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Editorial Board

Adnan Abdelrazek

Danny Rubinstein

Sam'an Khoury

Daniel Bar-Tal

Walid Salem

Galia Golan

Gershon Baskin

Hind Khoury

Edy Kaufman

Ata Qaymari

Benjamin Pogrund

Nafez Nazzal

Dan Jacobson

Jumana Jaouni

Moshe Maoz

Munther Dajani

Khuloud Khayyat Dajani

Izhak Schnell

Lucy Nusseibah

Meir Margalit

Menachem Klein

Ali Abu Shahla

Ilan Baruch

Hanna Siniora

Yehudit Oppenheimer

Mossi Raz

Susie Becher

Frances Raday

Vol. 11, Nos 3&4, 2004/2005 / Public Opinion/Yasser Arafat 1929-2004

Focus 2

Introduction: What is Public Opinion and Why is it Important to Conflict Resolution?

     by Yaacov Shamir

The idea that domestic factors constrain foreign policy is at the heart of modern liberal theories of international relations. This is also the major premise that guides Robert Putnam’s seminal work on two-level games in international relations. Putnam sees the process of many international negotiations as a two-level game where “central decision-makers strive to reconcile the domestic and international imperatives simultaneously” (Putnam, 1988, p.460). At the national level, public opinion as well as a host of other interested factors pressure leaders to embrace policies they favor. At the international level, governments seek to maximize their degrees of freedom to satisfy domestic pressures while limiting the harmful impact of foreign developments.

Underlying the premise that public opinion constrains policy is, of course, the assumption that the public’s policy preferences and governments’ preferences do not necessarily coincide, and that leaders cannot take for granted their public’s consent. Moreover, the “game” metaphor suggests a mutual dependency between publics and leaders. It thus implicitly rejects theories of powerful framing in which publics are at the mercy of their leaders’ full control of information, or claims for powerful publics that hopelessly tie their leaders’ hands. More recent works, building on Putnam’s metaphor, see public opinion not only as a constraining factor, but rather as an imperative capable of opening new opportunities for leaders’ international games.

What is Public Opinion?

But what is public opinion and how are these premises related to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict resolution process? Commonly the concept of public opinion is taken literally to mean the opinion of the public. While this is not incorrect, it constitutes a rather naïve understanding of the concept. A more sophisticated conception must acknowledge the element of publicity in public opinion: “public” opinion as distinguished from “private” opinion. Indeed public opinion is a shared aggregate phenomenon. It is a collective social entity, and publicity is necessary for its formation. It is the knowledge of the very existence of others who share values, beliefs and concerns that forges a host of discrete opinions into a viable social entity.

Public opinion holds an essential role in society. It mediates and accommodates social integration and social change. As a normative force it nurtures integration and stability. As a mechanism of aggregate foresight it paves the way to social and political change. Public opinion is thus a multidimensional phenomenon. In addition to its evaluative attitudinal facet, it comprises a strong normative component, a prospective informational one, and an expressive behavioral element (Shamir & Shamir, 2000). A fuller understanding of public opinion thus entails not only the tracking of the majority opinion, but also of the normative opinion - the opinion perceived to be the majority opinion. Similarly important are people’s expectations of future events and developments, as well as overt verbal symbolic and behavioral expressions of opinion.

Why is it Important to Conflict Resolution?

Why is this important to conflict resolution? Different facets of public opinion can work in different ways to influence policy makers’ decisions. Public opinion confers legitimacy. Legitimacy by its nature has a strong normative component and is intimately related to the normative facet of public opinion. While success in an election is usually necessary to secure legitimacy, it is not always sufficient. Currently, legitimacy has become a major issue in the Palestinian Authority (PA), evident in the competition between Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) and Marwan Barghouti over who gains recognition as the genuine successor of Yasser Arafat and his legacy. Apart from a leader’s legitimacy, bold policy decisions must also obtain legitimacy and leaders often work hard to secure it. Here, too, contrary to common beliefs, majority support for a policy option is perhaps necessary for its implementation, but it does not always entail normative legitimacy of it.

The Disengagement Example

In this respect, it is useful to reconstruct the manner in which the disengagement plan has been revealed to the Israeli public. Although Ariel Sharon hinted in his election campaign that Israel would have to make painful decisions, it is doubtful he had a clear idea at that time on how to proceed. The disengagement plan materialized only much later, toward the end of 2003. The first trial balloon was released by Ehud Olmert in early December 2003, when he suggested a disengagement from most of the territories to a line that would be unilaterally determined by the Israeli government. At that time, 46 percent of the Israeli public supported Olmert’s proposal. The actual disengagement plan was declared three weeks later in Sharon’s Herzliya speech. This speech provides a fascinating example for the usefulness of our multifaceted approach to public opinion and its importance to conflict resolution. Since the end of 2002, more than 60 percent of Israelis have been supporting the dismantling of most settlements for peace. This, however, was still not perceived to be a normative policy option. Tracking the normative facet of public opinion, we could see that all that time only a minority of the public believed the majority supported the removal of settlements. When did this option become normative? Immediately after Sharon’s public declaration of his disengagement plan! The percent of people realizing that this policy option enjoys majority support jumped from 37 percent before the speech to 56 percent after it, increasing even further to 63 percent in the following months. In his Herzliya speech of December 18, 2003, Sharon went out of his way to secure a broad consensus of the Israeli public. A careful reading of his speech reveals that he appealed to the most widely cherished societal values: security, Jewish identity, peace and democracy, with security and Jewish identity emphasized most.

What can we learn from this example? First, clearly the attitudinal facet of public opinion opened an opportunity for Sharon. The steady increase in the Israeli public support for the removal of settlements since 200, turning into the majority position in 2002 set the necessary conditions for Sharon’s disengagement plan. Additional public pressure coming from the support for the Geneva document and the dissident groups refusing to serve in the territories provided a further push in this direction. This however was still not sufficient and Sharon had to build up legitimacy for his plan and make it normative. His very own declaration of the plan in Herzliya had the dramatic effect of changing the norm.

Second, the steady dovish increase in Israeli attitudes with respect to the settlements demonstrates that the Israeli public exercised an open-minded and resourceful process of learning and prospective assessment of the situation. Just as we can speak of a strong normative dimension in public opinion, we can also identify a prospective informational facet that embodies the public’s wisdom. This has been widely documented in public opinion research in recent years (e.g., Page and Shapiro, 1992; Gamson, 1992; Shamir & Shamir, 2000). In the Israeli case, we have repeatedly observed the public being ahead of its leaders in supporting policy options that only later, and sometimes much later, became actual policy. Attesting to the prospective orientation of public opinion our joint Israeli-Palestinian research shows that both Israelis and Palestinians are sensitive to political events. Assessing their implications, the two publics develop similar policy expectations despite being exposed to different messages from their leaders and the media. Thus, while cues from leaders and the media are influential and can affect the dynamics of public opinion, people also utilize their popular wisdom and experiential knowledge to reason about such cues and will often not accept them at face value. It is always advisable to examine the fuller array of information and the existence of supportive evidence that may justify people’s adherence to media frames or leaders’ theories that may seem unreasonable at first glance, before concluding public opinion is irrational or dumb. There are also cases where public opinion can be swayed by charismatic leaders or a monolithic media; in the long run and with additional information, however learning inevitably occurs and self-correcting processes take place.

The “Democratic Peace” Phenomenon

Finally, the importance of public opinion to conflict resolution is also stressed by one of the most robust generalizations produced to date in the field of international relations: the “democratic peace” phenomenon. (e.g., Rummel, 1983; Russett, 1990). Public opinion, broadly conceived, plays a major role among the range of explanations of this phenomenon. For example, public opinion is considered a major force against belligerence in the “Kantian” rationale for “perpetual peace.” Normative explanations, which emphasize political culture factors, suggest that norms of domestic political conduct express themselves in the international arena. Thus political cultures that nurture among their members values and norms of “live and let live” will project these norms on to the international arena, as well. Structural explanations in turn emphasize the workings of democratic political institutions. Belligerent decisions are constrained by the need of executives in democracies to gain approval for war from the legislature and the electorates. Either way, electorates holding liberal sentiments and democratic norms and values seem to be central to peaceful conflict resolutions. The process of democratization we are witnessing in recent months in the Palestinian Authority is extremely important in this respect. Its ultimate success will be judged not only by the new institutional arrangements it will generate, but also and even more so by the political culture it will nurture.


Gamson, William A., 1992. Talking Politics. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Page, Benjamin I. & Robert Y. Shapiro, 1992. The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Putnam, Robert D., 1988. “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games.” International Organization 42(3): 427-460.

Shamir, Jacob & Michal Shamir, 2000. The Anatomy of Public Opinion. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Rummel, Randolph, J. (1983). “Libertarianism and International Violence.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 27: 27-71.

Russett, Bruce M., 1990. Controlling the Sword: The Democratic Governance of National Security. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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