’In times of revolution, opinion surveys are more accurate’

Supervisor of first poll of east Jerusalem Arabs talks about importance of polling in Arab world.

David Pollock 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Pollock 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The turbulent “Arab Spring” that has rocked the region has had other far-reaching effects, including making opinion polls easier to conduct and more accurate, said leading pollster Dr. David Pollock, a former Middle East Advisor to the US State Department and chief of research for the Middle east region at the US Information Agency.
Pollock, who supervised and wrote the Pechter Poll, sat down with The Jerusalem Post on Thursday to discuss the poll’s findings, which he has presented to American, Palestinian and Israeli leaders.
RELATED:Netanyahu: ‘Arab Spring’ could turn into ‘Iranian Winter'Child abuse on rise in J’lem’s Arab quarters, experts say
Despite years as the US State Department’s Middle East adviser and chief of research for the Middle East region at the US Information Agency, Pollock wasn’t sure how east Jerusalem Arabs would answer the questions when he started last November – simply because no one had ever asked them in such a comprehensive manner.
The poll of 1,039 east Jerusalem Arab residents found that 35 percent would prefer to be citizens of Israel; compared with 30% who would rather be citizens of a future Palestinian state.
In a possible peace agreement that divided Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, 40% said they would move to stay in a neighborhood that was part of Israel; compared with 27% who said they would move to stay part of Palestine.
While Israelis and Palestinians are polled more frequently than residents of any other country in the Middle East, no one has ever focused on east Jerusalem Arab residents specifically.
“It’s such a sensitive issue, people are a little afraid to touch it because they didn’t know what the results would be,” Pollock said, after a briefing of the poll at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on Thursday. “It’s too sensitive, too uncertain, and potentially embarrassing.”
“From a political Palestinian standpoint, it’s awkward to find out that more of the Palestinians – in what you’d like to be your capital – would rather be Israeli citizens than Palestinian citizens,” added Pollock.
The poll’s exhaustive questions – ranging from economic status, to satisfaction with Israeli services, to the biggest concerns in a future peace agreement – shed light on the specific concerns of Arab residents.
The answers give political leaders a scientific, organized glimpse into the otherwise sketchy realm of popular opinion, which is often clouded by vocal minorities.
The reasons that many east Jerusalem residents want to stay Israeli are economic: access to better jobs, smaller classes for their children and better healthcare, according to the poll. “Their political sympathies are not that strong; their preference for Israeli citizenship is for practical reasons,” Pollock said.
The 270,000 Arab residents of east Jerusalem have Israeli identity cards and can vote in local elections, and are eligible for the same services as Israelis – including health care, education, unemployment and pensions.
Compared with Palestinians in the West Bank, they are generally betteroff economically (44% have household incomes over NIS 4,800/month), on par with Israeli Arabs – but still drastically lower than their Jewish counterparts in Israel.
The Pechter Poll was completed over three weeks in November, interviewing a random sampling of 1,039 Arab residents from all neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Approximately 20 local interviewers conducted four or five face-to-face interviews every day.
The study cost roughly $30,000, part of which was funded by the Council on Foreign Relations. Pechter is funded by think tanks, foundations, NGOs and occasionally small government grants.
The two-year-old Pechter company has done 20 polls, all in the Arab world – a relatively recent development. In-depth polls in the Middle East have traditionally been difficult, given the region’s culture, oppressive regimes and general mistrust of strangers asking probing questions about political opinions.
“In other Arab societies, it takes a revolution to make [polling] possible,” said Pollock. “In Iraq, you could never do polls under Sadaam Hussein, but now it’s one of the most-polled countries. In Egypt… I never would have trusted a phonebased survey, but now, people are free to speak their minds without the fear of government,” he added.
The purpose of polls is to quantify local opinions in a comprehensive and scientific process, Pollock said. He characterized the “Arab Spring” of revolutions around the region as an “eruption of public opinion” that illustrates the importance of polling.
“In these days, with revolutions and uprisings, clearly what ordinary people think matters,” said Pollock. “It would be foolish for anyone to ignore the potential that popular attitudes could have to lead people to action, and to actually change the political map.”
Many of the residents polled last November expressed pessimism for the future of a peaceful Jerusalem. Almost half of the respondents said they believed that some groups would continue the armed struggle – even if there were a final peace agreement – and 63.5% said a new intifada is likely, or somewhat likely, if current peace efforts collapse.
But polls don’t just illuminate complicated political opinions – sometimes, they can shed light on surprising and humanizing aspects. One of the quirks that the study discovered – in an open-ended question about concerns about a final status agreement – is that should Arab residents lose their ability to move freely in Israel, 60% are very concerned about continued access to the beach.
At the center of the poll’s purpose is its attempt to answer the question, “what do they really want?” in a specific, organized manner, to make it useful for policy makers.
It sounds elementary, says Pollock, but it’s true: “If you want to know why someone thinks something, just ask them.”