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

Changes in the Israeli Social Beliefs of Conflict, 1967-200

The changing landscape of the conflict has impacted Israeli social beliefs.

     by Neta Oren

Public polls done in Israel over the years provide us with a vivid and comprehensive picture of the evolution in social beliefs of conflict within the Israeli-Jewish society. Societal beliefs are defined as “cognitions, shared by society members, on issues that are of special concern for the particular society” (Bar-Tal, 2000). They are organized in themes and include such elements as goals, values and images. The assumption is that conflict or inter-group tensions that last many decades have profound effects on the societal beliefs of the rival parties in the conflict.

In view of the intractable nature of the Israeli-Arab conflict, the Israeli Jews evolved social beliefs of conflict in the late 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s and the early 1970s as part of the evolved ethos of conflict. This paper describes the social beliefs of the ethos of conflict in the Israeli-Jewish society that evolved during the intractable conflict with the Arabs and the changes that have taken place in those beliefs, as reflected in repeated nationwide surveys done in Israel over the years.
It has been suggested that the Israeli ethos of conflict consists of several themes of social beliefs (Bar-Tal, 2000; Bar-Tal and Oren, 2000).
The main themes among them are:

Societal Beliefs about the Israeli and the Palestinian Goals: The Israeli goals referred especially to the rights of establishing a Jewish state in the old homeland of Eretz Israel (Avineri, 1981; Vital, 1982). On the other hand, special attempts were made through the years to refute the Palestinian claims to self-determination and statehood (Podeh, 2002).

Societal Beliefs about the Opponents: These beliefs consist of negative images, including their delegitimization (Bar-Tal and Teichman, 2005).

Self-Image: The Israeli Jews view themselves in very positive terms, as modern, intelligent, brave, humane and moral.

Societal Belief of One’s Own Victimization: The Israeli Jews view themselves as the only victims in the conflict. This belief is based on a more general belief of the Jews as eternal victims of a very hostile world (Bar-Tal and Antebi, 1992).

Societal Beliefs about Security: Israeli Jews believe the security of Israel and its Jewish citizens is seriously under threat (Arian, 1995). Therefore security has become the most cherished need and value, raised as a cultural master symbol in the Israeli- Jewish ethos (Kimmerling,1984; Horowitz, 1993; Bar-Tal, Jacobson and Klieman, 1998).

Social Beliefs about Peace: Peace has been presented as an ultimate aspiration, wish or goal (Shamir, Ziskind and Blum-Kulka, 1999).
The beliefs of ethos of conflict described above gave the Israeli-Jewish society its dominant orientation in the context of the prolonged conflict, both before the establishment of the State of Israel and during the first decades of its existence. They were instrumental in enabling the Israeli society to cope with the stressful and demanding conditions of the intense conflict. On the other hand, certain elements of the ethos can be seen to have contributed to the perpetuation of the conflict, in the sense that peace in the near term was perceived to be impossible, and Israel’s perceived military superiority diminished the urgency of achieving peace.

But it is important to note that societal beliefs are not stable, but change when they cease to reflect the reality of the society and do not fulfill the needs of society members. As experiences of peace efforts began, with the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in November 1977, and the peace treaty signed between Israel and Egypt in 1979, the Israeli-Jewish society began to change its social beliefs of the ethos of conflict. We will turn now to elaborate on the main changes in the Israeli-Jewish social beliefs of conflict:

Beliefs about the Israeli and Palestinians Goals: While the belief in the Israeli goal of establishing a Jewish state in Israel remained stable over the years, the belief that Palestinians did not constitute a separate people but rather a part of the Arab nation ceased to be a societal belief in the late 1970s. National surveys show less and less Israeli Jews holding this view after 1979: the percentage of Israeli respondents in public polls that agreed with the statement “‘The Palestinian Arab Nation’ is an artificial concept that has only emerged in the last years due to developments in our area,” dropped from 70 percent in the period between 1973 and 1977 [Sadat’s visit], to around 50 percent in 1979 and 1983 (see Figure 1).

In addition, the social belief ascribing to the Arabs the intention to destroy Israel lost strength. Prior to Sadat’s visit, between 70 and 80 percent of Israeli Jews believed the true intention of the Arabs was to destroy the State of Israel. This proportion dropped to 62 percent in 1979 (Stone, 1983). By 1992, only 54 percent of Israeli Jews thought the ultimate goal of the Arabs was to eradicate the State of Israel — as opposed to seeking only to regain the territories lost in 1967 (Arian, 1995).

As a result, the belief rejecting any Palestinian claims in the conflict had been reduced to refuting only the Palestinian claim to the right of return to pre-1948 Palestine. Unwillingness to accept the Palestinian goal of a Palestinian state had been eroding (Levinson and Katz, 1993; Shamir and Shamir, 2000). While the percentage of opposition to Palestinian statehood ranged at about 90 percent from the 1970s to the beginning of the intifada, his percentage dropped to 70 percent after the intifada started. By 1996, about 50 percent were willing to accept Palestinian statehood; by 2000, only 44 percent opposed the creation of a Palestinian state (see Figure 1).

Beliefs about the Opponent: The belief that viewed the Arabs as a single monolith united in their enmity to Israel had been transformed to a more nuanced view that distinguished among different groups, each having a different kind of relationship with Israeli Jews, ranging from hostility to peace (Bar-Tal and Teichman, 2005). Accordingly, the belief that there was no partner for peace in the Arab world was weakened. As can be seen in Figure 2, the percentage believing that Arab states are not interested in achieving an acceptable peace with Israel fell from around 80 percent in the early 1970s, to around 60 percent in the late 1970s, and 47 percent in 1988. In addition, the proportion of the respondents believing that Syria is not interested in achieving an acceptable peace with Israel dropped from around 95 percent in 1979 to 51 percent in 1994. Lastly, the percentage believing that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is not interested in achieving an acceptable peace with Israel fell from 95 percent in 1979 to 73 percent in 1992.

Self Image: The belief that emphasized the moral and humane behavior of Israeli soldiers declined. In 1988, 23 percent of Israeli Jews felt “the way we behave toward the Arabs in the territories is not good enough,” compared with only 1-2 percent who thought that in the early 1970s (Levinson and Katz, 1993).

Furthermore, the confidence in the military superiority of Israel over the Arabs was in decline. In 1985, 78 percent believed Israel had the ability to wage war successfully against all the Arab states. This percentage dropped to 58 percent in 1993 (Arian,1995). In 2000, only 48 percent of Israeli Jews thought Israel had the ability to wage war successfully against all the Arab states. Still, 88 percent thought Israel could wage a war successfully against Syria (see Figure 3).

Beliefs about Victimization: A change in the assessment of the world’s hostility to Israel seemed to be taking place. This belief lost its standing in the Israeli-Jewish society in the beginning of the Oslo process. The percentage of agreement with the statement “Israel is and continues to be a people dwelling alone’” dropped from 69 in 1990 and 68 in 1991 to 54 in 1994 (Arian,1995). Rather than being a widely shared societal belief, it became a subject of disagreement in the society.

Beliefs about Security: During the 1990s, the content of beliefs about the type of perceived threat to Israel changed. The focus moved from conventional war and a Palestinian state to the threat of unconventional weapons. In 1992, unconventional weapons were perceived as a significant threat by 70 percent of Israelis, while only 51 percent identified a Palestinian state as a threat to Israel (Arian, 1995).

In addition, there is strong evidence of a change in the content of societal beliefs related to the means of achieving security. The Israeli Jews recognized the limitations of using military force as a tool for ensuring ultimate security, and acknowledged that using diplomatic efforts as mean to achieve security was a viable option (Horowitz,1993). Thus, in 1986, 64 percent of Israeli Jews preferred “initiating peace negotiations” over “increasing military power” as the best approach to preventing war (Arian, 1995).

Beliefs about Peace: The belief that held peace to be an abstract and utopian goal shifted to a view that regarded peace as a more concrete and policy-oriented goal (Shamir, Ziskind, et al.,1999). The Israelis’ assessment about the chances of achieving peace had also changed from 57 percent in 1986 who thought that peace was achievable to 66 percent in 1990 and 77 percent in 1991 (Arian,1992).

Moreover, the Israeli Jews seemed more willing to acknowledge the link between Israel’s behavior and the Arabs’ position regarding peace. The percentage of Israeli Jews who maintained that relinquishing control of the territories would not make the Arabs more willing to have real peace with Israel had dropped from about 90 before Sadat’s visit to about 80 following it. In 1986 and 1987, 62 percent agreed with the statement that Israel by its behavior influenced the desire of the Arabs for true peace. In 1988 and 1992, 69 percent concurred (Arian, 1995).


Thus the changing landscape of the conflict had a significant impact on Israeli social beliefs of conflict. This is a vivid example of how social beliefs of conflict can change and how the society can become divided as a result of such changes. Until Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem, social beliefs regarding the goals in the conflict, Israel’s place among the nations, self-image, image of the opponent, beliefs about the nature of the conflict, how to manage it and how it could be solved, were nearly uniform. In the late 1990s, however, Israeli society was divided in its beliefs concerning the world’s attitudes toward Israel, self-beliefs, beliefs about the Arabs, beliefs about conditions that would guarantee security, and beliefs concerning the means to achieve peace and the price associated with it. Although some (i.e. hawks) still believed in the beliefs of the intractable stage of the conflict, others (i.e. doves) had significantly altered their views: they believed the world was not necessarily hostile to Israel, and that there were some groups in the Arab world that recognized Israel’s right to exist. Hence, they considered peace in the sense of a pragmatic solution involving mutual recognition and compromise —including giving up the occupied territories and allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state there — as an achievable goal in the foreseeable future and as the best way to ensure Israel’s security. Driving the urgency was the recognition that Israel could not resolve the conflict with the Arabs militarily (despite its consistent victories in wars), and was facing a new and serious threat in the form of unconventional weapons in the possession of the more hostile groups in the Arab world. Not all beliefs lost their consensual status: both the hawks and the doves believed in the legitimacy of the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel. Both refuted the Palestinian claim to the right of return, and both identified at least some hostile groups in the Arab world that posed a threat to Israel. And there still was a broad agreement about the importance of the values of peace and security.

Major events played a pivotal role in this process. The peace process with Egypt, the Lebanon war, the intifada, the Gulf war and the Oslo Accords all left their marks on the ethos. In some cases (such as Sadat’s visit to Israel and the peace accords with Egypt), the events triggered the changes in the beliefs. In other cases (the Oslo Accords), it seems that changes in the beliefs of the individuals in the society preceded the policy initiatives by the politicians. Overall, it is a dual process where the changeable nature of the beliefs triggers the events, and the events lead to changes in the beliefs.

The ultimate conclusion of this study is that social beliefs of ethos of conflict are not static, but continuously change under the impact of new experiences. Indeed, there is evidence that events related to the Camp David summit meeting in July 2000, and the subsequent eruption of violence are transforming the Israeli beliefs of conflict back to their original form in the intractable stage of the conflict (Arian, 2002; Sharvit and Zafran, 2004). Yet, it is likely that future major events that reflect a climate of an advancing peace process may alter those beliefs again. If this trend is accompanied by parallel changes within Palestinian and Arab societies, there is hope for a transformation of the relationship between Israel and the Arab nations from intractable conflict to peace.


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