A U.S. non-profit with close ties to the Obama administration and center left politicians in Israel has commissioned two separate public opinion polls in Israel. Each found widespread support for a peace agreement, including among right wing Israelis.
In both polls, respondents were presented with a two-state solution similar to the ones discussed at Camp David in 2000, Taba in 2001, and Annapolis in 2007: borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps; a divided Jerusalem, with the Old City under joint administration; Israeli retention of large settlement blocs; and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to a demilitarized Palestinian state.
When asked whether they would support such a peace agreement, the general public responded with 67.5% approval (average of both polls). What may come as a surprise to some is the 57.5% approval for this plan among supporters of the right wing governing coalition Likud-Beiteinu, and of the right wing national religious party, Habayit Hayehudi. Readers of the New York Times opinion pages might be amazed to learn that many right wing Israelis are in fact interested in a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Taken alone, however, these new polls don’t tell us everything we need to know. In another recent poll, pollsters found that 76% of Israelis think withdrawing to the 1967 borders would not bring about an end to the conflict, and that 78% of Israeli Jews would change their vote if their party was prepared to give up east Jerusalem. Clearly, public opinion polls in Israel are at least as bewildering as they are here.
So what does any of this mean? First, Israeli society is much more complicated than the usual media portrayal of “western” liberals trying to contain their country’s religious fanatics; in reality, many religious Zionists in Israel are as concerned with peace and security as their liberal counterparts. Second, while the Israeli right wing clearly isn’t chomping at the bit to divide Jerusalem or withdraw from the West Bank, many of its members are acting not out of mere zealotry, but out of sincere concern for the ability of Palestinians to deliver peace.
In truth, the weakness of Israeli liberals stems not from the strength of the Israeli right wing but from the weakness of Palestinian moderates, for whom it is very difficult to propose a suitable peace while retaining legitimacy in Palestinian politics. As is clear from the latter poll, many in Israel believe the Palestinians are simply unable to deliver on a land-for-peace deal.
What would really contribute to this debate are more public opinion polls of Palestinians, which the media likes to cover a bit less, and are often more confusing than illuminating because of polling bias or the way questions are asked. One poll, for example, asked Palestinians if they “agree” with the hadith that says Muslims should kill Jews, and 73% said yes. Many Palestinians, it seems, see this as a question about religion and their response is automatic. And about two thirds of respondents in the same poll said that they saw a two state solution at best as a halfway house towards the ultimate goal of a single Palestinian state. That same poll found only 34% support the two-state solution in full.
But just as Israeli polls give different answers depending how the questions are asked, another pollster also asked Palestinians about the two state solution and found that 50% support it.
Reliable Palestinian opinion polls are hard to come by; between pressures from Israeli occupiers, Fatah and Hamas, ordinary people may not feel like confiding honest political opinions to people they don’t know. But the Israeli fears that a land for peace deal would not end in peace are real, and they are the chief reason why so many Israelis who support this idea in theory aren’t willing to take steps in practice that could make it happen.
The key to making a two state solution possible is to strengthen Palestinian support for the deal. That won’t be easy; people in Gaza — to say nothing of Palestinian exiles living abroad — don’t have all that much to gain from the two state solution as it’s conventionally presented. A two state solution remains in our view the only way that the key needs of both sides can be met, but despite the best wishes of moderates on both sides, it isn’t going to be easy to achieve — and the world has to think harder than it has to figure out how to bring more Palestinians more wholeheartedly on board.