Khuloud Khayyat Dajani
Ali Abu Shahla
Vol. 11, Nos 3&4, 2004/2005 / Public Opinion/Yasser Arafat 1929-2004
Focus 2Opinion Shift among Israeli Jews, 1987-2004Variations in threat perception affect Israeli views towards a Palestinian state.
by Asher Arian
Both subjective and objective factors have impacted on opinion among Israeli Jews as indicated by data collected between 1987 and 2004 from the National Security and Public Opinion Project of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies(1). Threat perception is a subjective assessment and it is a powerful predictor of policy positions (2). Variations in perceived threat among Israeli Jews are related to acceptance of the establishment of a Palestinian state and to the structure of public opinion during the period under study. The distribution of opinion and assessments of the future were related to the opinions people held, and varied with objective developments on the ground regarding the conflict (3).
A. Threat Perception and a Palestinian State
Perceived threat was measured by using the responses to the question, “What are the aspirations of the Arabs?” Israeli Jews demonstrated a very somber appraisal of the aspirations of the Arabs. Of the 19,641 respondents who answered the question in the 1987 to 2004 period, a total of 60 percent were considered to perceive high levels of threat: A third of all respondents thought the Arabs wanted to conquer Israel and to kill its Jews, and another 27 percent reported that the Arabs wanted to destroy the State of Israel. The two other possible responses were considered to represent low threat perception: To regain all the territories lost in 1967 was mentioned by 30 percent of the samples over the years and an additional 10 percent said to win back some of those territories.
There has been variation in the responses to this question over time. A total of 74 percent of Jews in 2004 indicated high threat perception, with 33 percent responding that what the Arabs aspired to was to slay much of the Jewish population of Israel, with an additional 41 percent saying their goal was to conquer the State of Israel. The array of these answers over the years is presented in Figure 1. The level of threat in 2004 was reminiscent of the pre-Oslo era at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. In the mid-1990s, threat perception was consistently lower.
The Peace Process Period
The aspirations of the Arabs have long been viewed with suspicion by Israelis, though the beginning of the peace process in 1991 seemed to initiate a process of moderation of that pattern (4). Not coincidentally, important developments were taking place and some in the Arab world were turning a conciliatory face toward Israel. In November 1988, the Palestine National Council, meeting in Algiers, officially accepted the 1947 UN Partition Plan, thus recognizing a two-state solution to the Palestine problem. By 1992, the preliminaries regarding the peace talks had taken place and negotiations were about to begin. In September 1993, Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of Israel, and Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), shook hands on the White House lawn in Washington after signing an accord granting mutual recognition and spelling out, in a vague manner, the steps that would lead to peace between the two parties. The agreement regarding Hebron in 1998 coincided with the lowest rate of perceived threat. These rates began soaring just before and after the onset of the al-Aqsa intifada in 2000, the breakdown of talks between Yasser Arafat, Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton at Camp David and Taba, and the election of Ariel Sharon as prime minister of Israel.
Agreement to a Palestinian State
The second curve plotted in Figure 1 represents the percentage of respondents agreeing with the statement that Israel should agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state as part of a final- status arrangement. Over the years, 43 percent agreed with that statement and 57 percent disagreed. Rates of agreement were very low in the 1980s and through the mid-1990s. Since the second half of the 1990s, the spread regarding that question has oscillated around the 50-50 level. The converging lines of Figure 1 for the 1986-1996 period provide evidence for the generalization that a more conciliatory position is related to lowered threat perception; the widening of the gap in 2003-2004 indicates the erosion of that convergence and the possible separation of the trends in the future.
Majority in the Middle
It is sometimes fashionable to characterize Israeli public opinion as split between a more militant and a more conciliatory stand on the political and security issues that confront the state. While this is true, it is important to remember that those groups are not static nor do they include all of the public. In addition to the third (or so) who are militant, and the quarter (or so) who tend to be conciliatory, the majority of Israeli Jews populate a “middle” category that is both flexible and dynamic. The contours of that middle group are the lifeblood of Israeli politics. It was Sharon’s ability to portray himself as a leader of the militant group, while simultaneously adopting many of the conciliatory attitudes of the middle group, that gave him the undisputed role of leadership that he has commanded in the Israeli political system since 2001.
Impact of Threat Perception on Attitudes
A sense of the processes involved can be gleaned by considering the position regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state held by those perceiving high and low levels of threat during the years under consideration (see Figure 2).
Three periods are considered: the pre-Oslo years of 1987-1993, the Oslo period (1994-2000) and the post-Oslo period of 2001-2004. Figure 2 displays the support for a Palestinian state by level of threat and period.
The most interesting finding revealed by Figure 2 is that the level of threat generated different patterns of support or opposition to a Palestinian state, depending on the developments in the situation. In the pre-Oslo period, 55 percent of those with low threat perception supported the establishment of a Palestinian state, compared with 27 percent of those who perceived high threat. In the Oslo period, fewer Israelis felt threatened and the rate of support jumped 12 percentage points to 67 percent, while for those who perceived a high threat the rate of support for a Palestinian state barely changed.
By extension, in the post-Oslo period, the dramatic change was among those who perceived a high threat. Their rate of support for a Palestinian state fell by 9 percentage points from 28 percent to 19 percent, while for those with low levels of perceived threat, the rate of support for a Palestinian state reverted to the pre-Oslo level (55 percent to 51 percent). In other words, opinion shift was differential and it depended on (among other things) the level of threat perception. The period of conciliation of Oslo affected those with a low threat perception but had no impact on those with a high threat perception. By contrast, the bad news of the post-Oslo period lowered support in both groups, but lowered the support for those with high threat perception much more than for those with low threat perception.
Over the years, the international community adopted plans calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and agreement with the idea of a Palestinian state, once taboo in Israeli politics, had become part of the emerging reality. In 2004, slightly more than half the Israeli Jewish sample thought a Palestinian state was likely to be established in the next five years. This was down from 77 percent in both the 1997 and 1999 surveys, but was much higher than the 37 percent rate recorded in 1990 or the 48 percent rate in 1991. In terms of emotional political symbolism, a Palestinian state was much less potent at the end of the 1990s than it was at the end of the 1980s.
Public opinion is a conglomerate of attitudes of numerous individuals and it is the aggregate impact that is important. Doves are likely to change attitudes at a faster rate in conciliatory times while hawks might not change their attitudes at all. On the other hand, hawks will become more hawkish in times of tension, while doves will also become more hawkish, but at a slower rate.
Opinion shift depends on the magnitude of the changes in the situation and how they are framed by the leadership and the media and absorbed by the public, and by the way the public splits in terms of threat perception. Registering a net change in public opinion in the direction of conciliation will be that much more difficult if the size of the low threat perception group is small. Two things happened in the Oslo period: the size of the low threat perception group grew, and that group did most of the growing of conciliatory positions with the net effect of a population that was more amenable to returning territories for peace and for the establishment of a Palestinian state. By extension, the post-Oslo period was characterized both by a decrease in the size of the low threat group and a concomitant growth of those perceiving high threat levels, while those who remained in the low threat group retained their conciliatory positions.
Impact of the Second Intifada
A dramatic indication of the impact that developments on the ground had on public opinion was the public’s response to the question of whether the Israeli-Arab conflict would end after peace agreements were signed between Israel and the Palestinians. In 2004, only 26 percent thought that signing such treaties would mean an end to the conflict compared to 67% in 1999(see Figure 3). A spectacular change in expectations had occurred over the years in the assessment of the Israeli public. This massive shift in public opinion captured the disillusionment many Israelis felt with the peace process that was initiated in the Oslo Accords of 1993. The mutual trust needed for building peace was shattered with the start of the intifada in 2000 and has not yet rebounded; in fact, it might even be receding. In 1999, 64 percent thought that most Palestinians want peace; in 2004, only 43 percent thought so.
B. War, Peace and Terror-Related Deaths
Public opinion does not change in a vacuum; developments impinge on perception and perceptions are framed and mediated by authoritative sources. A good example of this is the public’s assessment of the likelihood of war breaking out or of peace being advanced. In the public mind these two issues seemed to go together, and the public seems astute in assessing the situation and/or in reflecting the situation reported to it by leaders and the media.
Until the second intifada, Israeli Jewish opinion saw the likelihood of war as lower than the hope for peace (or the absence of war). For example, in 1987, 57 percent thought that war was probable or very probable between Israel and an Arab state in the following three years, while 59 percent thought the chances of peace with Arab states were high or very high (see Figure 4). By 1990, the numbers had climbed to 68 percent about war and 78 percent about peace. By 1996, the numbers were 37 percent concerning war and 75 percent regarding peace and, for 1998, 54 percent regarding war and 57 percent concerning peace.
During the second intifada these numbers were reversed and the probabilities of war were seen as much higher than those of peace. In 2002, 79 percent saw the probability of war as high or very high, compared with 21 percent regarding peace. In 2004, 35 percent thought the chances were high or very high that war would break out in the next three years, compared with 30 percent regarding peace.
Calculating the Expectations of War and Peace
We may conceive of the difference between the percentage who saw the probability of war in the next three years as very high or high minus the percentage of those who viewed the probability of peace in the next three years as high or very high as an assessment of the future. Using this calculation, 1996 gets a score of -38 (37 percent war minus 75 percent peace = -38), 1998 gets a score of -3 (54 percent war minus 57 percent peace = -3) and 2002 gets a score of 58 (79 percent war minus 21percent peace = 58). When these scores are plotted against the number of actual Israeli deaths from acts of terror, the overlap of the curves is stunning (see Figure 5). Both curves peak in 2002 and then fall off again. The public seems to adjust its assessment to the changing situation.
Shifts in public opinion take into account short-term developments and long-term goals, altering situations and fundamental realignments. Just as the meaning of the establishment of a Palestinian state has changed in the public mind in Israel, so has the level of support for its implementation. While there might be a swell of public support (or at least a lessening of opposition) to the proposition, the political obstacles to such an establishment remain formidable. It is the interaction of these dimensions that is the key to understanding and to analyzing the ever-changing contours of Israeli public opinion.
(1) For methodological details including exact dates and sample sizes see, Asher Arian, Israeli Security Opinion, 2004, Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 2004; see http://www.tau.ac.il/jcss/. See also Security Threatened: Surveying Israeli Opinion on Peace and War, Cambridge University Press, 1995 (Hebrew version, Papyrus, 1999).
(2) Carol Gordon and Asher Arian, “Threat and Decision-Making,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, April 2001, 196-215.
(3) “Opinion Shift in Israel: Long-Term Patterns and the Effects of Security Events,” in Concerned with Security: Learning from the Experience of Israeli Society, edited by Daniel Bar-Tal, Dan Jacobson and Aharon Klieman, JAI Press, 1998.
(4) For the 1967-79 period, see Russell A. Stone, Social Change in Israel: Attitudes and Events, 1967-79, New York: Praeger, 1982, 36-44.