Moving Goal Posts

What Peace Process Polling Doesn't Tell You

Yousef Munayyer on how polling only takes you so far in analyzing an imbalanced conflict.

We’ve seen it time and again. Pollsters frequently query Palestinians and Israelis asking them about their views, priorities and ambitions and then present their responses as a sort of map of the political landscape that shows which path to peace is possible.

This sideshow has become a consistent feature of the peace process industry. Like most facets of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” the origins of this approach in Middle East diplomacy are rooted in the Egypt-Israel peace process. And, consequently, like so many other hand-me-downs from the peace process of yore, the polling approach has been unwittingly adopted without serious questions about its applicability or usefulness in the Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking context.

Let’s be clear: I don’t mean to argue that public opinion polling is entirely unhelpful or that it is useless in navigating the contours of political disagreements. The problem in the Israeli-Palestinian context, however, is that the assumptions that make such polling approaches more useful elsewhere do not exist.

On many contentious issues that require bargaining, polling helps define what kind of deals are possible. But why is this? It is not publics which make agreements but leaders. These leaders, however, are beholden to domestic constraints either via periodic election or, in more authoritarian contexts, uprisings and coups. Leaders then use these domestic constraints in their bargaining to argue that their hands are tied and that asking them to make certain concessions are unreasonable.

Here is the problem though in the Israeli-Palestinian context with this approach. The “mediator”, in this case the United States, is fundamentally predisposed to agreeing with Israeli arguments about tied hands over Palestinian arguments. The reason for this is that the United States recognizes the government of Israel as a sovereign government of an independent state and does not see the Palestinians the same way. This means that regardless to whom is elected in Israel, whether it is a party that supports colonization or opposes it, Washington continues to work with it because it has committed to. The same cannot be said for Washington’s approach to the Palestinians. If parties are elected into the Palestinian leadership which does not toe the line of the quartet, for example, then sanctions from Washington follow (see Hamas, 2006).

This fundamental imbalance creates a situation where the leadership of only one party, the Israelis, can effectively “move goal posts” with domestic constraints by shaping public opinion to create new bargaining chips that previously did not exist. A clear example of this is the new demand for recognition of Israel as a “Jewish State.” Prior to the election of Netanyahu in 2009, this was hardly mentioned. But Netanyahu made this a persistent talking point and today Israelis resoundingly agree with him in questions asked by pollsters that never would have been asked 10 or 20 years ago. This is but one example; settlements, Jerusalem and refugees are among many others.

When was the last time the Palestinians moved a goal post effectively? I don’t think it has ever happened, and if it has it hasn’t happened at the pace and scale at which the Israelis are able to do so.

With only one side able to dominate the bargaining through tied hands arguments, and the other side unable to stop them or match, it creates a situation where the Israeli leaders can constantly leverage their position not only by creating facts on the ground but also by shaping and priming the opinions of their electorate which the “mediator” has invariably respected.

This contributes to making the “two-state solution” a farce. Coupled with this is the fact that the two-state solution has no expiration date. From Washington’s perspective, which sees the situation through the prism of Zionism, so long as a line can be drawn to ensure a Jewish majority in an Israeli state then the two-state solution lives, even if the Palestinian “state” which is left does not resemble a state at all.

Lara Friedman recently presented this paradox in a discussion of Israel-Palestinian public opinion when she said that settlements have “immediately threatened” the two-state solution. Then, in practically the same breath she says, “If the two-state solution is declared dead, all we do though is restart the clock and start fighting to revive it.” This is precisely why the liberal Zionist argument is so ineffective. How can anything immortal be threatened? Such thinking only greenlights continued colonization because the threats are never seen as credible.

For some, the two-state solution is the Alpha and the Omega. They repeat as if a pillar of their faith; there is no solution but the two-state solution. This is far from the pragmatism necessary for problem solving. Instead it is this very dogmatism which has made problem solving so difficult.

It is time for policymakers in Washington to start thinking outside the Zionist box. The failure to do so has lead to inept policies that have made peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians impossible. If our departure point continues to be one that seeks solutions convenient for Zionism at the expense of Palestinians, it is no wonder that we will fail miserably.