How Israeli Leaders Will Follow Their Public To A Peace Deal
Brent E. Sasley looks at a new poll of Israelis and how it shows the need for a public vigorously in favor of peace.
Al-Monitor recently reported on a new poll of Jewish-Israelis and their (positive) attitudes toward the peace process with the Palestinians, and specifically the revised Arab Peace Initiative (API). At a general level, the poll doesn’t tell us anything new: surveys have long indicated that Israelis are interested in peace, willing to give up most settlements, but are pessimistic and seem unwilling to take concrete action to force the issue.
But the specifics of the poll, commissioned by the Israeli Peace Initiative, which advocates for an Israeli engagement on the basis of the Arab League’s proposal, tell some interesting stories. These demonstrate the complex nature of Israeli beliefs about the peace process, and help us better understand what it might take for Israeli parties and leaders to move more forcefully on the issue.
First, 73.5 percent of Jewish Israelis said they hadn’t even heard of the API, or “had heard just a hint of it but remains unfamiliar with the details.” This is an astoundingly high number. It’s long been a staple observation of Israel that, because of its security situation, its citizens are big consumers of news, well-informed, and highly engaged on both international and domestic politics. There are three possible conclusions to draw from this: Israelis just aren’t as sophisticated when it comes to news and analysis; they are simply too distracted by their own personal tribulations and lives to concentrate on the news much anymore; the state/media ignored the API and therefore didn’t transmit the information to Israelis. Unfortunately the poll doesn’t delve into the “why” part, so we can’t say for sure which of these it is.
Second, the survey found that once the principles of the API were explained, 55 percent of respondents said they’d “support it to some degree,” while 27 percent “strongly oppose” it (17.5 percent said they “don’t know"). That’s not an overwhelmingly majority, but still a strong enough base on which to market the peace process.
Even more, though, when asked how they would feel if Benjamin Netanyahu adopted the API and then signed a final agreement with the Arab states, those who supported it jumped to 69 percent. There are two implications to this. As Zack Beauchamp hinted, Bibi and the right more generally are rapidly losing justifications for their opposition to constructive moves on the peace process. The more that Israelis believe in and support concrete policies designed to end the occupation, the harder it becomes for politicians to resist.
But at the same time, the results further support what the late Asher Arian, one of the keenest analysts of Israeli public opinion, has long argued: that the expansive nature of the security situation facilitates society’s acceptance of the need for secrecy, lack of open debate, and the government’s right to make decisions about war and peace and be closely supported. What this does is open the door to a government making what it might otherwise contend are too-controversial and -difficult decisions, opposed by key segments in society, and being supported by the majority—the overwhelming majority—of the public. This is hopeful: it means that the argument that settlers and nationalists who oppose withdrawing from the West Bank are too strong is at best conditional.
Third, the poll ranked Netanyahu and Shimon Peres are the top two leaders capable of negotiating with the Arabs (at 28 percent and 24 percent, respectively). This seems counter-intuitive: they fall on different ends of the political spectrum, and have different personalities and ways of interacting with those who disagree with them.
But upon closer examination of their historical record, Bibi and Peres are more similar than might be obvious at first glance. Both are pragmatic opportunists: Bibi signs peace deals and expands settlements whenever the opportunity is afforded and he judges he won’t be punished politically. Yet Peres did the same: he was the original enabler of the settlement project, but now wants to withdraw from most of them. Both prefer to avoid the use of force if possible, but both have engaged with the IDF when they deemed it politically necessary (Peres in Operation Grapes of Wrath and Bibi in Operation Pillar of Defense). And both are known for the, well, “dirty tricks” they’ve played in politics to get what they want (i.e., to stay in the Prime Minister’s office). Perhaps the Israeli public understands that both would be willing to do what is necessary and feasible when it comes down to it.
If this most recent poll doesn’t tell us anything new about what Jewish-Israelis think about the peace process, the details of it do provide further hope that—given the right amount of incentives and pressures—the government can take a constructive approach to it. Now we just need to figure out how to convince the Israeli public to take action.