Do Israelis care about peace? Judging from the packed room, this question was on many people’s minds following the controversial Time Magazine article arguing that they don’t. I presented data and analysis to explore the question; a number of people asked to have the material on-line, so here is a summary of my talk:
Do Israelis care about peace? It’s complicated. Data repeatedly shows that at the current moment, Israelis place peace behind other pressuring social priorities of daily life. In surveys from March 2010 and October 2011,* the conflict and peace come in third or fourth place, behind education, security and crime, and poverty.
In March 2010, 10% of people said the conflict was the country’s top priority – this rose just slightly to 15% as negotiations began in September, but stalled around the time of the second survey. Note that Arab respondents in March still place the conflict highest, with 27% who chose this as top priority out of a list of eight items.
Americans here at the conference have already asked me on occasion why Israelis are not out on the streets, like their Middle Eastern brethren, demanding that their government reach a peace agreement. The basic explanation is: that Israelis, although they support negotiations, simply don’t believe they will work. The JIPP/Truman Institute survey from mid-November (also conducted after negotiations largely stalled) – 57% “impossible”; by January – Peace Index = 70%. The Peace Index from January shows that 70% do not think negotiations will bring peace. A cynical perspective might be that Israelis support negotiations because they don’t believe they’ll actually produce an agreement that will require concessions Israelis find too painful to make.
Israelis are not convinced peace is positive for Israel. There are deeper explanations than just the belief that peace is not possible. Two long-term deep-rooted themes in the Israeli mentality – existential and security fears, and deep mistrust of Palestinians – are associated with peace and peace efforts for Israelis. Both took on new dimensions in the post-Oslo and post-Second Intifada years.
• The data show that when asked if an agreement could hurt Israel’s security, a small absolute majority of 51% say it will and 46% say it won’t. The basic assumption many two-state supporters make is that peace is the only route to security. Many Israelis are not convinced. This situation reflects the legacy of the trauma Israelis felt following the Oslo years which in their perception were years of Israeli concessions (never mind the reality) and Palestinian terror, which was a reality. Israelis may believe that peace is good for long-term security in the abstract, but long term thinking and vision has never held sway in either public or elite opinion in Israel.
• Second, the reigning narrative in Israel is that Palestinians absolutely cannot be trusted to implement an agreement. Sixty-eight percent of Israeli Jews think this is true. The utter lack of trust in Palestinians is of course the primary outcome of the failure of the second Camp David talks and outbreak of the Second Intifada. When Palestinians are offered an agreement, the Israeli mainstream narrative goes, they respond with violence. This was also part of the Oslo legacy as well. These narratives have been nurtured by opinion leaders in Israel for nearly two decades.
• As a result of those narratives, a plurality (43%) have unfavorable feelings toward the notion of a final status agreement, and only 38% have positive feelings.
In other words, for Israelis, a peace agreement raises the greatest specter of Israeli life: security fears – and it depends on trusting the Palestinians, which they still maintain was a mistake. The outcome is that when Israeli Jews were asked about a number of concerns they may have about an agreement, the top-ranking concern is simply that they don’t believe the painful concessions such as on settlements and Jerusalem – will be worth it (55% of respondents said this raised serious concerns; 78% in total said this raised concerns.
Israelis support status quo. On the ground, this all means that Israelis are not rushing to make peace happen. When asked if they believe that the absence of a peace agreement leads to a one-state reality and an Arab majority, or if the lack of an agreement just means Israel can continue the status quo – 62% believe the country can continue the status quo. That means that the one of the oldest and strongest arguments of the peace camp – the fear of losing Israel’s Jewish majority and maintaining both its Jewish and democratic character – is not enough to tear Israelis away from the belief that status quo is a legitimate and sustainable goal.
The positive messages of peace. There ARE positive aspects to a final status agreement that Israelis recognize – but they simply seem so remote.
• Nearly 60% say peace will help the economy – but the economy’s already doing so well, that this isn’t such a high priority
• Nearly 60% say peace will increase chances of reaching peace with the Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon – but Israelis see life moving right along without that. Remember “eating hummus in Damascus” – was the narrative hope of the 1990s/Oslo; the current narrative is about resignation to geographic isolation.
• Just a small majority of 52% say peace is essential for Israel’s survival or to live a normal life. And when we tested the question of whether peace will help curb the threat from Iran – one of Israelis’ top existential concerns – the wide majority don’t even see the connection (we think this is an opportunity – because the argument can easily be made that making peace will improve Israel’s relations with the world, and make it easier to build coalitions against Iran.)
In sum, Israelis support peace in theory; they will probably support it if an agreement is placed before them by an Israeli leader. But as long as this remains such a remote scenario, the mainstream of Israeli society is not likely to do much to make it happen and would be pretty content if it doesn’t. That’s why the responsibility of all those who attended this conference is to think creatively and seriously about what can be done. Time is not on Israel’s side. As Ambassador Dennis Ross put it in his talk today,
If there is one lesson we can draw, it is the danger of getting stuck in an unsustainable status quo. Just as the dangers in Egypt grew over time, the conflict btwn Israelis and Palestinians doesn’t become easier to solve with time, it becomes more intractable with time.”
*Most of the data from this post (unless otherwise cited) comes from a survey I wrote and analyzed for a private client, examining Israeli attitudes towards peace. The survey was conducted from 15 October – 5 November, 2010, by New Wave Research among a sample of 1008 adult Jewish respondents. Margin of error: +/- 3%. The presentation is not yet available on-line.