Paul Pillar

The Spinning of Polls and Demonization of Palestinians

Several days ago a poll of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, conducted by the Stanley Greenberg organization on behalf of the Israel Project, generated a spurt of commentary about the hateful attitudes and nefarious intentions that the Palestinians supposedly have toward Israel. Benny Morris wrote a piece in these spaces, under the ominous title of “Eliminating Israel,” the main message of which was that most Palestinian Arabs aren't really interested in living in peace side-by-side with Israel but instead see any two-state agreement as only a stepping stone toward somehow doing away with Israel altogether and claiming all of mandatory Palestine for themselves. Morris argued that outsiders such as the U.S./U.N./E.U./Russia quartet should take this into account when considering “Netanyahu's fears regarding Palestinian leadership's real aims” in pressing for statehood in the West Bank and Gaza. Other commentaries also supportive of the Netanyahu government followed similar themes.

The first question one is entitled to ask about such commentary is: even if this accurately described Palestinian intentions, how could any Palestinian with at least half a brain see any way to accomplish such an objective? Even more to the point, how would establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which would be many times weaker than the State of Israel, bring Palestinians any closer to such an objective? If anything, creating a separate Palestinian state would appear to have the opposite effect. Everyone is familiar with the demographic trends showing that Arabs living in all the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River will come to outnumber Jews. But if most of those Arabs became citizens of a separate state for Palestinian Arabs, Israel—which would have for the first time a fully recognized international border—would be secure in the prospect of retaining its Jewish majority and character as a Jewish state. All of this means that the notion of current Palestinian leaders having a “real aim” of eliminating Israel is preposterous.

Nonetheless, polling data that might appear to indicate the opposite warrants further scrutiny. Unfortunately, amid the burst of commentary about the supposedly nefarious aims of Palestinians I was unable, despite much searching, to find the poll itself. Finally later in the week the Israel Project, to its credit, provided a link to the poll. The overall picture it presents is one of a Palestinian population mostly concerned with trying to get on with their daily lives and understandably pessimistic about the prospects for any political breakthroughs that would affect them. Eighty-one percent of respondents, in what is probably an accurate perception, believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu “isn't really serious about wanting peace and supporting a two-state solution.” Remarkably, despite such pessimism, a negotiated peace agreement with Israel is still the strong Palestinian preference. Two-thirds of the respondents agreed with the statement that “it is possible to find peace with Israel” as opposed to a statement that “there is no hope of peace with Israel.” Two-thirds also agreed that it is “time for diplomatic engagement with Israel” rather than with a statement that it is time for “violent resistance” against Israel. In possibly the most remarkable indication of faith in bilateral negotiations despite the well-founded reasons for pessimism, a majority said they would still want the Palestinian Authority to go to the negotiating table even if it was on the basis of conditions laid down by Netanyahu that rule out any plan that divides Jerusalem or that involves settlement of any Palestinian refugees within Israel.