Opportunities in Numbers

A new book, which collates Israeli and Palestinian public opinion surveys, might just help readers become more empathetic to the other side.

Palestinian and Israeli Public Opinion 311 (photo credit: ESTEBAN ALTERMAN)
Palestinian and Israeli Public Opinion 311
(photo credit: ESTEBAN ALTERMAN)
And fail it did. The usefulness of this rational explanation lies in its universal application: These are predictable choices that anyone in that situation might make. We may not like it – but those who don’t want to repeat history are obliged to understand it.
HAVING ESTABLISHED THAT VIOLENCE WAS ROOTED IN rational, cost-benefit calculations, the authors confront a profound quandary: Does violence work? After all, both sides routinely embrace the accusation that “they [insert: Israelis or Palestinians] only understand force.”
Taking a position here is a grave responsibility. If polls show that violence has the desired effect, doesn’t that justify violence? Certainly, it would be best to conclude that aggression only begets more conflict. As the authors write: “Termination of [Camp David] negotiations when violence erupted left [Palestinians] dependent on violence as the only means to address grievances and deliver gains.” (page 75) and “With… the eruption of the Intifada and the high levels of threat Israelis experienced, they overwhelmingly supported the use of military and violent means to counter Palestinian violence.” Terror, of course, led to right-wing electoral victory in Israel and the downfall of the left.
But there is also conflicting evidence: During the intifada, majorities on both sides consistently thought diplomacy would be more effective than the violence people legitimized. Palestinian support for various peace packages rose. Support for negotiations remained around 70% or more among both communities. Israeli willingness to dismantle settlements crossed 50% during the first year of the uprising and continued to climb.
Shamir and Shikaki wrestle with this seeming contradiction, offering a convincing conjecture that it “testifies …to the ability of public opinion to distinguish between violence as a means and conflict resolution as a goal.”
But unfortunately, one could argue, means and ends are also inextricably bound in the Middle East. Violence, like settlements, changes facts on the ground and can push end goals beyond the horizon.
Still, the openness to compromise was an incipient opportunity. Israelis became more pragmatic, paving the way for later developments, including the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Ironically, the disengagement, imposed unilaterally, undermined Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s greatest strength in Palestinian eyes as the leader who could negotiate with Israel. His status dropped and this hastened the decline of Fatah. Ultimately, the Palestinians indeed viewed the disengagement as a reward for violence; that view aided the rise of Hamas.
The authors sensibly conclude that violence must not be rewarded by political gain.
But their analysis continues to yield opportunities, such as the insight that by 2006, majorities of Israelis were prepared to negotiate with Hamas and Palestinians supported Hamas negotiating with the Israeli government. Training the reader to seek these moments where public opinion provides opportunities is one of the worthiest efforts of the book.
Tragically, the leadership often squandered them.
OF COURSE, IT IS PROBLEMATIC TO EXPECT LEADERS to make all the right decisions based on polling. The term ‘public opinion’ – used here for convenient shorthand – might sound like a coherent actor that is easily read through surveys. But empirical research has many pitfalls – it is an imperfect tool for assessing the wide reach of human psychology and behavior. Sampling errors, question bias, cultural bias, language and interpretation variations, and politically correct responses are just a few of the many factors that throw doubt over the reliability of any one study.
The book therefore usefully highlights some general contextual, political and social developments to frame the picture, which is indeed mainly grounded in data. Furthermore, Shamir and Shikaki make liberal use of other public opinion research studies to flesh out their own findings (although at a glance, there seems to be a slightly greater range of Israeli data than different Palestinian sources). This helps mitigate the uncertainty of depending on a single polling source to learn about public thinking.
The main criticism of this text is the desire for more data, insights and analysis of both breadth and depth. The book ends with 2006, although JIPP surveys continue through the publication date in 2010. So much could be learned from similarly deep thinking about the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the Hamas kidnapping of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, the 2008/9 IDF operation in Gaza and and the subsequent UN Human Rights Council's Goldstone Report.
And deeper social analysis would be a superb contribution. How does changing religiosity affect the conflict? Why are young Israelis flocking rightward? Are there gender differences? What about the role of the Palestinian citizens of Israel (who are regularly surveyed by the JIPP)? What makes peace a high or low priority? But a longer book might mean fewer readers, and policymakers often won’t bother to read it at all. Yet, at a minimum, readers and policymakers alike should at least pore over the concluding chapter, which brings the many invaluable conclusions together for concrete, prescriptive insights.
After all the empirical analysis, the book leaves a surprisingly emotional impression. It conjures empathy for the people who are at once both victims and perpetrators of conflict. We can both recoil from, yet relate to, the terrible feelings any person involved might experience, just as ugly Shylock is humanized by his overplayed, but apposite words: “If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” If this book helps readers become more empathetic to the other side – it has done a tremendous service.