When the Policy-Maker and the Public Meet: Sharon, Israeli-Jewish Public Opinion and the Unilateral Disengagement Plan
Many observers within and outside of Israel have tried to analyze what made Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a well-known "hawk" and one of the founding fathers of the Jewish settlement project, place on the table his highly controversial unilateral disengagement plan. This plan - whether eventually fully implemented or not - legitimized the pulling out of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from Gaza under heavy Palestinian fire, a move that clearly contradicted Sharon's position that no concession should be made under Palestinian threat of violence against Israel. It also legitimized the evacuation of all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and some in the West Bank, which in the past he had defined as critical to Israel's security. It should be emphasized that the disengagement plan, as put forward by Sharon, was not conditioned by any Palestinian reciprocal move - a rather strange decision, taking into consideration the traditional insistence of all past Israeli governments on the quid pro quo principle. The reasons for this allegedly unexplainable policy have been extensively discussed by experts and the media. Speculations ranged from Sharon's personal psychological motivation to be remembered by future generations as the statesman who achieved a breakthrough in the dead-end path of the failed Oslo process, to a Machiavellian strategic master plan, envisioned by him, to deepen the occupation in the West Bank by diverting external and domestic attention to the relatively limited move and concessions in Gaza.

We would like to suggest that, whatever major explanation one may come up with or prefer, the wide and stable public support for this move, since it was first announced, has been a crucial factor contributing to the plan's sustenance and the steps necessary for its implementation. In other words, the strong backing of Israeli-Jewish public opinion provided Sharon with a formidable ally in his efforts to go ahead with the plan in the face of fierce opposition from the radical right and from his own party.

Deep Change in Israeli Thinking

The past four years, from October 2000 when the al-Aqsa intifada broke out to the time of the writing of this article (December 2004), were characterized by extreme violence as well as by deep disillusionment with the possibility of making peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the foreseeable future. These negative regional developments, the dismal impression left by the collapse of the Oslo process, the unprecedented wave of terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians within the Green Line and the tough Israeli counter-measures, unfolding against the traumatic global background of 9/11, created a deep change in Israeli thinking about the Middle East conflict and the feasibility of the different means of dealing with it. It is not surprising that, today, the most devoted supporters of the Oslo framework are thinking, at most, in terms of conflict management rather than conflict resolution. Those who doubted the possibility of moving away from war in the first place are now viewing the situation in terms of a war.

Self-Encapsulating Mentality

The convergence of the escalation of the local and global threat perceptions led to the emergence of what we refer to as the "self-encapsulation mentality" among Israeli Jews. This mentality combines a rallying-around-the-flag facet with a collective turning of the nation's back on the Palestinians and other external actors who are viewed as sympathetic with their national cause. The recent ruling of the International Court in The Hague against the separation barrier is considered just one example of the wide and unjustified international criticism of Israel's way of defending itself against the new dangers created by the Palestinian intifada. This mentality reflects a growing desire to reduce Israeli rule over and responsibility for the Palestinian areas, yet it is accompanied by a prevalent refusal to actually end the occupation regime or evacuate Jewish settlements in the territories beyond what is absolutely necessary if the Israeli control is to be reduced. This mentality is best reflected by the sweeping and consistent public support for the construction of the separation barrier, as well as the extensive support for the unilateral withdrawal plan. Both moves share the same features - looking inwardly while turning Israel's back on the Palestinians.

Support for a Physical Barrier

Although widely condemned by the Palestinians and heavily criticized by many individuals and bodies all over the world, the building of the separation barrier has been highly welcomed by the Israeli-Jewish public from day one. This support is explained, first and foremost, by the prevalent belief that the fence offers a proper defensive response and protection from the suicide bombers. Indeed, the Peace Index survey of May 2002, as well as other measurements taken in the last year or so, indicates that 75 percent of the respondents share this belief. However, this support can be explained, to a similar degree, by the basic continued desire of a solid majority of Israeli Jews to see a physical barrier between Israel and the Palestinians (the Peace Index survey of April 1995, for example, indicated that, even when the Oslo process was still very much alive, almost three-quarters of the Jewish public thought that, from the Israeli point of view, a physical barrier separating the two people would be highly advisable, even if peace prevailed). While the most obvious explanation for this trend is the search for security and some basic doubts regarding the ultimate intentions of the Palestinians, it seems the widespread support for one kind of a barrier or another also derives from the desire to maintain the Jewish character of Israel, which might be "diluted" if the Palestinians are let in uninterruptedly.

The Unilateral Aspect

However, while in the mid-1990s, the creation of a physical barrier was thought about in the context of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, the outbreak of the second intifada following the fiasco of the July 2000 Camp David summit, and the inculcation of the "There is no partner" slogan, introduced the unilateral aspect to this desire- since the Palestinians were no longer perceived as a worthy partner for consultation. Thus according to the June 2001 Peace Index survey, 55 percent of Israeli Jews supported the idea that, as no agreement was going to be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel should unilaterally leave the territories that were not critical for its security , and build a buffer of some kind between the Palestinian areas and the Israeli territories (33 percent opposed and the rest had no clear opinion in this regard).

The unilateral disengagement plan, we maintain, was a natural continuation of these collective cognitive trends. Thus to the question asked every month from April to November 2004: "Today, do you support or oppose Sharon's unilateral withdrawal plan?" a clear majority responded in the positive (Figure 1). During the first three months after its announcement, there was a gradual, though relatively small increase in the rate of support for Sharon's plan - from 59 percent in April to 68 percent by June. In the following month ,this trend was halted, with the support level declining to 60 percent. However, this support level has remained extremely stable in the subsequent months through November 2004, the last point of measurement.

It appears, then, that despite the large resources and human efforts invested in it, the overall effectiveness of the settlers' and right-wing parties' campaign against Sharon's plan has been very limited, precisely because it fits the "self-encapsulation" mentality we indicated above. This, in turn, suggests that the Israeli public is likely to maintain its current attitudes on this issue, at least in the near future, as such states of mind are slow to change.

Majority Support for Sharon's Plan

To what extent are the voters in all the parties a part of this climate of opinion? For the sake of clarity, we have grouped the major parties into four categories: left (Labor and Meretz/Yachad)(1), center (Shinui), moderate right (Likud) and radical right (National Union, National Religious Party [NRP] and Shas). The results are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2 clearly reveals that support rates for Sharon's plan vary considerably, and in descending order, from left to right. However it also suggests that, with the exception of the radical right, the plan enjoys the support of the majority of all other political camps: the left, the center and the moderate right voters.

We have attempted to assess the extent to which the fierce campaign conducted against Sharon and his plan, by the settlers and their supporters on the right has undermined the general public's belief about the prime minister's determination and ability to practically disengage. This is a highly relevant question since widespread disbelief in Sharon's own fortitude, or in the possibility that his plan can be realized, might weaken the broad support that has been given to it, as shown in Figure 1. Consequently, in the Peace Index poll of June 2004 we included the following two questions, with the second question repeated in September of the same year: (a) "Do you believe or don't believe that Sharon genuinely intends to implement the Unilateral Withdrawal Plan?" and (b) "According to your judgment, do you believe or don't believe that Sharon will be successful in implementing the Unilateral Withdrawal Plan, despite the opposition he faces inside his own party and among the settlers and their supporters?"

The distributions of the responses to these two questions in both months are shown in Figures 3 and 4.

Seventy Percent Believe Sharon is Serious

As can be seen from Figure 3, the vast majority of the Israeli-Jewish public have apparently taken Sharon's intentions seriously, with more than 70 percent believing or tending to believe that he is determined to implement his plan, despite the fierce opposition he faces. Consistent with these evaluations, Figure 4 reveals that more than 60 percent in both times of measurement were either completely certain or quite certain that Sharon would succeed in implementing his plan. Perhaps not surprisingly, further analyses have shown that the belief or disbelief in the success of Sharon's plan and the support or opposition to it are interrelated: Those who believe that the plan will succeed tend to support it and those who don't believe in its success tend to reject it. Although we cannot, of course, determine the causal direction underlying this relationship, it seems reasonable to assume that the two are mutually reinforcing each other.


In conclusion, the data we presented points to a high degree of agreement between Sharon's plan and public opinion. This convergence, of course, makes the plan much more feasible, compared to a situation in which a large segment of the population opposes a policy made by the leaders - the case, for example, with the Oslo formula, which was never accepted and believed in by more than about one-half of the Israeli-Jewish population. The most illuminating finding is, however, that under certain circumstances it is the policy's content, not the political camp of the leader or the citizens that determines the level of correspondence between their preferences. Hence the highest level of concurrence with Sharon's disengagement plan exists in the left and center camps of the Israeli political map. It seems then that it is not a pie-in-the- sky that an archetypal leader of the Israeli right becomes - under certain circumstances - the savior of the aspirations of the opposite political camp.

(1) The radical left, in Israels political map, is mainly represented by the Arab parties, one of which, the Democratic Front, a pro-Communist party, typically attracts a small number of Jewish voters.