A razor-thin majority of Israelis and Palestinians still support the two-state solution, though support for the idea is decreasing among Israelis, according to a major new poll of both societies published Tuesday.
However, the survey also shows that a significant part of the opposition to a two-state outcome comes from mistrust, not ideology.
For instance, the poll, conducted by veteran Israeli and Palestinian public opinion researchers, found that a third of Israeli Jews who initially rejected a two-state peace deal would change their mind if the agreement included Palestinian recognition of Jewish holy sites in the West Bank. Likewise, a majority of Palestinians who originally opposed a peace agreement would reconsider if Israel released all “political prisoners,” a term used by the pollsters and usually meant to denote Palestinians jailed for what Israel calls “security” reasons.
This suggests opposition to a peace deal is political and not ideological, the pollsters argue based on their findings. They urge leaders on both sides to stop citing public opinion as a reason for their refusal to engage with the other side, suggesting that engagement could go a long way toward changing that opinion.
According to the polls, 53 percent of Israelis and 52% of Palestinians say they support a solution based on the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. In a similar poll conducted in June 2016, 55% of Israelis but only 44% of Palestinians had expressed support for a two-state solution.
“It looks like a consistent trend of slow, incremental decline for the concept of a two-state solution among Israelis,” pollster Dahlia Scheindlin, who conducted the Israeli survey, said Tuesday at a press conference in East Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel.
Presented with various options of how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a two-state deal, a one-state solution with equal rights for Palestinians, a one-state solution without equal rights, or the expulsion of one of the two rivaling groups — most respondents opted for the creation of a Palestinian state.
Both sides saw the same percentage, 15%, favor expelling the other side from the land. Among Israeli Jews, a subset of Israelis, 47% selected the two-state solution, 15% favored one state with unequal rights for Jews and Arabs and 12% said they prefer a unitary state in which Palestinians are given full civic rights.
Among Palestinian respondents, 52% chose a two-state outcome and 11% would like to see one state for both Jews and Palestinians as equals.
According to the survey, 61% percent of Israeli Jews support the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian “confederation” in which both peoples can live anywhere they wish in the land, but each side votes for its own parallel parliament, with a unified capital in Jerusalem and security and economic cooperation between the two overlapping states. About a quarter of Palestinian respondents supported the idea, a slight increase compared to a poll from December.
“I think [the idea of confederation] is something we need to test as the debate over the two-state solution changes,” Scheindlin said, adding that many Israelis and Palestinians are not sure yet how it would look in practice.
The Palestinian survey was conducted by Khalil Shikaki and Walid Ladadwa of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and the Israeli one by Scheindlin and Ephraim Lavie from Tel Aviv University’s Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, in late June and early July. It queried representative samples of 1,200 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and 900 Israelis and has a margin of error of +/-3%.
The survey had some “good news,” Scheindlin said. Asked about their preferred outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, respondents from both sides overwhelmingly chose a peace agreement over the status quo or any other option.
Nearly half of Israeli Jews (45%) chose a peace deal, while 18% opted for the status quo. Just 12% backed a decisive war against the Palestinians and 9% said Israel should annex the West Bank.
“This is a striking finding considering how long that status quo has been the situation,” Scheindlin said
Unsurprisingly, among Jews living in the West Bank the numbers were different: 35% called for the continuation of the status quo, 24% want annexation, 15% seek a peace agreement and 10% said they prefer to wage a decisive war against the Palestinians.
Palestinian respondents, too, mostly agreed that a peace agreement is the preferred outcome. Mirroring Israeli society as a whole, 45% said they want a peace agreement, while 18% want the status quo. About one-fifth, 21%, advocated “armed struggle” against Israel and 9% preferred “unarmed struggle.”
One of the survey’s key findings was that incentives and trust-building could have a dramatic effect on public opinion.
A quarter of Israeli Jews who said they opposed a peace deal based on the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital changed their minds when joint Palestinian-Israeli economic ventures were added into the deal. Nearly 30% also said they were ready to change their minds if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed support for the deal.
Similarly, a third of Israeli Jews who rejected a deal that would include Israel accepting some 100,000 Palestinian refugees but Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall, said they would change their position if Ramallah recognized Jewish holy sites in the West Bank and allowed Israelis to visit them.
A whopping 43% of initial opponents to such a peace treaty said they would rethink their stance if the future Palestinian state recognized Israel as a Jewish nation-state and acknowledged the Jewish people’s historic and religious ties to the land.
Incentives have the potential to change Palestinians’ minds, too, the survey found. Nearly a third (32%) of Palestinian respondents who at first rejected a peace deal on the aforementioned terms said they could be persuaded if Israel were to apologize for the suffering of Palestinian refugees. An even larger share, 42%, would rethink their opposition to the peace agreement if Israel recognized the “Arab-Islamic character” of Palestine.
A majority, 56%, of those who initially rejected the deal said they would accept it if Israel were to release all Palestinian prisoners deemed to be “political prisoners.”
About a quarter of respondents from both societies said they would change their view and embrace a peace deal if it were reached in the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative and included joint Israeli-Palestinian economic ventures.
“These are ideas we hope policymakers think about as they negotiate a comprehensive deal,” pollster Khalil Shikaki said at the Jerusalem press conference.
“There is significant distrust” between the two sides, and doubts about the viability of a peace leads many to oppose any deal, he said. “Despite that, when we look deeper, we’ve found that public opinion is not an impediment to compromise.”
Public opinion alone will not lead to peace, as it is the political leaders on both sides who have to take concrete steps to advance the process, Shikaki went on. But, he said, “incentives play a significant role, whether tangible or intangible. And as we saw, intangible incentives such as apologies or recognition of the national character of a state are even more important than tangible ones.”