The Spinning of Polls and Demonization of Palestinians

The Spinning of Polls and Demonization of Palestinians

How Netanyahu supporters use cherry-picked facts and deliberately misconstrued data to inform hateful commentaries and fuel baseless accusations.

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.

The pro-Netanyahu commentaries cherry-pick from the poll some results suggesting hostile attitudes toward Jews. Morris begins his piece with part of a quotation from a hadith (a saying of the Prophet Mohammed, which serves as a kind of explanatory supplement to the Koran) which is also quoted in the Hamas charter and that makes reference to killing Jews. This hadith is poetic scripture, with flowery language that also talks about such things as Gharkad trees and people hiding behind stones. As Morris correctly notes, the hadith is “well-known” and “accepted by Muslims as canonical and weighty.” Ninety-eight percent of the respondents in the poll were Sunni Muslims. Is it any surprise that when asked whether they agree with this bit of scripture associated with their faith, a majority (73 percent) would say yes? One could probably elicit similar responses to nasty-sounding bits of scripture associated with other faiths. Some passages of the Old Testament imply a pretty hostile attitude toward certain other peoples, and many adherents to the religions for which it is holy scripture would express agreement because it is holy scripture, without this implying anything about attitudes toward political problems of the present day. One could similarly extract from the New Testament some ostensibly hostile attitudes of Christians toward Jews. (If what Morris or any other commentator is saying is not just that Palestinian Arabs exhibit peculiar hostility but instead that any Muslim—a believer in the texts of Islam—is ipso facto dangerous and untrustworthy, then he should say that explicitly and his argument can be perceived and judged as such.)

Prune away the Gharkad trees and other poetry that elicits expressions of religious faith, and there was plenty else in the poll that more directly and effectively measures Palestinian attitudes toward present-day Israel. Another quotation from the Hamas charter that was not scripture and about which the poll asked was: “Peace initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement. There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad.” A plurality of respondents disagreed with that statement. There were numerous other questions about Hamas, which fared rather poorly in the poll, in the abstract as well as in comparison with Fatah or the Palestinian Authority.

Probably some of the responses to questions involving enmity toward Jews reflected the same kind of hateful prejudice that is present in many other countries as anti-Semitism. It is unlikely that most of the responses were that. Ninety-five percent of respondents in the Greenberg poll agreed with the statement that “all religions ought to be equally accepted and welcome in society.” The poll results make it clear that the respondents made little distinction between “Jews” and “Israelis,” and Israelis were thought of mostly as occupiers and those standing in the way of Palestinian self-determination. To the extent that resentments over that situation get expressed in agreement with negative statements about a religious or ethnic group, that cannot be excused but, given the bitterness surrounding the underlying conflict, neither should it be surprising.

One can find sentiments expressed in similar terms on the other side of this conflict. In a poll in 2006, for example, Jewish Israelis were asked, “How do you feel when you hear Arabic being spoken around you on the streets of Israel?” Thirty percent said they felt “hatred.” (This is another example of a poll question being subject to multiple interpretations. Does this mean hatred from Arab toward Jew, or the other way around?  My guess is that some respondents interpreted it one way, some the other way, and for still others it didn't matter because they felt hatred in both directions.) In the same poll, 50 percent said they would refuse to work at a job in which the direct supervisor was an Arab. Such sentiments, expressed in purely ethnic terms, also cannot be excused but again are not surprising.

As for one-state versus two-state resolutions of the conflict, Leila Farsakh has an informative article on the subject in a recent issue of the Middle East Journal. She notes that the idea of Jews and Arabs living together in a single state in Palestine is an old one, proposed back in the 1920s and 1930s. But most Palestinians and Zionists alike rejected the idea as a compromise of the national aspirations of each. The concept of a one-state solution has more recently been the subject of renewed talk by scholars and activists, for the obvious reason that two decades of work on a two-state solution has come up empty. But all the old practical and political difficulties, which Farsakh reviews in detail, are still present, along with the obvious fact that Jewish national aspirations have been realized in the form of a strong and well-established state. As a result, Palestinians “at the official and grassroots levels,” notes Farsakh, doubt the feasibility of a one-state option, because of not only strong Israeli opposition but “more so out of fear of Israel's economic and political domination over the Palestinians within a single state.”

So what accounts for results in the Greenberg poll that, according to the commentators, suggest otherwise? It is an artifact of how portions of the poll were constructed, especially in forcing people to choose between two different statements that, even if logical alternatives, are not alternatives in terms of the sentiment and emotion that drive their responses. For example, respondents were asked to choose between the statements “Israel has a permanent right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people” and “Over time Palestinians must work to get back all the land for a Palestinian state.” “All” the land? Does this mean the occupied territories seized by Israel in the 1967 war, which is the territorial issue that has been debated for many years and has been the subject of nearly every conversation about Palestinians getting land back, or does it mean something more than that? With or without that ambiguity, think about how the average Palestinian, facing the clipboard-wielding interviewer, will react when asked to identify with one or the other of two sentences, one of which speaks of someone else's national aspirations and the other of which speaks about his own people's national aspirations. Naturally most Palestinians will choose the latter, the one that talks about getting land back for a state of their own. This is a simple expression of sentiment and priorities, not some scheme about making a two-state solution a device for wiping out Israel. It is hard to think of a more tendentious way to construct a survey question to generate fodder for commentators trying to argue that Palestinians don't accept Israel's right to exist.

Inconsistencies in responses to other questions in the Greenberg poll, even without reference to any other survey data or other evidence, vividly demonstrate how much the design of the questions shaped the results. For example, respondents had more than one opportunity to say whether they accepted a two-state solution. When asked a straight up-or-down question on their view about such a solution, there was almost twice as much support as when the question was made part of a two-statements comparison similar to the one just mentioned.

The seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict has generated all too much bitterness, animosity, and emotion-driven misperception on both sides. It is not helpful for supporters of one side to fancifully accuse the other side of grand, destructive plans that do not exist. In this case, the accusation serves only as one more excuse for the ruling coalition in Israel (some members of which are quite open about their intentions) to retain the West Bank—could we say “all the land”?—indefinitely and to keep Palestinian Arabs from ever having their own state.

Image by Hanini