Calev Ben Dor, Director of Research at BICOM, spoke to Professor Tamar Hermann, of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) in Jerusalem, to discuss the results of a joint poll, the Palestinian-Israeli Pulse, which was conducted by both Professor Hermann and Dr. Khalil Shikaki, of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in Ramallah. Prof. Hermann is the academic director of IDI’s Guttman Center for Surveys. She is also the editor of the annual Israeli Democracy Index, and co-authors the monthly Peace Index. Below is an edited transcript.
- When asked generally, “do you support a two-state solution?” without getting into specific details about a proposed peace plan, 53 per cent of Israeli Jews and 51 per cent of Palestinians said yes. This has decreased from around two thirds support for a two-state solution over the course of the last decade, which Professor Hermann puts down to frustration due to repeated failed negotiations.
- When asked about how fearful each side is of the other, Jews are more afraid of Palestinians than the other way around. 65 per cent of Israeli Jews and 45 per cent of Palestinians fear the other side.
- People on both sides believe the other side is interested in peace, with 43 per cent of both Israeli Jews and Palestinians thinking this, however;
- Distrust between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians has never been good, but it is increasing. 89 per cent of Palestinians feel Israeli Jews are untrustworthy, while 68 per cent of Israeli Jews think Palestinians cannot be trusted. Only 25 per cent of Israeli Jews and 11 per cent of Palestinians say the other side can be trusted.
- Both sides are also suspicious about the other’s ultimate aim. 40 per cent of Israeli Jews think that the Palestinians’ ultimate aspiration is to conquer the State of Israel and exterminate its Jewish population, while 52 per cent of Palestinians in the West Bank and 40 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza think Israel’s long term aim was to expand its border between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea and to expel and transfer the Arabs.
CBD: You discuss several different areas and questions in your poll: the perspectives each side has of the other; the level of concern each side has about violence; the identity of Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens; the Israeli and Palestinian publics perspective on the two-state solution and different aspects of final status issues; and you also touch upon additional components to a deal that could help increase support for one.
Let’s start with focusing on how each side perceives the other’s political goals and the mutual fear of experiencing violence. What were your findings and what factors do you put these conclusions down to?
TH: We asked each side about the other side’s willingness or wish for peace. 43 per cent of Israeli Jews believed that the Palestinians want peace while 38 per cent disagreed, which taking into consideration margin for error is about half and half. Among the Palestinians, the situation was a little worse, but still around 40 per cent agreed that Israelis want peace. The exception to these two publics (which appear to be a mirror image of one another) was the Israeli-Arab public, 77 per cent of whom said that Palestinians want peace. It shows that Israeli Arabs are a distinct public who had a different opinion from both Israeli Jews and Palestinians on many questions throughout the questionnaire and who were much more open to every peace proposal the survey put on the table. To a large extent this is because Israeli Arabs live under the impression that if the peace process ends with an agreement, their situation as Israeli citizens will dramatically improve, and that they will no longer be looked upon as a fifth column. I’m not sure whether this assumption is empirically sound, but this is one of the main factors explaining as to why they were so positive.
The next question was about level of trust. Only 25 per cent of Israeli Jews and 11 per cent of Palestinians say the other side can be trusted, which is a much greater problem compared with each side’s assessment of the other’s willingness for peace. We then asked about how fearful each side is of the other which showed that 65 per cent of Israeli Jews and 45 per cent of Palestinians fear the other side. It is an interesting finding that Jews are more afraid of Palestinians than the other way around.
CBD: So a fair amount of people on both sides – almost 50 per cent – believe the other side is interested in peace but a very low percentage of people believe the other side can be trusted?
TH: Absolutely. This reduces each side’s readiness to make compromises, because signing a deal with a person or collective you don’t trust means you will be more reserved in readiness to make compromises or take risks.
CBD: There is also a question where you ask each side what they believe the other side’s ultimate goal is which makes for quite depressing reading.
TH: We expected this to a certain extent but when we saw the results black on white it was discouraging. We asked both Israelis and Palestinians “what are the Palestinians’ long term aspirations?” Among Israeli Jews 40 per cent thought that Palestinians’ ultimate aspiration was to conquer the State of Israel and exterminate its Jewish population while other options like “the return of all territories captured in 1967” received only 16 per cent. When Palestinians themselves were asked this question (about their own long term aspirations), only 10 per cent said that they wanted to conquer the State of Israel and exterminate its Jewish population. So a policy that 40 per cent of Israeli Jews thought Palestinians wanted, only 10 per cent of Palestinians thought the Palestinians wanted.
There were also similar findings the other way. When we asked both sides “what are the long term aspirations of Israel?”, 52 per cent of Palestinians in the West Bank and 40 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza thought Israel’s long term aim was to expand its border between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea and to expel and transfer the Arabs. When we presented this same question [about Israel’s long term goals] to Israeli Jews, only nine per cent of them assessed that this was the country’s long term aspiration.
We divided the interviewees into political positions of right, centre and left in order to try and understand who these 40 per cent of Israelis are who think the Palestinians are interested in conquering all of Israel and transferring the population. 60 per cent of those who defined themselves as right wing believed this long term Palestinian aspiration as opposed to 8.5 per cent of those on the political left. When we did the same for Palestinians – dividing them between those who voted for Fatah, Hamas or parties on the left – we found little difference in opinion between voting patterns. These results are a big obstacle in ‘getting to yes’ because if you think the other side wants to exterminate you as a collective you will be much more reluctant to make compromises or take risks.
Those who feared less and who didn’t feel the other side had an extreme long term aspiration gave higher support for the two-state solution in general, and showed significantly more support for the two state solution package we put on the table.
CBD: Many of the headlines about this poll focused on the level of support for a two-state solution and how these varied when different details are provided and how they subsequently change when certain incentives are provided. Can you tell us more about your findings?
TH: When we asked a more generally, “do you support a two-state solution?” without getting into details, 53 per cent of Israeli Jews and 51 per cent of Palestinians – a slight majority on each side – said yes. This is much lower than 10 years ago when two thirds of both publics supported this option. But it’s still a small majority and it comes at a time when the media and the leaders’ rhetoric have convinced many people that only a minority supports the two-state solution. We then gave a more detailed presentation of this question by presenting the interviewees with a package comprised of nine components taken from previous rounds of negotiations such as the Geneva Accord or Clinton Parameters. When we included these items – such as the demilitarisation of the Palestinian state, the limited return of Palestinian refugees through family reunification, the division of Jerusalem, 1967 borders with border corrections and territorial compensation – support on both sides dropped to 39 per cent (in polls it almost never happens that both sides have the same numbers!).
On the Israeli side, the critical component in the reduction of support was the refugees issue while on the Palestinian side it was the demilitarisation of a future Palestinian side, which the Palestinians saw as limiting their independence and self-determination.
We then tried to improve the package for those interviewees who had shown opposition to see if it would change their position. For example for the Palestinians we added Israel admitting responsibility for the refugee issue and for Israelis we offered full recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. Those who had rejected the initial package were asked whether they would now support it if each item was added. This did lead both sides to display more readiness to support the new package, although increased Israeli and Palestinian support was caused by different components, which doesn’t help much.
The only item that brought both sides to a majority – 54-55 per cent – was the extension of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement to something wider and more regional that would include Arab states. This has far reaching policy options. Probably because of the changing environment in the Middle East – including the improvement of Israel’s relationship with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – the Palestinians feel that these are the only Arab agents that can help them in their struggle, and both sides are much more willing to accept a package once it included a wider peace agreement.
CBD: So according to these numbers, there is a majority who want peace but a low level of trust that both sides have, as well as a thin majority who support a two-state solution which goes down with details but increases when it is framed as part of a regional solution. You discuss the change in support of two states over the last ten years. How do you explain the changes that the Israeli and Palestinian publics have undergone over the last few years in terms of how they understand peace, the two-state solution and their perception of one another? What changes do you think have happened?
TH: I’m not sure the levels of fear or trust have deteriorated to a large extent (I don’t think there was ever much higher levels of trust.) The major factor is the frustration of the repeated negotiation efforts that led nowhere. When the sides try again and again to negotiate and get nowhere, and both leaders encourage their own side to see the other as the only one responsible for the collapse of peace efforts, the public follows. And the media plays a very critical role in portraying the other in negative roles and as being hostile and unwilling to make the steps forward. Most Israelis don’t meet Palestinians, while those Palestinians who meet Israelis – mainly soldiers or settlers – generally don’t have positive experiences. Meanwhile the leaders play on these fears and frustrations, because it lets them off the hook and prevents any public pressure to get back to the table. It becomes a type of self-fulfilling prophecy.
I don’t think we are past the point of no return. When the poll specifically focused on those who don’t have trust towards the other side [by suggesting incentives], support jumped up significantly, so if trust were to be encouraged it would make a big difference. And this can be done – by the media or the leaderships. We are not yet at the point where the leaders are totally incapable of changing the current of opinion.
CBD: There is a fascinating question where you ask Israeli Jews whether they first and foremost define themselves as Jewish or as Israeli, and ask Israeli Arabs whether they first and foremost define themselves as Arab, Israeli, Muslim or Palestinian. Were you surprised by the findings of this question?
TH: I was more surprised by the findings of Israeli Arabs whose Palestinian identity seemed to be much weaker than it has been in the past. Israeli Arab leaders tend to relate to their own constituency as more Palestinian and when we got the numbers from this poll we saw that Palestinian identity was not the strongest component [which was ‘Arab’] nor the second [which was ‘Muslim’ or ‘Christian’] we asked the same question in two other polls. In all three polls conducted over the last six months, Palestinian identity always came last after these two other components last among Israeli Arabs. This signals something very important. Not that Israeli Arabs aren’t part of Palestinian nation; but that when compared to other identities the Palestinian component is not their major identity – some are primarily Christian or Muslim, some are more Israeli (by their own definition of course). Apparently when they look at the Palestinian side it’s not very tangible right now to declare Palestinian identity as one’s major identity because the situation in the West Bank and Gaza is not very promising.
The Israeli/Palestinian Pulse: A Joint Poll was conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), with funding from the European Union (EU) and with support from and partnership with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. The 2016 survey was conducted through face-to-face interviews in Arabic in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip between June 2nd and 4th 2016, and in Israel in Hebrew, Arabic or Russian between June 7th and 14th 2016. Interviewees constitute a representative national sample of the entire adult population aged 18 and over. The margin of error is three per cent.