Israeli Public Opinion and the Peace Process - An interview
An interview with Tamar Herman

Dr. Tamar Herman is the director of the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University. She is the coordinator, together with Prof Ephraim Ya'ar, of the
.. Peace Index Project," a monthly survey of Israeli public opinion about the peace process and related issues. Dr. Herman spoke with Hillel Schenker on May 14, 1996 (before the Knesset elections), and again on January 5, 1997.

Hillel Schenker: How are your surveys made?
Tamar Herman: We take a national representative sample of the Israeli population by telephone, according to the data of the Central Bureau of Statistics, including kibbutzim and residents over the Green Line (1967 border). Arabs in Israel aren't included since only 75 percent have telephones, and the Arab population doesn't answer political questions over the phone and justifiably so. But we poll them separately in face-to-face interviews. The margin of error in the Peace Index is plus/minus 4 percent.

Our main subject of concern is Israeli attitudes to the peace process, to Arafat and, particularly, to the idea of Palestinian statehood. When and how did your polls first approach the subject of the peace process?
We started the opinion polls in June 1994 without knowing that this was going to develop into a longer-term project. We designed a short questionnaire of 20 questions on attitudes to the peace process in general: whether it has a chance of succeeding and whether it would increase the "appetite" of the Arabs.
Whereas some opinion polls had indicated that there would be a strong hostile reaction once the peace process began to assume concrete forms, we saw that on the cognitive level the public "head" was becoming accustomed to the change, though emotionally its "heart" found the change difficult to digest.

How did people relate to Arafat?
Though we found no difference in the attitude of women and men toward the peace process, the level of apprehension of Arafat increased, after he came to Gaza, among women and decreased among men. This was the only time that we found such a difference in our polls, except that women are perhaps more unsure of their political views.

Are there differences between Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab expectations from the peace process?
The feeling in the Jewish public is that if we are making territorial concessions, we don't want to compromise over the Jewish identity of the State. This means that whoever expects progress with the peace process to bring about total equality in the relations between Jewish and Arab population within the State, is making a terrible error. Arab expectations are that when the peace process becomes a fait accompli, obstacles to full equality for the Arabs in Israel will be removed. This is very unrealistic when you look at the attitudes within the Jewish population. As regards winning internal equality here for the Arabs, not in terms of budgets, but regarding their ability to influence the collective, opinion polls and personal interviews with Jews show that even if the peace process moves forward, the Arabs will face the same barriers, or bigger ones.
In August/September 1996, we conducted another general survey of opinion. This time we discovered a tremendous drop in Israeli Arab expectations, while the attitudes of the Israeli Jews remained essentially the same. The Arabs still desired equality, but they became more realistic about the possibility that the peace process would produce major equality dividends for them in the near future.

We are particularly interested in the changing attitude toward the PLO and the possibility of a Palestinian State.
This is a complex issue where we can see the public's sophistication or common sense (it isn't necessarily a question of political education). This enables people to differentiate between wishful thinking and their actual evaluation of the situation, between what is about to happen and their own moral considerations.
This applies particularly to the question of a Palestinian State. We asked three questions: First, "The Palestinians claim that they deserve an independent state of their own. What do you think about that demand?" Forty-five percent replied "just" or "very just." Fifty-one percent said "not so just" or "very unjust." Five percent responded "don't know." Dividing this up proportionally, I end up with 47-48 percent who say "just," compared to 52-53 percent "unjust.
This is a much higher percentage than was shown in the polls five years ago, when people were not even prepared to consider the issue as one of fundamental justice. But then I asked the second question: "What is your estimate of the chances that the peace process will ultimately lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state?" Seventy percent said that is what is going to happen. So about 47 percent think it's just and 70 percent that it's going to happen. Only 24 percent said they were certain or thought that it won't happen. Fifteen percent (a high percentage) don't know.
The third question was: "Do you think that in the framework of a full peace agreement with the Palestinians, Israel can permit itself to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state?" Only 36 percent thought that Israel could permit it. So only half the people who thought it would happen also thought that we could afford it as far as our national interest is concerned. More people, 45 percent, think it is just than think we can live with it. In other words, that I don't think it is good for me doesn't make me say it is not justified.
We repeated the questions more than once and got the same results. These opinions were consistent. We even found that the moral support for a Palestinian state increased. So people are becoming accustomed to the idea that there is justice in the Palestinian demand, and this is slowly growing.
This is compatible with polls conducted since 1967 on the question of returning territories. It started with just 15 percent who were even willing to talk about it while now we have over 60 percent supporting territorial concessions - not returning all the territories. But there is a complete consensus that Israel must not give up Jerusalem as Israel's united capital.

Did the elections to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) have an impact on the polls?
When the PNA carried out its internal elections in January, 1996, we asked whether the elections strengthen Israeli public support for our government's peace policy, weaken support, or have no effect. We wanted to know what effect there will be to someone with whom we will be negotiating being elected. Thirty percent said it would strengthen support for the peace process, 14 percent that it would weaken it, 43 percent that it would have no effect.
Why was it perceived as not relevant? Because Israelis don't want to know what happens beyond the Green Line and think it has no effect on us. The majority strives for separation. To a degree, when someone does want to hold on to the territories, that is a positive response, as if the public is losing its attachment to the territories. There are problems like what to do with the settlers, but the land and the people there don't interest us. This might be conducive to a situation in which you will gradually get rid of the territories.
When, between March and May 1996, it was relatively calm as far as terrorism was concerned, nobody wanted to know about people who are dying of hunger in the territories because of closure. All we want to know is that we can go to the mall and not explode. This is connected with another question: the public was convinced that the PNA is not making an effort, or is making very little effort, to prevent terrorism.

Despite all the announcements to the contrary?
They do not believe them. They think it is some sort of propaganda to help Peres get reelected. Yet Israelis show a dramatic increase in confidence in the PNA's effectiveness in governing. In March 1995, 70 percent thought the PNA was managing the autonomy badly or very badly in matters not related to terrorism. In January 1996, the figure was down to 28 percent. But the public was very angry about the lack of readiness to control the Ezzeddin al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas. The polls show that this is why, when a baby born at a checkpoint dies because the mother can't get to the hospital, that is their business, not ours.

What was the reaction to the terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the winter of 1996?
The first Dizengoff attack, which we thought would have a serious effect, had almost no effect at all on attitudes to the peace process. There had been a 7-percent decline in support for Oslo after Beit Lid (January 1995), which was the greatest decline registered. The public appears to see terrorism as a kind of natural phenomenon. After the No. 18 bus attack in Jerusalem and the attack in Ashkelon, 40 percent thought that terrorism would increase if the talks were suspended. So the public doesn't support halting the peace process following terrorist attacks. Neither does it think that terrorism will disappear if peace agreements are signed with the Arabs and with the Palestinians. Only 11 percent were of that view.

That is a very pessimistic view of the reality.
True, but the majority continues to support the peace process. There are those who react by chanting "Death to the Arabs" immediately after an attack, but the Israeli public differentiates between Palestinians using terrorism and those with whom we are making peace. This sounds like a higher level of sophistication than is usually accredited to the public.
Regardless of how they vote, 70 percent nevertheless think that were they capable of doing so, the Arabs would destroy Israel. But that doesn't stop over half of them from supporting the peace process, not so much as an act of reconciliation, but as a political settlement that will lead to decreasing the level of violence and to enabling us to separate from the Palestinians. The public doesn't buy the vision of a "new Middle East." The majority, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, does not want to be integrated into the Middle East. They prefer to be integrated into the world of McDonalds and Macintosh.
Terrorism does influence the sense of personal security. In this respect, in January 1996, after a long period without terrorist attacks, the polls showed there was a sense of relief. A very significant number said their sense of personal security increased following the peace process. Naturally, following the terrorist events of February and March 1996, this number dropped, but support for the peace process didn't drop. The theory is that people don't want a foreign policy which harms them directly, but they don't feel that the peace process endangers their personal security.

What about the Palestine National Council (PNC) and the Palestinian Charter?
We asked: "What do you think of the opinion that the PNC resolution on eliminating the articles in the Charter on the destruction of Israel proves that the Palestinians are genuinely interested in continuing the peace process? Does it really signify a willingness to continue the peace process?"
Fifty-one percent replied "very true" or "true," 44 percent "not quite true" or "very untrue," 9 percent "don't know." So the majority sees the decision as a sort of positive declaration of intent, and this, in spite of the views that it was a trick, without which an even larger percentage would have seen it as an authentic expression.
So to sum up, I would say there is a change in Israeli public opinion and, despite terrorism, the Palestinians are seen as partners in the peace process and nobody sees the process as reversible. There are different opinions as to what should be done from now on, but there is no significant group which says we should end it and return to the previous situation. The public is cautiously accepting that there is somebody to talk to and something to talk about. Since Binyamin Netanyahu began to say before the elections that the Oslo agreement might not be very good but we are obliged to observe it, there is a more positive view of the process among Likud voters.

Perhaps he was following the polls.
Yes, he is giving the process legitimization, along with insisting that the Palestinians do more concerning terrorism, observe all the agreements, etc. Not seeing the process as reversible is one of the foundations of mainstream thinking in the region. We should not belittle this change in our collective consciousness, even if it isn't one of 100 percent, and there is something optimistic in it. In the last 10 years, though we may not have noticed it happening, there has been a total change in our general approach.

How did Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination affect the polls?
Four days after Rabin's murder, we had a dramatic increase in support of the peace process. We said, "Be careful, nothing really happened, the public did not change its basic positions." Indeed, three weeks later there was a decline and eventually it returned to the same level as before Rabin's murder. We asked ourselves whether the public had indeed changed its views, and our answer, after we examined the matter thoroughly, was that the public had not shifted.
A social deterrence mechanism was at work here. People were afraid to say on the telephone that they opposed the peace process, because it would have seemed as though it followed that they supported the murder. It was not that the public had changed its positions, rather our question was not formulated well. We had assumed that they would reply honestly to the same question that we had asked one week earlier, and one week later. However, the connotation of the question was different. It became: "Do you or do you not support the murder? Are you in the camp of the bad guys?" So people did not want to say that. We also had a steep decrease in the number of people who said that they were religious. All the time we have 5.5 percent who are Orthodox, which is more or less their proportion in the population; about 15-16 percent who said that they were religious; the rest are traditional or secular. Suddenly, four days after Rabin's murder, we had almost no religious people left. The ultra-Orthodox remained ultra-Orthodox, but the religious people decreased by one-half. That was because every religious person thought that if he said he was religious, we would think that he supported Yigal Amir. The overall picture led me to think that there was no significant shift in the public's positions, but rather that people did not reply honestly over the telephone. That is quite understandable. I do not think that we can judge that phenomenon.

How did Binyamin Netanyahu's election in May, 1996, affect public opinion?
Even before the elections, Netanyahu influenced the evolution of public opinion. Ever since he began to make statements in which he said that the Oslo agreement might not be very good, but we are obliged to observe it, there has been a more positive view of the process among the majority of the Likud voters.

In fact, it is said that Netanyahu conducted his own public opinion polls, and changed his statements accordingly.
He understood that his previous statements and his constituency's views were in dissonance, because they saw that the process was progressing, that it had some meaning. It was obvious to them that going backwards would be a catastrophe. Previously, he had told them that the process was terrible, so that it was very hard for them to live with it. Now he was giving the process legitimization.
Actually, Netanyahu has two constituencies: he competes with Labor for the center, and he also reaches out to the extreme right. From a political, electoral point of view, Netanyahu was correct when he changed his statements about the Oslo process.
However, the radical right, which constitutes about 15 percent of the general public, considered his statements about Oslo to be only tactical, not substantive. That is the source of their deep disappointment with Netanyahu today.
Still, the majority of those who voted for him thought that there should be a greater insistence that the Palestinians do more concerning terrorism, that they should observe all the agreements, etc., but they do not see the process as reversible.

Did your post-election surveys indicate any decline in support for the peace process?
Our survey one day after the May 29, 1996, elections validates earlier findings: The majority of Israelis clearly support the peace process. The May 1996 Peace Index (which assesses the way the public perceives the peace process) rose to 66.3 percent points from 63.3 percent in April. Only 56 percent of religious voters support the peace process, compared to 76 percent among Likud voters and 95 percent of Labor and Meretz voters. However, in attitudes to the Oslo accords, the level of support was 21 percent among Likud voters, 17 percent among religious voters, 79 percent among Labor and Meretz voters.
Our June 30, 1996, survey disclosed a marked and surprising stability in the attitude toward the peace process, despite the election upheaval. Almost two-thirds of the public still defined themselves as supporting the regional peace process and envision its fruition in the foreseeable future. Public support for the Oslo accords was similarly stable. The results of the elections did not reflect any national desire to turn back the clock. On the contrary, 53 percent now thought that signing peace agreements was more important than the preservation of a Greater Israel, a rise of 8 percent since March 1995.
Today, as we enter 1997, the primary variable is the secular-religious factor. While 64 percent of the secular Jews support the peace process, only 28 percent of the traditional (msorti), 20 percent of the religious (dati) and only 14 percent of the ultra-Orthodox (Haredz) Jews do. The religious groups tend to be oriented to the past, and they have problems digesting new developments. They prefer to rely on familiar, traditional interpretations of reality.

How would you summarize the "Peace Index" polling project's findings to date?
I would say that a basic change has occurred in that the Palestinians, despite terrorism, etc., are today seen as a partner in the debate, and I think that no one sees the process as being reversible. There are different degrees of willingness concerning what should be done in the process from now on. But, today, there is no significant group in the public which says: "Let's stop the process and return to the previous situation." Through the dynamics of negotiations, with all of the problems (and I think it would be stupid if the public did not feel that there are problems), the public is accepting, slowly and cautiously, that there is someone to talk to, and something to talk about.
Today we are arguing with the PLO about concrete issues, but no one is debating whether or not to negotiate with them. There is hardly any part of the population which says that there is no one to talk to or nothing to talk about. That has completely disappeared. The changes in the collective consciousness in this direction are an achievement which should not be underestimated.
I believe that the findings of our polls create grounds for relative optimism.
Today, in general, it can be said that an awareness that a basic strategic transformation has taken place and has seeped into the general public consciousness. This is particularly true concerning a legitimization of the Oslo process. The fact that the Likud entered into a dialogue with the PLO after the elections has served to enhance the awareness of this change in large segments of their constituency.