By the Numbers: Let the Leaders Lead

In a democracy, either public demands drive leaders forward or else leaders drive policy and sweep their uncertain publics along.

Netanyahu Abbas 311 AP (photo credit: Associated Press)
Netanyahu Abbas 311 AP
(photo credit: Associated Press)
THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN PEACE PROCESS SO FAR has largely been a game of “who goes first?” Will Israeli leaders halt settlement construction? Will the Palestinian leadership recognize the Jewish state?
“Who goes first” applies equally to the fraught relations between leaders and the public. Who’s leading whom? In a democracy, either public demands drive leaders forward (assuming that the leaders are actually listening to the public) or else leaders drive policy and sweep their uncertain publics along.
Israelis certainly say they support peace negotiations with the Palestinians. In the monthly Peace Index (a poll now conducted by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute and formerly by the Tami Steinmetz Center), between 70% and 80% of the Israeli public over the last couple of years regularly say they support peace negotiations with the Palestinians; 73% said so in the October 2010 survey.
This does not necessarily mean that the Israeli public will drive a peace process. Sixty-five percent of respondents to the October 2010 Peace Index do not believe an agreement is possible; that attitude has prevailed for years, too. Furthermore, surveys taken over the last decade show that Israelis are unwilling to make the compromises necessary for a peace agreement to happen.
All this means it’s up to the hawkish, fractious government that doesn’t seem at all sure it wants peace. How can such tepid leadership sweep the public along?
What about Palestinian society? Perhaps its refusal to acknowledge Israel as the Jewish state indicates that Palestinian people have not accepted Israel’s existence and don’t truly want peace.
BEFORE SUCCUMBING TO PESSIMISM, IT IS VITAL TO inspect the leader-public relationship closely to find any – and all – opportunities to keep peace on the horizon.
A fascinating study of the public conducted by Dahaf Research in January this year by Israel’s grand dame of polling, Mina Tzemach, showed high support for a referendum vote on a hypothetical agreement.
This is somewhat surprising given all the reservations above. Perhaps it reflected the terms of the agreement presented in the question, which included a two-state solution, return of Palestinian refugees solely to a Palestinian state, a demilitarized Palestinian state, borders based on the 1967 lines and the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem remaining under Israeli sovereignty, all to be implemented only after the Palestinians fulfill all their obligations. Yet the question stipulated sacrifices for Israel, too – including the division of Jerusalem and internationalization of the Old City.
Sixty-seven percent of all Israelis voted yes; without Arab respondents, support was still high, at 63%. When the survey added a few more perks for Israelis – mostly issues that Palestinians wouldn’t be likely to oppose, such as better security arrangements with the Americans – support shot up to 84% (82% among Jews).
Tzemach polled members of the Knesset, too, and the results showed a massive gap between the public and its leaders. Among a representative sample of lawmakers (97 of the 120), just 46% would accept this agreement. When the “improvements” were added, the 20-point rise was nowhere to be found. In other words, the state’s elected leaders expressed resistance to the agreement under the best possible circumstances for Israel, despite enthusiastic support from their public.
This situation is very different from the situation during the Camp David negotiations in 2000, when the Israeli leadership broached positions that the public had never imagined would come up, such as concessions in Jerusalem. In surveys I’ve written about in this publication, we saw that just months before Camp David, a two-thirds majority of the Jewish public was dead set against compromises on Jerusalem; yet by the end of that summit, nearly half of that same public supported those concessions as part of an agreement.
This should provide leaders with a crucial lesson: Sometimes the process itself provides the hope and momentum that we lack in the Middle East.
IN THE CRACKED MIDDLE-EASTERN DESERTS, sometimes just a drop of water can make a cactus bloom. Could the current process fertilize our hopes? How flexible is public opinion at this stage? Is it responsive to developments, like during Camp David or stubbornly set? And if people are feeling flexible, in which direction are they moving? To test this, The Jerusalem Report survey decided to ask a question very similar to the Dahaf study.
We polled in mid-October, one month into the stalled peace process that no one believes will survive. We asked a representative sample of Israeli Jews a very slightly cropped version of the same question: “Imagine that after the negotiations with the Palestinians, the two sides reach an agreement, and there is a referendum. The agreement includes the following principles: Two states for two people. Palestinian refugees will return only to the State of Palestine. The Palestinian state will be demilitarized; the borders will be based on 1967, with land swaps for security purposes, and Israel will keep the large settlement blocs. The Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem will be under Israeli sovereignty and the Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty. The Old City will have no sovereignty and will be jointly managed by the US, Israel and Palestine, and the holy sites will remain under religious supervision just like today. If the government of Israel brings this peace agreement to a referendum, would you vote for or against?”
The results reveal that support is lower than it was in Tzemach’s poll in January. Just 49% say they would vote “yes” in a referendum on this agreement, compared to 63% in Dahaf’s Jewish sample. While it is true that different sampling methodology among different researchers can account for some variations, this large drop is probably beyond something caused by methodological differences.
Still, supporters continue to outnumber opponents: 38% rejected the agreement, only six points higher than the 32% who opposed it in January. The lower support translates into greater numbers who didn’t know how to answer – from 5% among the Jewish sample in Dahaf’s January poll, to 13% in October.
But more respondents would “definitely support” the agreement in a referendum (32%), than those who would “definitely oppose” it (24%). Momentum, in other words, favors an agreement. Israelis may not clamor for the process – but they would vote “yes.”
It is worth reiterating that certain trends remain remarkably consistent. If the young people had their way, no such peace would be allowed. Among 18-34 year olds, the general population findings are reversed, with 37% who support the agreement, and 53% – an absolute majority – opposed. Meanwhile, absolute majorities of 52% and 61% among 35-55 year olds, and the oldest respondents (over 55), respectively, support the agreement. Among the oldest, fully 48% gave resounding “definite” support.
Secular Israelis apparently fill the ranks of the “yes” camp: 62% of them would pass the agreement. Even those who are one degree more observant – the “traditional” respondents – register nearly 20 points less support (44%). Only 36% of the self-identified “religious” respondents support the agreement and just 20% of those who define themselves as ultra-Orthodox.
Notably, consistent with past findings, there is almost no variation based on education, income or gender.
So the Jewish public may have become more fearful and uncertain since the start of the process (although in the last 10 months there have been other cataclysmic moments, such as the flotilla debacle in May). But the drop in support seems to reflect confusion and internal divisions, rather than rejection.
Therefore it seems that the public will not drive peace forward, unless Israeli Jews were to both suddenly lose their faith and grow old. The former is unlikely and the latter won’t happen any time soon.
But there’s a bottom line from both the Dahaf and The Report surveys: the Israeli leadership cannot claim that the public opposes an agreement. Israeli opinion is tilting toward “yes” – if the government were to lead, the research and the experience at Camp David in 2000 give every indication that people would follow.
STILL, HOW CAN ANY OF THIS MATTER, WHEN considering the obstacles on the Palestinians side? Is it true that Palestinians don’t want peace and will never accept the existence of Israel?
According to survey after survey from the Near East Consulting firm of Jamil Rabah, that notion is dead wrong. In July, 59% supported a peace agreement with Israel. By contrast to the skittish Israelis, the peace talks seem to have generated optimism among Palestinians: in Near East’s fresh-off-the-phones October survey, support rose to 68% (with a +/- 3.4% margin of error). And these results were obtained even though the survey, conducted among 900 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, was conducted after the end of the settlement freeze. Like Israelis, Palestinians show deep distrust: 90% say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not serious about peace. But if he were, for example, in the case of a further settlement freeze, fully 70% would support continued negotiations (43% on the condition of a freeze and 27% under any political conditions).
What about that problem of Palestinians not recognizing Israel? Or talking the peace talk while supporting a terrorist leadership? In their recent book, Prof. Jacob Shamir and pollster Khalil Shikaki (“Opportunities in Numbers,” October 25) provide a fascinating insight: For two decades, Palestinian political attitudes have responded quite consistently to the perceived effectiveness of diplomacy or violence.
Sure enough, after the start of the current direct negotiations, support for Fatah rose a significant six points since July, from 44% to 50%. Support for Hamas also rose, but only two percentage points – well within the 3.4% margin of error.
The survey conducted by the Near East Consulting Firm, conducted in July, showed that a powerful 63% majority of Palestinians want Hamas to change its position calling for the destruction of Israel. Back then, 55% said Fatah’s strategy was best for Palestinian national interests and only 10% approved Hamas’s position. The response in October was basically the same.
So neither public, it seems, is really an obstacle to the peace process. True, one suicide bomb or settler skirmish could ignite everything. But if the public keeps its cool, is there any evidence that the leaders are willing to bend before everything breaks apart again?
If we look hard, we might see some indications that they are. Speaking at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset, Netanyahu subtly reworded his demand that the Palestinians recognize a Jewish state. They must, he said, recognize that Israel “is the nation-state of the Jewish people.” That’s pretty different. First, it does not ask the Palestinians to recognize the character of the state – a task that should be left to Israelis anyway. Secondly, it allows that Israel might also be the state of other people who are not Jews. It’s my guess that these words were anything but random.
What about the Palestinian leadership? It didn’t bolt at Israel’s fuzzy non-policy regarding the settlement thaw. The Arab League, in fact, provided a seal of approval for continuing negotiations. And PLO Secretary General Yasser Abed Rabbo took an enormous risk in hinting at the recognition of a Jewish state in an interview in the Hebrew press. The immediate backlash from Palestinian society – largely, it seems, from Hamas leaders – was predictable, but that just proves that Abed Rabbo was willing to risk making game-changing statements.
Furthermore, according to the Near East survey, the popularity of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is zooming – 62% of respondents say he is the legitimate representative in the Palestinian territories (of the remainder, only 15% choose Hamas – all the rest say “no one”). These high marks reflect appreciation for Fayyad’s demonstrated commitment to improving life on the ground. Respondents must realize that a successful peace process will help Fayyad to guarantee that progress.
From the data at hand, Israelis and Palestinians support peace and the compromises, albeit not joyously. With the right leadership, people seem prepared to make the brave leap. So far the leaders have given only oblique indications of their commitment to the negotiations. That’s why they are dangerously close to squandering the opportunity.