The Palestine-Israel Journal is a quarterly of MIDDLE EAST PUBLICATIONS, a registered non-profit organization (No. 58-023862-4).
Bookmark and Share

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

Militant Attitudes among Israelis throughout the al-Aqsa Intifada

The willingness to employ military means does not contradict diplomatic solutions.

     by Daphna Canetti-Nisim

by Daphna Canetti-Nisim is a lecturer in the department of political science, Haifa University.Eran Zaidise is a doctoral student and Ami Pedahzur is a senior lecturer in the same department. They all work at Haifa University National Security Studies Center.

It has become a truism that public opinion is important. Yet our understanding of the public opinion phenomenon is far from complete. Does public opinion influence policy-makers in their all-important decision-making process, or is it the other way around? No simple answer can be given. Traditionally classic studies, such as those of Lippmann (1946), Almond (1950) and Caspary (1970), questioned the very rationality of public opinion. Accordingly, they portrayed it as incoherent or whimsical, often changing, not only with changing circumstances but also with guidance from above; i.e., directed and manipulated by interested elites and opportunistic leaders. Caplin (1974), for example, claimed that policy-makers may influence public opinion in a desired direction, thus creating support for certain policies and opposition to others. Later studies, however, have quite clearly established that — whether influential or not - public opinion is not irrational, showing both stability and coherency, and reflecting the policy preferences of aggregate individuals (for a very detailed review see Page & Shapiro, 1992). Subsequently, it has come to be accepted that governments and individual decision-makers take public opinion into account (Russett, 1990; Wittkopf, 1990), even in circumstances where they do not choose to comply with it. As indicated by Stimson (1991), public opinion sets the limits for the policy-making process, thus outlining the arena in which politics is played. It is most likely that no one-way model clearly explains the relationship between public opinion and policy making. Rather, as indicated by Hermann and Yuchtman-Yaar (2002), this relationship resembles a two-way street, with each side having an effect on the other - but not necessarily dictating to the other.

Israeli Public Opinion on Militancy - General Trends

In Israel, the ongoing security situation is of the highest concern to public opinion. This is, of course, not without reason as the new methods of terrorism and the very nature of a long-lasting (what is sometimes called “low intensity”) confrontation have brought security concerns into the homes of each and every resident of Israel. Yet, although Israelis generally agree on the problem, they differ in their views regarding possible solutions (Bar-Tal, 2001).

Generally speaking, in terms of the security discourse, Israeli politics may be seen as alternating between two opposing poles (Peleg, 1998; Sheffer, 2000): “dovish” and “hawkish.” This clearly over-simplified image implies two central avenues for addressing Israel’s security dilemma. The first, derived from the dovish standpoint and often identified with Israel’s left-wing political parties, calls for a diplomatic resolution based on mutual agreement and concessions. The second, mostly identified with Israel’s right-wing political parties, advocates a “power” solution that is grounded, first and foremost, on military superiority.

Although this avenue need not suggest the absence of a diplomatic or peaceful solution, it does give more leeway to military action and use of force. In reality, most Israelis support some combination of the use of military power and diplomacy (Arian, 1999). Previous data collected in Israel has shown that in the balance between increasing military power or focusing on peace talks as a preventive measure against war, most Israelis prefer to focus on peace talks (Arian, 2003: 16) and support the peace process (Hermann and Yuchtman-Yaar, 2002).

These studies actually bring out one of the most intriguing paradoxes in Israeli politics: On the one hand, the majority of the population supports the peace process, and believes in diplomatic solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the other hand, the electoral strength of right-wing parties associated with both greater use of military force and rejection of the Oslo process has constantly been on the rise in recent decades.

We wish to shed light on this inconsistency. We will do so by addressing the issue of militancy, its support among Israelis, and its evolution over the course of the four-year al-Aqsa Intifada.

Militancy is only vaguely defined in the political and sociological literature. Generally speaking, it refers to the use of force or acceptance of such as a means of achieving objectives. In this study, militancy refers to a justification for the use of military force. As such, it involves not only political perceptions or tactical inclinations, but also a moral belief that the use of force is legitimate.

Data and Measures

The following data was collected at the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa over a four-year period. It consists of eight identical large-scale telephone surveys, each more than 2,000 (over the age of 18) respondents, and conducted at six-month intervals. Only the responses of the Jewish respondents, who make up approximately 82 percent of each sample - roughly similar to the percentage of Jews in the general population (Central Bureau of Statistics [CBS] statistical abstracts). Accordingly, each sample consists of around 1,640 Jewish respondents.

Militancy was gauged via three questionnaire items, to which respondents were asked to state their agreement on a scale of one to six: (a) “Every military action that Israel initiates is justified”; (b) “All means are justified in Israel’s war against terror”; and (c) “Nuclear weapons should remain a vital component in Israel’s national security.”

For purposes of clarity and coherence, we will present our key findings in three stages. First, we will compare general trends in the Israeli public’s support for militancy, and the similarity and difference between the three militant items. Then, we point out trends in support of three sub-groups we believe are of particular interest: (a) settlers living beyond the Green Line; (b) Ultra-Orthodox (often referred to in Israel as Haredim); and (c) immigrants from states of the former Soviet Union who have immigrated to Israel since 1989. Finally, we will address several key occurrences (influential terror attacks, Israel Defense Forces [IDF] military operations and diplomatic events) to better understand the change in militancy over time.

Similarity and Difference in Support for Militant Statements

Although public support for the three survey items employed is not the same, it does have common features indicating much similarity. High levels of militancy were generally measured for all three statements. At no point did Jewish support decrease below 60.3 percent for the general justification of military means, 77.1 percent in the context of terror, and 80.4 percent for the nuclear statement. As shown in Figure 1, support for the nuclear statement was consistently higher at all points in time, followed by support in the context of terror, and, finally, the general support item.

Support for Militancy among Selected Israeli Sub-Groups

Although support for military action is distinctive for most Israelis, some groups in Israel exhibit a greater tendency toward militancy than others. Exemplified in Table 1 is the generally strong support of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In fact, this is widely the most militant group, with one interesting exception. While the support of former immigrants for militant action in general, and especially with regard to terrorism, was usually greater than that of other groups, their support for the importance of nuclear power seems to be lower than that of the general Israeli public. This may be the result of having grown up in a major nuclear superpower, and under the constant threat of nuclear warfare during the Cold War period, and the collective memory of the events at Chernobyl.

The settler population, residing beyond Israel’s Green Line, also displays more militant attitudes than the general Jewish public. Indeed, settlers’ support for militancy was consistently higher (compared to that of Jews in general) at all time and regarding all three statements.

Of the three sub-groups explored, that of the ultra-Orthodox is most unique. Primarily visible in Table 1 is the fact that, unlike the previous two groups, this group is not generally more militant than the general public. With regard to two of the three statements it is usually less militant. Yet, regarding the “war against terror,” support exceeded that of the general public at all times, and, occasionally, even exceeded support among the settlers group. This is perhaps a good indication of the effect of terror on all segments of society, but may also be a result of the religious nature of what is sometimes regarded as the more “ideological” settlements.

Changes in Militancy over Time

Support for militancy in Israel is rather stable, although fluctuations may be observed between October 2000 and April 2004. Two major changes are most visible. There is a rise in militant attitudes between April and October 2001 (for the statement regarding the importance of nuclear weapons this rise continues until April 2002). Second, following October 2001 (or April 2002 for the statement regarding nuclear weapons), there is a stable decrease in militant attitudes. This later trend lasts until April 2003 for general support of military action, and until October 2003 for the remaining two statements.

These figures generally coincide with the major waves of terrorist activity in general, and with spurts of suicide attacks in particular. The general trend in suicide terrorism may be seen in Figure 2.

The months preceding the October 2001 and April 2002 surveys were characterized by an upsurge in lethal terrorist activities. During this period terror struck a large number of towns and cities inside Israel, killing dozens and wounding hundreds. March 2002 signified the worst of the incidents for many Israelis. On March 27, Israelis were horrified when Hamas terrorists attacked the Park Hotel in Netanya in the midst of the Passover holiday seder, killing 28 people, with over 140 wounded. The timing of this event, on the evening of Israel’s most celebrated holiday, further fueled the rage of many Israelis bringing support for military action to a climax. In the April 2002 survey, 70.9 percent of the sample stated that “every military action that Israel initiates is justified,” while an overwhelming 80.2 percent justified every military action in the war against terror.

This heightened public atmosphere was the setting in which operation “Defensive Shield” was launched. The intensity of terrorist attacks declined in the following month as did militant attitudes in the Israeli public. This decline lasted for more than 18 months, throughout 2003. Yet in April 2004, a new increase in militant attitudes was observed. Once again, this increase followed several high-profile events during the summer months of 2003, including two lethal attacks in Jerusalem, and the bombing of Maxim’s restaurant in Haifa.

The year 2004 was relatively uneventful in comparison to previous years. In addition, there has been a dramatic advance in Israel’s plans for unilateral withdrawal from territory and for evacuation of settlements, centering attention on internal Israeli politics and slightly blunting the attractiveness of military solutions. Yet in the fragile reality of Israeli-Palestinian affairs, this may only be a pause in the larger scheme of things.

Some Final Thoughts

Since the post-World War II era and the decline of the Cold War, few Western democracies still face existential threats to their existence. Israel, however, is still highly immersed in conflict, and Israeli politics and public opinion are widely affected by security concerns. The subject of militancy explored in this work touches upon various solutions to these concerns specifically, whether the use of military force is the preferred solution.
In the context of a state conflict ( with another state or with a non-state agent) militancy usually refers to the willingness (or readiness) to employ military force. In Israel, this willingness seems widespread, and approximately two-thirds of the Jewish population justifies the use of force almost blindly. Where specific security threats are concerned support for militancy increases even more. Furthermore, although it is presumable to argue that “blind” support and “specific” or “context- related” support are not one and the same, they do seem to be closely related in an analysis of Israeli public opinion. Specific tactical considerations, such as the use of nuclear deterrence, seem closely related to the general trend to support the use of military strength - even when a conflict cannot possibly be addressed by such tactics.

Moreover, while militant attitudes are notably influenced by terrorist incidents, they are generally stable. They are also more distinctive among several sub-groups in the public - most notably new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but also residents of settlements beyond Israel’s Green Line.

How may these findings explain contemporary Israeli politics? The answer is not simple and further research is imperative. Yet a number of points may be suggested. First, the widespread belief that the Israeli right wing is far more militant than the left wing is possibly exaggerated. As Hermann and Yuchtman-Yaar (2002) have shown regarding support for the peace process, militancy, too, crosscuts cleavages in Israeli society. It is also interesting to note the population of ultra-Orthodox Jews. While ultra-Orthodox political parties have lately been referred to as right-wing parties (Pedahzur, 2003), their adherents may very well represent different characteristics than those traditionally referred to in Israeli politics as right wing.

Another point to consider is that, in Israeli public opinion, the willingness to employ military means does not contradict more diplomatic solutions. In fact, the majority of the public strongly support both at the same time. This explains why Israeli politicians and political parties can promise these two seemingly opposing policies at the same time.

As a final point, we find it important to note that this work is merely a starting point for the understanding of militancy. More rigorous research needs to be carried out before militancy in Israel and elsewhere is well understood. The concept itself requires better conceptualization and a sound theoretical framework. Only when this is achieved, can more and stronger correlates with other social and political phenomenon be found. This is a prerequisite for understanding both the predictors of militancy and its influences.


Almond, Gabriel. 1950. The American People and Foreign Policy. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
Arian, Asher. 1999. Security Threatened: Surviving Israeli Opinion on Peace and War. Tel-Aviv: Papirus (Hebrew).
Arian, Asher. 2003. Israel Public Opinion on National Security 2003. Memorandum No. 67, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University.
Bar-Tal, Daniel. 2001. Why does fear override hope in societies engulfed by intractable conflict, as it does in the Israeli society? Political Psychology 22, 601-627.
Caspary, William R. 1970. “The Mood Theory: A Study of Public Opinion and Foreign Policy”. American Political Science Review 64, 536-547.
Coplin, William D. 1974. “Domestic Politics and the Making of Foreign Policy. in Introduction to International Politics. Chicago: Markham.
Hermann, Tamar and Ephraim, Yuchtman-Yaar. 2002. “Divided yet United: Israeli-Jewish Attitudes toward the Oslo Process”. Journal of Peace Research 39(3), 597-613.
Lippmann, Walter. 1946. Public Opinion. New York: Penguin.
Page, Benjamin I. and Shapiro Robert Y. 1992. The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preference. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Pedahzur, Ami. 2003. The New Israeli Right: From Territorial Nationalism to National Ethno-Centrism, in Al Haj Majid and Ben Eliezer Uri (eds). In the Name of Security: the Sociology of Peace and War in Israel in Changing Times. Haifa: Pardes-Haifa University Press (Heb).
Peleg, Ilan. 1998. “The Peace Process and Israel’s Political Kulturkampf”, in Ilan Peleg (ed.) The Middle East Peace Process: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 237-263.
Russet, Bruce. 1990. Controlling the Sword: The Democratic Governance of National Security. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.
Sheffer, Gabi. 2000. In the Wake of the Peace Process: Changes in Ideology and Political Orientation in Israel and Palestinian Community. Research Report No.12.Te-Aviv: Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, Tel-Aviv University.
Stimson, James A. 1991. Public Opinion in America: Moods, Cycles and Swings. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

 © 2012 Palestine-Israel Journal. All Rights Reserved. Articles, excerpts, and translations may not be reproduced in any form without written permission.
The Palestine-Israel Journal gratefully acknowledges the support of UNESCO for the initial development of the website.
The Palestine-Israel Journal gratefully acknowledges the support of the European Union for the maintenance and development
of the website.