Polls show Israelis rational about policy, misguided on elections

It’s easy to disagree with Israelis about many things. But two new polls show that on key current issues, the public is at least thinking rationally and seeing clearly:

*On Gaza, the majority know that Israel is no better off after the war in Gaza, and that the ceasefire won’t hold.

*On the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the majority supports negotiations, supports the basic outlines of the Arab peace initiative and knows that the Palestinians cannot simply be beaten.

*The majority acknowledges discrimination against Arabs in Israel, and a strong majority believes democracy is either more important than Jewishness of the state, or that they are equally important.

The data here comes from the most recent survey by Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull of the University of Maryland (always an excellent resource) and the Peace Index by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research and Israel Democracy Institute. Both samples were surveyed following the war with Gaza (Telhami and Kull’s research began just hours before the ceasefire began), with 600 respondents in the U. of Maryland poll, and 598 in the Peace Index. Both therefore have just a small sample of Arab respondents.

Gaza. Israelis do believe that the war was justified in light of the results – the Jews (84 percent), with Arabs evenly divided. Forty percent of Jews and one-quarter of Arabs believe Israel’s deterrence power is better than before the war, according to the Peace Index; the remainder think it is the same or weaker (or have no opinion).

But people hold no illusions about having solved any problems: just 19 percent believe that the ceasefire will last more than a year; the majority, 54 percent, believe it will last between a few months up to one year, in the Peace Index. The remainder say it’s only a matter of days or weeks until further fighting.

And just 37 percent believe that the government actually fulfilled its goals (without specifying what those goals were) – with no real difference between Jews and Arabs. Over half of both groups believe that only some or none of the goals were achieved. Only one-quarter (27 percent) in the U. of Maryland survey believes that a military approach can solve the Gaza problem at all.

So why do Israelis justify the war? Mostly because they believe Israel had to respond in self-defense to the rocket fire and this was the only option. After all, no leader has suggested or even entertained a non-military response. Note to self: In my next survey, I’ll ask “what is the best response,” and offer military and non-military options; I want to believe people believe there’s another way.

Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. Although both surveys show that people are pessimistic about the idea that peace can actually work, the majority of Israelis (including nearly 60 percent of Jews) support negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Critics will say that Israelis favor negotiations just in order to drag them out – but the finding still represents a divergence from the record of the Israeli leadership, which has not managed to hold them. (For the record, I think that during the brief and partial settlement freeze, Abu Mazen should have agreed to negotiate, although Netanyahu’s “conditions” made it nigh impossible.)

A majority of the public accepts the Arab Peace Initiative as is, or as a basis for negotiations  – even though in the U. of Maryland survey they were told only that this involves a solution along the 1967 lines, with adjustments. Among Jews, 50 percent accepted this, compared to 46 percent who did not.

Nearly three-quarters of the whole public realize that if the two-state solution collapses, the situation will be bad. Note: this is my interpretation. It includes 37 percent who said the status quo would continue; but given that this survey actually began during and following a war that saw rockets fired on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and a bus bombing sent PTSD shockwaves from the second Intifada rippling through the population – it’s hard to believe that respondents love the status quo (although prior to this war, many did view it as tolerable). Another 35 percent said there would be intense conflict for years if the two-state solution falls (72 percent total). Thirteen percent envisioned a one-state solution; only six percent believe Palestinians will just give up one day. (All from the U. of Maryland study.)

Democracy, discrimination and Arab citizens. The U. of Maryland survey offers no great news; but with 55 percent who believe there is discrimination against Arabs, at least the majority is not hiding from reality.

One-third (Jews only) say democracy is more important to them than the Jewishness of the state, up from 26 percent last year. At that time, 47 percent said both were equally important; at present 35 percent say so. That’s not a bad thing in itself: it’s natural that people wish for a state that reflects their national character. The question is rather how the national character is defined and implemented; and it is non-negotiable that a democratic state must ensure total and equal rights, de jure and de facto, for citizens who do not share the majority identity. Thirty-one percent say Jewishness of the state is more important to them than democracy; that’s likely to create a genuine obstacle to equality of all citizens.


Here are a few takeaways:

*The Netanyahu government is not fooling citizens with its military bluster. Most do not believe anyone can win this way.

*The Telhami/Kull (Maryland) poll, like various others throughout the year, also shows only a minority in support of a unilateral strike on Iran.

*The public cannot be an excuse for the government’s failure to advance negotiations with the Palestinians. There is every reason to believe that a reasonable two-state agreement could still be passed (although as I’ve written, the situation on the ground makes that increasingly unlikely).

Thus the number of areas where Israelis differ from the Netanyahu leadership is significant.

Further the much-discussed demographic rightward shift is not necessarily what it seems. When the positions on specific issues are checked, the population may be evenly balanced, or a majority can be found that is moderate, ready for compromise, prepared for restraint, or does not believe in military solutions.

The final puzzle, then, is why Israelis insist on supporting a government with which they disagree on such key policies, that has failed them on both security and socio-economic fronts for three years?

I believe it has to do with the fact that with relation to conflict, the government says things the population can agree with: we want peace, we are prepared for a two-state solution, but this isn’t the time. Perhaps if the government were to tell the truth about its policies: “we don’t intend ever to reach a two-state solution because we can never accept the idea of a Palestinian state, we are doing everything to create a territorial and diplomatic reality that demolishes any cohesive notion of a Palestinian entity and we intend to govern all the land ourselves including an additional 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians” the electoral map might be different. That is, if the people are as rational as their answers imply.

Click here for more election polls from +972’s Poll Tracker.