David Pollock
The Daily Star
October 17, 2011 - 12:00am

Around half of Israelis, Palestinians, and some other key Arab publics, according to opinion polls taken in the past decade, support something like the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. Its basic concept is peace and Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel’s full withdrawal from the territories captured in the 1967 war.

Similarly, around half of each one of these publics would also support other analogous proposals focused more narrowly on “land for peace,” such as the unofficial Palestinian-Israeli Geneva initiative of 2003.

Given such statistics, is this glass half empty or half full? These results suggest that political leadership could move these societies toward peace based on mutual compromises. But whether such leadership can be found, whether the details of an agreement can be successfully negotiated, and whether this agreement could withstand shifting public opinion are different questions entirely.

At least a narrow majority of West Bank-Gaza Palestinians supports such compromise proposals – even when the questions are worded to include territorial swaps beyond the 1967 lines and exclude an unlimited “right of return” for Palestinians. And Israelis tend to support such proposals even when they provide for sharing Jerusalem and omit recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state.”

At the same time, Palestinians are somewhat more likely, and Israelis somewhat less likely, to support the Arab Peace Initiative as compared to the other proposals mentioned above – almost certainly because of the former’s inclusion of an ambiguous reference to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 on the “right of return.” For a significant number of Israelis, this issue seems to outweigh even the prospect of recognition by the entire Arab League. And for a significant number of Palestinians, this issue seems to expand their willingness to accept peace with Israel – although, as just noted, a majority has usually been prepared to accept that even without provision for refugee movement into pre-1967 Israel.

Recent polls from Egypt and Jordan, however, show that their publics in those two countries – the only Arab ones officially at peace with Israel – are actually, and unfortunately, turning against those very peace treaties. A reliable Pechter Middle East Polls survey in Jordan in April-May 2011 shows something over half of that public opposed to peace with Israel. The latest Pechter Poll of Egypt, conducted during the revolution in early February, showed Egyptians roughly evenly divided on this matter, with around a third responding “don’t know” or refusing to answer the question. Since then, two other polls suggest that Egyptians are moving into the opposing column. A Pew Poll, taken in April, records 54 percent saying their country should cancel its peace treaty with Israel.

A great deal depends upon the precise timing, wording and sample selection of each one of these (or other) surveys. That is all the more reason why polls asking not about the Arab Peace Initiative specifically, but about other loosely similar proposals, can only be a rough guide to public opinion. And even polls that ask explicitly about the API must be taken with a grain of salt, depending upon their individual context, technical specifications and overall credibility of the pollster. Nevertheless, a very brief additional selection of relevant results may be useful.

The Geneva initiative has recently garnered narrow-majority or at least plurality Israeli and Palestinian support. In March 2010, the International Peace Institute reported that 56 percent of Israelis supported the initiative, with about half of the Palestinian population supporting it. The IPI poll from December 2008 had shown similar results, with a 51 percent support rating among Israelis, but about 41 percent among Palestinians. Palestinian support, measured in November 2010, increased to 67.6 percent when respondents were asked specifically about the clause concerning Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, with no more than 3 percent land swaps.

The Brookings Institution has surveyed opinions about land-for-peace concept in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. In 2010, 56 percent of those polled said they would be prepared for comprehensive peace with Israel if it pulled out of the 1967 territories, but they did not believe Israel would do so.

According to the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research, as of March 2011 Palestinians still displayed a relatively high level of support for the API: 54 percent supported it, down from 64 percent in August 2009.

Israeli opinions on the API, measured in late 2010 by the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, reported support of 52 percent, significantly higher than previous years. Yet a Brookings survey taken at nearly the same time suggested that a yes-no finding was simplistic: 40 percent of Israeli respondents said they would accept a comprehensive peace with based on the 1967 borders with slight modifications, as against 30 percent opposed, while 30 percent responded that they did not adhere to either of those alternatives.

What then is the political significance of these numbers? Leadership is at least as important as public opinion. For now, Palestinian and Israeli political leaders are adding conditions to peace, above and beyond the bare minimum that their own publics require. And elsewhere in the region, where public opinion now matters as never before, leaders are struggling just to maintain stability in the face of unprecedented uncertainty. As a result, even if public opinion permits peace, it is not pushing governments in that direction today.


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