Polls: Israelis fear unilateral strike more than Iranian bomb

A new survey confirms that a clear majority of Israelis are opposed to a unilateral Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Only 31 percent of all Israelis, Arabs and Jews, favor this option. Twice as many – 63 percent – are opposed. Over one-quarter are strongly opposed, which is more than twice those who are strongly in favor (12 percent). The survey is part of the Peace Index series, conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, among a representative sample of 600 adults. Telephone interviewing took place on the 28-29 of February, prior to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “nuclear duck” speech at AIPAC.

A majority of Israelis do not believe Israel will undertake a unilateral strike: 56 percent  believe that the chances of Israel doing it are low or non-existent (just 35 percent give it high chances).

The results confirm those cited by Larry Derfner last week, reporting on a new survey by Shibley Telhami at the University of Maryland, conducted by Dahaf Research (the sample was 500 Israelis, with a 4.3 percent margin of error – taken from 22-26 February). That study showed 19 percent who favored a unilateral attack, when given three options (unilateral, a joint strike with the United States – 42 percent – or no strike at all, 34 percent). It’s important to note that the Peace Index does not indicate a sudden rise in support from 19 percent to 31 percent, because the questions were asked in very different ways (in Telhami’s survey, there was one question with three options as described above; in the Peace Index, each option – unilateral, or a joint strike – was given a separate question and a full scale from strong to weak opposition or support). And it should be noted that 62 percent of Israelis (including 47 percent of Arab respondents) favor a joint strike in the Peace Index.

The two surveys do show that a stable one-third of Israeli society is opposed to any form of a strike, including joint American-Israeli action: 34 percent of the full sample of the Peace Index oppose a strike, the same as the 34 percent of Israelis who opposed the strike in Telhami’s study. Note that among Arab respondents, 51 percent in the Peace Index are opposed to a strike in any form (31 percent of the Jews). Also note that one third of the population is greater than the percentage who usually consider themselves left-wing in surveys of the Jewish population in Israel today – possibly more than twice as many).

The question remains – what’s behind these numbers, what’s going on in the minds of Israelis? Are they reasoning or panicking? Here are some more numbers to give insight, that I collected for my recent column in the Jerusalem Report:


…the mantra of a nuclear Iran may be losing its scare power: A 2009 survey by the Center for Iran Studies at Tel Aviv University found that while 81% believed Iran would succeed in building the bomb, just 23% would consider leaving as a result and this dropped to 11% in a late 2011 Haaretz poll. A 2009 poll for the Institute for National Security Studies showed that 79% do not believe Iran will attack Israel, and 80% do not think their lives will change if Iran has the bomb; since [2000], increasing numbers believe Israel is able to cope with a nuclear attack [by an enemy state], reaching [a peak of] 67% in 2009. Even more striking, the percentage of Israelis supporting a pre-emptive attack on Iran has fallen sharply – from 59% in the 2009 INSS survey to 41% in the Haaretz poll.”


So, before Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak undertook the current campaign to make a strike the number one priority, Israelis were busy trying to believe what Zionism said they were supposed to: that the state has provided sufficient security to handle existential threats without going on the warpath and putting its citizens at greater risk. It seems like the ones who really don’t believe in Zionism are its so-called defenders – if they must generate wars to rally citizens around the cause.

But perhaps the bottom line reasons why Israelis are decidedly more doubtful than their leaders about starting a war are the benefits they doubt and the price they know they’ll pay.

Fifty-one percent – a clear majority over those who think otherwise, in Telhami’s research believe that the ensuing war following an Israeli strike would last months or years, rather than days or weeks (37 percent); 44 percent say that the strike would also strengthen the Iranian government (four percent say it would have no effect, or 48 percent combined – that’s a statistical tie compared to 45 percent who say it might weaken the regime). Further, 68 percent are convinced that Hezbollah will join in with Iran’s war effort even if Israel attacks only Iran. And 60 percent in the Peace Index are convinced that the cost will involve far more than Ehud Barak’s promise of “only 500 casualties.”

It seems that that unlike their leaders, the Israeli people are calculating low or doubtful benefits, and high-to-intolerable costs. That’s called rational thinking, at least on this issue. Perhaps the government should consider it.