The latest poll from Tel Aviv’s Israel Democracy Institute indicates that Israelis are less supportive of what will be the most likely and practical contours of a peace agreement than what we had thought. What’s more, the poll raises some troubling questions about the state of Israeli democracy.On two of the major issues, borders and refugees, the Israeli government and supporters of the peace process have their work cut out for them in convincing the Israeli Jewish public to accept the actual compromises that will be necessary in any likely agreement.
With previous polling indicating that a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution, the fact that 63 percent of Israeli Jews oppose a major withdrawal from the West Bank, including keeping major settlement blocs in exchange for land swaps, represents a sea change in how observers, activists and policymakers had viewed the Israeli public’s readiness for an agreement. Still, a majority (61 percent) of Israeli Jews claim that they support the peace talks, and, as Dahlia Scheindlin over at +972 suggests, the gap between this new chunk of data and previous polls isn’t as large as it seems.
Those who are keen on a two-state solution know that one of the Palestinians’ key demands, namely a right of return for refugees, will have to be abandoned. On that issue, the poll presents a potentially important trial balloon, asking Jewish respondents how they feel about a “right of return in principle,” where in practice, only a limited number of refugees return, with the others given compensation. Certainly, this is the most likely scenario to be agreed upon. The symbolism of limited return and acknowledgment of the collective trauma surrounding the historical events would be a reasonable compromise between a wholesale return of refugees and outright abandonment of the issue. Yet fully 77 percent of Israeli Jews object to this proposal. Peace process advocates will need to move into high gear to recast the debate.
On the looming question of whether a referendum should be held to ratify any peace agreement, some may be surprised that more Arab Israelis (72 percent) than Jewish Israelis (62 percent) support the idea of a referendum. In identity terms, Arab Israelis presumably have more to gain out of a peace agreement which sees an end to the occupation of their Palestinian brethren than do their Jewish counterparts.
A final finding of the survey points to the ongoing tension between Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. Nearly one in two (49 percent) of Jews polled said that Arab citizens should be excluded from a potential referendum on whatever peace agreement is reached (versus 46 percent being supportive of all citizens being involved).
Critics of Israel’s Jewish character will be quick to call Zionism racism. Certainly, racism explains some of this disturbing trend, as does the general phenomenon of Jewish nationalist attachment to the idea of Greater Israel. But one must also ask whether the role of public pollsters, particularly in times of sensitive policy transition, should be to peel back the layers of national fear and uncertainty. When my fellow blogger Brent Sasley fears that “those pushing for such a [referendum] law—namely the religious Zionists and secular nationalists—[might] try to incorporate stipulations about how many of which group must vote for the referendum to count,” suggesting that doing so “would undermine the whole point about referenda being 'democratic,' and, worse, undermine the communal and individual rights of both Jews and Arabs and Israeli democracy as a whole,” we may naturally wonder whether these pollsters are bolstering or undermining democracy.
Ultimately, however, knowledge of public attitudes is concealed at a democratic society’s peril. As unpleasant as they may be, survey results such as these provide important reminders to governments, educators, and social activists that just as conflicts rely on ripeness to be solved, and negotiators rely on protracted, face-to-face time for mutual proposals to be accepted, work on the popular foundations of Israel’s democracy is not yet done.