Implications of Daniel Polisar’s analysis of Palestinian public opinion

Daniel Polisar has done a fine service in publishing an essay last week that summarizes the results of numerous well-designed public opinion polls of Arab residents in the West Bank and Gaza undertaken over the last 20 years. Most of these polls were conducted by four major Palestinian research institutes. Polisar is a respected political scientist and is provost and executive vice president of Shalem College in Jerusalem.

These surveys show largely consistent and terribly negative views about Israel, Jews, Jerusalem, Israel’s legitimacy, and violence against Israelis. They underline that, unless there is a substantial change in these attitudes, the usually envisioned two-state solution would not mark the end of the conflict with Israel; rather, it is much more likely that the conflict would continue with Israel placed in a much more vulnerable strategic position.

What are some of the key results reported by Polisar?

In answer to a question about Israel’s long run aspirations, the most popular answer by far, supported by 59% of respondents, was “extending the borders of the state of Israel to cover all the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and expelling its Arab citizens.”

Regarding Israel’s plans for the Temple Mount, 51% of respondents chose “destroy al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques and build a synagogue in their place.”

A strong majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza do not believe Jews have a right to a state. In a 1995 poll that asked whether Israel had a right to exist, 65 percent responded negatively. Twenty years later, in a survey commissioned for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, only 12 percent supported the statement, “Both Jews and Palestinians have rights to the land,” while more than 80 percent preferred the statement, “This is Palestinian land and Jews have no rights to it.”

Perception of connection to Jerusalem: A 2011 survey commissioned by the American political consultant Stanley Greenberg, found that 72 percent declared it morally right to deny that “Jews have a long history in Jerusalem going back thousands of years,” while 90 percent said that “denying that Palestinians have a long history in Jerusalem going back thousands of years” to be morally wrong.”

Such views find expression in responses to questions about a possible division of Jerusalem. On fifteen occasions between 2003 and 2014, pollsters from one of the Palestinian survey organizations asked whether it would be acceptable, as part of a comprehensive two-state agreement, to divide Jerusalem with Palestinians having their capital in eastern Jerusalem and having sovereignty over the Arab neighborhoods and the Old City, including the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, while Israel would be sovereign over Jewish neighborhoods, the Jewish quarter of the Old City, and the Western Wall. This is a solution for Jerusalem that is supported by many foreign politicians and observers although many Israelis have been strongly opposed. On every occasion, Palestinian survey respondents soundly rejected the proposal, with opposition almost always exceeding 60 percent.

Regarding “terrorism,” the Palestinians have a very skewed view: it depends on who is the victim. Thus, while “98 percent said the 1994 killing of 29 Palestinians in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein was terrorism, only 15 percent were willing to label as terrorism a 2001 attack by Palestinian suicide bombers that killed 21 Israelis at the Dolphinarium nightclub in Tel Aviv.”

Polisar found many polls that show widespread support for specific violent actions that killed Israeli Jews and corresponding support for naming streets after so-called “martyrs.” A consistent majority of Palestinians also believe that sustained violence causes Israel to be more accommodating to Palestinian demands.

For Polisar, this review of well-documented Palestinian attitudes helps understand the current wave of stabbings and other attempts to kill Jews. He concludes that those committing the attacks “are surrounded by people who share many of their core beliefs, who justify the attacks they are carrying out, who see their actions as potentially valuable in furthering Palestinian goals, and who can be counted on to venerate them and their families.”

Polisar’s article is much richer than these highlights can convey and I urge readers to peruse his essay in full.

What are the implications of Polisar’s findings for Israel?

First we have to confront this information and not sugarcoat it. Yes, there are Palestinians who hold peaceable views towards Israel and Jews. But, as these survey statistics show, they are distinctly a minority, while the majority view is hostile, distorted, and the antithesis of a mindset suitable for peace with Israel.

Some Israelis will want to argue about how much Israel is responsible for these attitudes. The problem with trying to attach most blame to Israel due to its rule over the territories since 1967 is that there is ample evidence that these irredentist attitudes were dominant among Arabs before the establishment of the State of Israel, and are the core reason for the wall-to-wall Arab rejection of partition in 1947. See, for example, Benny Morris’s discussion of Arab attitudes in his book, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, as well as a newly published interview with Benny Morris. Also see Efraim Karsh’s analysis in his book, Palestine Betrayed. These same rejectionist Palestinian attitudes were clearly articulated in the founding charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization, established in 1964 at a time when the West Bank and Gaza were controlled by Jordan and Egypt respectively.

Second, we have to consider how the reality of these attitudes affects the desirability of different policy goals that Israel might pursue. Alternatively, it might be better to phrase this as follows: Consider how this information affects the undesirability of different courses of action that Israel might take. The latter phrasing is more to the point, since most difficult policy decisions involve choosing among a set of unattractive alternatives.

What are these alternatives?

1. Pursuing, at almost all costs, a two-state agreement to “solve” the Israel-Palestinian conflict. This has been the approach favored, with unquestioning certainty, by the Obama Administration and the European Union. Palestinian rejection of the offers made by the Barak and Olmert governments, in 2000 and 2008 respectively, suggest that getting Palestinian agreement would require Israel to make impossible concessions. Some might argue that once the Palestinians have a state of their own their views will change drastically; that they would accept the two-state solution and Israel’s legitimacy, which would bode well for a peaceable future. However, the flow of events since Israel left Gaza in 2005 do not support this view. The belligerent attitudes revealed by these surveys, combined with the West Bank’s topography and its inviting potential to attack and paralyze life in Israel’s heartland, makes it most likely that sooner or later the West Bank would be used to attack Israel. Political leaders and opinion-makers in the West need to confront the evidence presented by Daniel Polisar and rethink their advocacy of the two-state paradigm.

2. Annexation of part or all of the West Bank. The formal inclusion in Israel’s electorate, following annexation, of a Palestinian population with such hostile attitudes would make annexation a noxious option, apart from its other problematic aspects.

3. Continuing with the status quo. Maybe it can be managed, but it might be increasingly difficult both internally and externally, at least for the remaining 14 months of the Obama Administration.

4. Pursuing a form of enhanced Palestinian autonomy in part of the West Bank combined with strong security control by Israel. Such an arrangement might be characterized as a constrained form of sovereignty and might even be called a “state,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did in his 2009 Bar-Ilan address, but it would have only some of the rights typically exercised by states. This is what Yitzhak Rabin seems to have intended when he envisioned for the Palestinians “an entity which is less than a state” in his October 1995 address to the Knesset.

There would be some hard political decisions for Israel in conjunction with this option. Israel would have to define areas in part of the West Bank where no further construction of homes for Israelis would be undertaken. At some point it might have to evacuate some settlement outposts and vulnerable remote settlements. An altered, broader coalition would be necessary, probably with Zionist Union in place of Bayit Yehudi. Ideally, such a new policy approach and new coalition would attract Western support, partly as a result of the “rethinking” suggested above. These steps would undoubtedly cause strong internal strife in Israel and perhaps some violence, at least for a time. Yes, this option would be criticized by some as a form of “managing the conflict,” rather than the elusive full “solution” but, given the alternatives, it seems that this would be the least bad choice.

About the Author
Lewis Rosen is a retired economist who has lived in Jerusalem for more than 30 years. Born and educated in the US, he worked for the Office of Economic Opportunity for two years in Washington D.C. and was on the economics faculty of York University in Toronto, Canada for 13 years. In Israel he has been involved in a wide range of business planning and economic analysis projects.
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