestinian people in any significant numbers.

Spoiler: recent surveys do not solve the puzzle. But they do highlight some of the competing attitudes driving Israeli political behavior.

When asked if the conflict can continue more or less like today without threatening Israel’s security or existence, 52 percent of the public disagreed in the Peace Index poll. Among Jewish respondents, fully 61 percent disagree that Israel can live with the conflict as it is today.

Arab respondents (the survey asked just a small sample) saw things very differently: over three-quarters think Israel can continue to live with the status quo. They probably base this on the last 50 years, when Israel has experienced regular injury to its security and existence in the form of wars, terror attacks and perceived international de-legitimization — and nevertheless essentially maintained its grip over the Palestinian people.

Indeed, the Jewish sense of the conflict as a grave threat barely translates into support for changing policies. The backbone of the occupation is Israel’s martial law over Palestinians in the West Bank, implemented through the army and the military courts, whereas Jews in the same territory live under civil law. But when asked about this “unequal application of the law” (referring to the U.S. Ambassador’s recent statement), half of Israeli Jews justify the situation; 40 percent oppose it (the 10 percent remainder who said they don’t know are unlikely to be agitating for change). Among the self-defined right wing, fully two-thirds justify this situation. More striking is that fact that among Jews in general, only 40 percent believe that “unequal application of the law” is the case today and a majority of 53 percent say this is not the case. Yet this is among the most basic facts of the situation – which are are not hidden, but apparently rarely seen.

International pressure

If Israeli Jews do not see the need to change policies of their own accord, will international pressure change anything? Half of Jews do not believe the world will treat Israel like South Africa; 39 percent say it will. Twice as many Arabs (50 percent) believe the world will soon treat Israel like South Africa as those who do not agree (24 percent), according to the Peace Index.

A slightly higher majority, 56 percent of Jews, think the international community will impose some sort of “substantial pressure” on Israel soon. But they are disinclined to let such criticism affect Israeli policy. The same portion of Jews – 56 percent — say Israel should not take international criticism too seriously, for an obvious reason: when asked if such international criticism takes Israeli and Palestinian interests into account equally, fully 82 percent of Jews say it does not. It’s clear which side Jews think the international community favors. Judging from Israel’s (lack of) policy change so far, the majority of Jews will get their wish.

Again, Arab respondents in the Peace Index express the opposite results: nearly 70 percent think Israel should take international criticism seriously, but precisely 70 percent see very low chances that significant pressure will actually happen. Once again, Arab respondents appear to interpret critical measures to date as toothless, and express low hopes for change, apparently based on experience.

What to do about the land?

What then do Israelis think should happen with the entangled people and territories? In recent months, the notion of annexation is increasingly part of the national and media discourse. Government ministers and settler leaders alike now discuss it routinely.

The Peace Index asked if Israel ought to finally annex the territories following nearly 50 years of occupation. Israeli Jews were in a dead heat: 45 percent said that it should, and 45 percent said it shouldn’t. The remainder simply didn’t know. The survey did not ask Arabs. But this general finding accords with a Makor Rishon/Maariv poll from early January showing that 44 percent of the full sample (Arabs and Jews, but only 500 in total) support the gradual extension of Israeli law to “the territories in Judea and Samaria,” although in that Internet poll, 38 percent were opposed and 18 percent didn’t know.

That percentage drops somewhat when the Makor Rishon survey gave greater detail, specifying “all territory in Judea and Samaria” and dropping the word “gradual” – 38 percent support that and nearly half (46 percent) oppose it. Similarly, the idea of annexing Area C (more than half the territory of the West Bank containing most of the settlements) is supported by 34 percent, and 47 percent oppose it.

Annexation is definitively viewed as a right-wing policy: 61 percent of the right in the Makor Rishon survey supported extending Israeli law to all the territory. Typically, young respondents mirror the trends on the right: 60 percent of them support this policy. Between 58 percent and 67 percent of the self-identified left-wing respondents, reported Makor Rishon, opposed applying Israeli civil law to the territories, depending on which specific question was asked.

Democracy?

If Israeli law were extended to all people in the West Bank, there would be de facto annexation. In that case, would Israelis support full democracy, including voting rights? The Peace Index didn’t ask. But it does show that that a strong majority, two thirds of Jews, said that Israel’s hold over the territories today does not prevent it from being a real democracy (76 percent of Arabs think it does prevent democracy). By this logic, one wonders if annexation of the West Bank without voting rights would bother Israelis either.

Even in the more democratic part of the region – “Green Line Israel” – the ingredients and values of democracy are waning. In a January survey for IDF radio among Jews only, 45 percent said they do not support equal rights for Arab citizens of Israel and just 43 percent supported equal rights. The two-point gap is within the margin of error but it does not bode well that more were opposed to equal rights than supportive. Perhaps one slight silver lining is that only about one-fifth (roughly 20 percent) of Israelis define themselves as left-wing in most surveys, and even fewer among Jews. Therefore, a large portion of equality-supporters must hail from the center or the right.

Jews are still apparently concerned for democracy. In the IDF radio poll, a strong majority, 69 percent, say that Netanyahu’s multiple ministerial positions harms Israeli democracy. Twice as many Jews prefer Israel to be more democratic than Jewish (33 percent), compared to those who wish it was more Jewish and less democratic (17 percent). But in a survey of Israeli Jews for the pro-Netanyahu paper Israel Hayom, over 90 percent supported some sort of action against Arab parliamentarians who met this week with the families of terrorists – either expelled from Knesset or prosecuting them. This week, the MKs were suspended, so the respondents (partially and temporarily) got their wish.

In my reading of public opinion, the various findings reflect a consistent central narrative in the Israeli (Jewish) public mind: the conflict is awful, but it is primarily the Palestinians’ fault and there is nothing Israel can do to change the underlying cause. We keep our sanity by trying not to think about it or know too much. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Settlements and politics have totally obscured the Green Line, but we can draw it again every time we wish to point out how democratic the country is, looking here and never there. We erase the line at all other times. There is some concern for the democratic institutions of society such as concentration of executive power; but the moment Palestinians or Arabs are brought into the debate, the principles related to democratic governance vanish.

In the coming days I will write an update of Palestinian public opinion based on recent surveys. The sample information for the surveys cited here as made available in media reports appears below.

Peace Index: n=600 (Jews and Arabs), telephone survey, 26-28 January 2016. Data collection: Midgam Research. Margin of error: +/-4.1 percent

IDF Radio: n=503 (Jews only), published 19 January, no methodology or margin of error reported.

Maariv/Makor Rishon: n=511 (Jews and Arabs). Data collection: Panels Politics.  Published 8 January 2016. No methodology or margin of error reported.

Israel Hayom: n=500 (Jews only). Published 8 February, 2016. No methodology reported. Margin of error: +/-4.4 percent.