Survey: Israelis worry most about threats internally and from the north

The National Security Index shows how Israelis feel about major challenges to the country each year.

A Hezbollah fighter stands in front of anti-tank artillery at Juroud Arsal, the Syria-Lebanon border. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Hezbollah fighter stands in front of anti-tank artillery at Juroud Arsal, the Syria-Lebanon border.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The National Security Index is an in-depth public opinion study conducted annually by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).
Since 1984, INSS has tracked trends in Israeli public opinion on topics associated with Israel’s national security, including perceptions of the threats and challenges facing Israel; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the Iranian threat; Israel’s northern arena; attitudes toward the IDF; fundamental national values; the preparedness of the civilian front; Israel-US relations; the contribution of American Jewry to national security; the role of the media from the perspective of security; and Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.
Examining issues and processes in depth and over time on the basis of a broad and updating knowledge base, the National Security Index constitutes a singular resource on trends in Israeli public opinion. It describes the attitudes, perceptions, and opinions of the Israeli public on selected issues and analyzes their significance for national security, thereby attempting to assist decision makers and inform the public and media debate.
This year’s study is based on a representative sampling of adult Israelis of some 800 respondents – men and women, Jews and Arabs. The interviews were conducted face -to-face in the respondents’ homes; responsiveness in such a setting is high. The survey was conducted in November-December 2017. What follows are some of the most salient findings based on the answers among respondents in the Jewish public.
The public is concerned over internal social threats (Graph 1)
In recent years, internal social issues have been at the heart of the Israeli public agenda. Even with security-related topics, the public has focused on internal aspects relating to IDF activities and less on external security threats. The study examined if, in light of this, the public is more troubled by external security threats or internal social ones.
The study found that internal conflicts are of great concern to the public: 39 percent are concerned by external security threats. A large part is more troubled by internal social issues (24 percent) or is equally troubled by both types of threat (37 percent).
The greatest external threat – the northern arena (Graph 2)
The study shows that 31 percent of the public feel that the most significant external threat to Israel today is the northern arena. This finding departs from results of previous years, when the public did not view it as a significant danger. For example, last year only 12 percent felt it was the major threat, in contrast to the security establishment’s assessment, which then attributed the major threat to Hezbollah. The gaps may be understood by the fact that last year, the topic was barely mentioned in the Israeli public and media discourse, and therefore the public did not sense the threat in an immediate way, particularly after a decade of peace and quiet on the northern border. By contrast, during the last year, the threat on the northern border was much more prominent on the Israeli agenda.
Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 21 percent of the population feel that this is the major external threat to Israel. Compared to the last two years, this is a decline in the number of people with this perception and a return to the percentage regarding this threat before the “wave of terrorism” that began in October 2015. In 2014, only 19 percent felt it was the major threat. With the onset of the “wave of terrorism,” the conflict was perceived as a central threat that must be addressed. In other words, the perception of the issue as a more pressing threat was a function of the sense of immediate crisis, compared to the prior relative security calm.
Significantly, a combination of three related threats – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (21 percent), Hamas in the Gaza Strip (13 percent), and Israel’s isolation and delegitimization (5 percent) – indicate that a large part of the public (39 percent) still think that the Palestinian arena represents a significant threat. At the same time, by and large the public is not troubled by Israel’s isolation and delegitimization. This year, only 5 percent felt this issue represented a threat (compared to last year’s 13 percent).
The Iranian threat troubled the public in 2017 less than in the past (21 percent). This is a consistent finding over the last three years and seems to be an outcome of the nuclear agreement signed between Iran and the world powers in 2015. It seems that the public internalized the experts’ assessment that at least for the short term, the nuclear agreement will not harm Israel and that Israel can expect a decade of relative peace and quiet on the nuclear issue. In previous INSS studies (for example in 2012, when the issue was front and center on the political agenda), the public viewed Iran as the most severe threat facing the nation.
Concerning terrorism against Israelis in Israel and abroad, like last year, the Israeli public does perceive the Islamic State (ISIS) and other terrorist organizations as significant threats (9 percent). The many terrorist attacks in Europe around the time the survey was conducted this year did not affect the findings. In other words, it seems that even with the passage of time, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups have not been assessed by the Israeli public as a key threat.
The study also examined in detail the ability to cope with threats of various kinds:
The public is concerned about Israel’s ability to cope successfully with decreased US support for Israel and with corruption in Israel’s government and establishment systems (Graph 3)
As in the previous year, in 2017, most of the public feels that Israel will be able to cope very well with external threats. Thus, for example, 85 percent feel that Israel can successfully handle a simultaneous war on the northern arena and Gaza, and 83 percent think that it can successfully cope with frequent severe terrorist attacks. The public’s high assessment of Israel’s ability to cope with external threats is also manifested in the fact that most of the public feels that the IDF is prepared for military confrontations (85 percent).
By contrast, the public thinks Israel can deal less well with several other challenges. The first challenge lies in the internal arena. In the last two years, 60-70 percent of the public felt that Israel can successfully manage the polarization among the different population segments. The public is now less convinced of this than in the past, as this figure represents a drop from 80-85 percent. Corruption in the government and governing bodies also worries the public: 66 percent feel that Israel can successfully handle this challenge.
The second challenge is Iran’s ability to attack Israel with nuclear weapons: 63 percent feel that Israel can successfully cope with that challenge. This figure has been consistent in INSS studies since 2004.
The third challenge is reduced United States support for Israel. As in the last two years, 58 percent think Israel can successfully cope with reduced US support, but a broader perspective reveals a change in public opinion on this topic over the last decade. For example, in 2009, 78 percent felt that Israel could successfully cope with reduced US support. It therefore seems that the Israeli public is aware of the vital importance of the special bond between Israel and the United States.
In light of the importance of this challenge, the study used specific questions to examine stances on US-Israel relations.
The study shows that most of the public (71 percent) think that the relationship between Israel and the Unites States improved over the last year. For comparison’s sake, last year, at the end of Barack Obama’s tenure, only 7 percent thought that relations
had improved. By contrast, the rest of the public this year was divided among those who felt that relations between the United States and Israel had worsened (43 percent) and those who felt that relations remained the same (48 percent). Last year, most of the public felt that the main reason for the disagreements between Israel and the United States was the interpersonal relationship between the leaders of the two countries and their different worldviews (60 percent).
Other findings reflect the public’s views on the status of the United States as a world power. More than one-third say that there has been no change in its status as a world power (38 percent), one-third feel its status has risen (31 percent), and one-third think it has fallen (31 percent). Most of those who feel that the status of the United States as a world power has dropped are worried about this development, and think this represents a problem for Israel (81 percent). On a related note, a large portion of the public (47 percent) feel that given the changes in the status of the United States and its waning influence in the Middle East, Israel should consider the possibility of forming a strategic alliance with Russia at the expense of the relationship with the United States. Indeed, there has been an increase in the number of respondents holding this view; last year, the percentage stood at 38 percent.
Finally, many feel that US President Donald Trump will be able to promote a significant political move (55 percent). There are no significant differences between right wing, left wing, and centrist supporters on this point.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The public wants an agreement and opposes the status quo (Graph 4)
Support for the two-state solution remains relatively high: 55 percent of the public support it. This is a slight decrease compared to the findings of the last two years: in 20152016, 59 percent of the public favored the two-state solution. Support for the two-state solution was consistently high and stable from 2003 until 2013, both during crises and at times of security calm, regardless of the leanings of the government (above 70 percent). Even if there has been a decrease in recent years, support for the solution remains high − despite the political deadlock, tensions related to various aspects in the internal Israeli arena, the fact that the state is ruled by a distinctly right wing government, and the deterioration of the security situation since 2015.
Graph 5
A clearer picture emerged from a related question. Respondents were asked what, in their opinion, is the best option for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the immediate future. It seems that most of the public (56 percent) desire a settlement, whether a “permanent settlement” (39 percent) or “interim agreements leading to separation from the Palestinians” (17 percent). Only 11 percent express the desire to annex all of Judea and Samaria or the settlement blocs (18 percent), and only 15 percent support maintaining the status quo. A further specific question discovered that a large part of the public think that the status quo is bad for the country: 56 percent feel this way, compared to 43 percent who think that the status quo is in Israel’s interest.
Graph 6
Although the majority of the public want a solution based on an arrangement, a large part think that, in practice, the status quo will persist. Responses to the question “What will be the ramifications of another failure in the political process between Israel and the Palestinians?” reveal that 46 percent of the public think that the status quo will continue, 35 percent think an intifada will break out, 19 percent think that the international community will force Israel to end the occupation, and 10 percent think Israel will be forced to take unilateral steps, such as the annexation of Ma’aleh Adumim.
It appears that the public understands that a policy of passiveness is detrimental to Israel in the long term. It would therefore seem that when it comes to the perception whether or not time is on Israel’s side, most of the public feel that time is not on Israel’s side and believe that the passive policy Israel pursues and the political deadlock are harmful in the long run. In other words, the public senses the problematic nature of a bi-national state and expresses worry about this becoming a reality. It would therefore seem that the Israeli public still wants separation from the Palestinians one way or another. If the Israeli government reaches some agreement with the Palestinians, the agreement would presumably win an even higher percentage of support.
Dr. Zipi Israeli is the head of the National Security Index project at INSS.  The National Security Index’s findings will be presented in detail at the INSS annual conference ‘Strategic Assessment for Israel,’ to be held on January 29-31, 2018