Experts dismiss poll hailed by PM showing 30% of Iranians want Israel ties
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Question on relations formulated, presented in 'biased' way

Experts dismiss poll hailed by PM showing 30% of Iranians want Israel ties

Netanyahu claims survey commissioned by Foreign Ministry -- which also says 48% of Iraqis and 30% of Saudis back relations -- shows 'gigantic change'; pollsters say it is flawed

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses Israel's foreign policy at Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, in London, on November 3, 2017. (AFP Photo/Adrian Dennis)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses Israel's foreign policy at Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, in London, on November 3, 2017. (AFP Photo/Adrian Dennis)

The Arab world is increasingly ready to embrace Israel, according to a poll published Sunday by the Foreign Ministry which purports to show remarkably warm attitudes to Israel in several enemy Arab states. But the way the survey’s key questions were formulated, and the way in which the results were presented, are deeply flawed, pollsters said, with one of them dismissing the Foreign Ministry’s effort as “propaganda” meant to advance the government’s narrative of Israel’s rising popularity.

According to a press release issued by the Foreign Ministry about the poll, a staggering 48 percent of respondents in Iraq, 42% in the United Arab Emirates and 30% in Saudi Arabia and Iran are interested in their governments establishing some kind of “relations” with the Jewish state.

Israeli leaders and officials led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the numbers as testimony to Israel’s increasing global popularity and a harbinger of normalization with the Jewish state’s erstwhile enemies in the Arab world.

The omnibus poll, commissioned by the Foreign Ministry and carried out by the Canadian-owned company RIWI, was conducted in October. Random internet surfers from 54 countries were asked if they wanted to participate in an online poll, and the answers by about 1,000 people in each country served as the basis for an analysis presented at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting. The respondents were unaware that the survey was commissioned by the Israeli government, officials said.

“The main finding is that in 47 out of 54 countries, a majority of the people there believe that their country would benefit from links with Israel. This is a gigantic change,” Netanyahu proclaimed at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, where senior Foreign Ministry officials presented the survey’s findings to the ministers.

An Iranian man rides his bicycle on top of a reproduction of an Israeli flag painted on the street during a rally marking al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Tehran on June 23, 2017. (AFP Photo/Stringer)

“What is also interesting is that [among] half of the public in the countries in the Middle East that were reviewed, the assets and strength of Israel are appreciated and they believe that their country could benefit from links with Israel,” Netanyahu added.

Overall, according to the poll, some 47% of respondents from Arab countries and Iran said they believe their countries would benefit from some “kind of relations” with Israel.

Moreover, 51% of respondents from the Middle East consider Israel a “power” or an “asset.”

In Africa, that number is at 91%, and in North America 82%.

“When I say again and again that Israel is a rising global power, I know what I am talking about,” said Netanyahu, who is also foreign minister. “Israel is a sought-after, developed and strong country, and even the citizens of countries with which we do not have official relations understand the benefit of relations with Israel. We are going from strength to strength and developing even more links.”

Specifically, according to the poll, half of respondents from Sudan said they were interested in their country establishing either overt or covert ties with Jerusalem. In Iraq, the figure was 48%, in Morocco 43%, and in the United Arab Emirates 42%.

Thirty percent of respondents from Saudi Arabia and Iran were in favor of their respective regimes establishing some kind of relations with the Jewish state. Less than one-third of Lebanese respondents (32%) were interested in any sort of relations with Israel, a figure that stood at 20% in Algeria.

‘It’s propaganda’

According to the information sent to reporters Sunday evening, the survey was done with a representative sample and has a margin of error of 3.3%.

But relying on an online survey to learn about public opinion in the Arab world is problematic, as in many Arab countries, it is mostly young, urban people with higher-than-average education who make regular use of the internet, said Tamar Hermann, the academic director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guttmann Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research.

Prof. Tamar Hermann (IDI)

While omnibus online surveys may provide a sample representative enough to allow conclusions in the Western world, for the Middle East that is not the case, she asserted.

Even more problematic, however, is the fact that the Foreign Ministry asked the question about possible relations with Israel “in a biased manner,” Hermann added.

The question posed to respondents in the Arab world was: “What kind of relations would you like [your country] to have with Israel?”

The survey then asked respondents to choose between five possible answers: four that suggest some sort of relations, and only one that rejects the idea entirely.

A screenshot from a slideshow sent by the Foreign Ministry regarding its poll of Arab attitudes toward Israel

“When you ask a question like this, of course the likelihood that people will give answer number five is much lower,” Hermann said. A well-formulated survey should have an equal number of positive and negative possible responses, she explained. Alternatively, the poll could have asked respondents to rank the comprehensiveness of relations they wish their country would establish with Israel on a scale from 1 to 10.

“But giving them four positive answers and one negative answer is biased,” she said.

A slideshow the Foreign Ministry sent to reporters presented only the percentage of respondents who selected one of the first four options. It failed to break down how many were in favor of public diplomatic or security relations with Israel, how many merely seek clandestine trade relations, etc.

In other words, when the ministry’s presentation of the poll suggests that 30% of Saudis are in favor of their regime establishing relations of some kind with Israel, it could be that most of that 30% prefer ties to remain secret — and very limited.

“It’s very unprofessional not to present all the data,” Hermann said. “In your press release, you can choose to highlight whatever aspect of the poll you like. But… it has to include all your results.”

Hermann, who teaches political science at the Open University of Israel, said she was not surprised by the Foreign Ministry’s presentation of the survey, positing that the government is keen to refute predictions of Israel’s international isolation and a “diplomatic tsunami.”

“It’s propaganda,” she said.

Mitchell Barak, the head of Jerusalem-based polling company Keevoon, was somewhat more forgiving.

“It’s good policy that the Israeli Foreign Ministry is utilizing global research in its public diplomacy efforts,” he said. “It seems, though, that this publication by the prime minister, of the partial results, seems more intended for internal Israeli hasbara,” he said, using a Hebrew term for pro-Israel propaganda.

The Foreign Ministry rejected the criticism.

“The main point in this survey is that it allows us to see the big picture, or a bigger picture — that when it comes to the Muslim world, not everything is about the conflict,” Noam Katz, the ministry’s director of public diplomacy, told The Times of Israel.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon (Twitter)

“People have the ability to see beyond the conflict, to see that Israel is an asset that can be relevant for them. That in many ways is encouraging,” he added.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon said the poll’s results signify “profound change,” which he said stemmed from the fact that many Arabs are no longer afraid of Israel. Pointing to the large numbers of people in the Arab world who follow Israel on Facebook, he said that there is greater freedom to engage with the Jewish state than ever before. At the same time, many in the Arab world increasingly identify Iran’s drive for hegemony as their main enemy, along with Islamic terrorism, he said.

“The figures are definitely good and are an encouraging and positive sign,” he said.

Last month, Netanyahu said public opinion in Arab world was the main barrier to normalization with Arab regimes.

“The greatest obstacle to the expansion of peace today is not found in the leaders of the countries around us. The obstacle is public opinion on the Arab street, public opinion that has been brainwashed for years by a distorted and misleading presentation of the State of Israel,” he said at a Knesset session celebrating Israel’s relations with Egypt.

“And after many decades — it is like geological layers — it is very difficult to reveal and present Israel in its true light, in its beautiful and true face; in the help we provide, both in the region and in Africa, also in Asia; in rescue missions, both in technology and assistance to the wounded from Syria — thousands, thousands. It is very difficult to penetrate these geological layers to the bedrock of truth, and therefore peace remains cold.”

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