Does the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict Still Matter?

“Does the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict Still Matter?” Shibley Telhami, a nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, posed this question before the packed room of Washington policymakers and academics at the Brookings Institution the morning of Tuesday, July 1. The crowd assembled for a joint presentation of Shibley’s paper by the same title, which was published that day, and survey findings on the subject by Steven Kull, director of’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).

Does the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict Still Matter?
Dr. Telhami, born in Israel to an Arab family, is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development in the department of political science at the University of Maryland, College Park. He formerly served as an advisor to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and the Iraq Study Group. He is the author of several books and op-ed pieces, and is frequently featured by prominent news outlets including C-Span and NPR. His new paper is a time-series analysis of public opinion in six Arab countries with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, conducted both in the 1990s and over the past six years.

Kull is a faculty member at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy as well as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the World Association of Public Opinion Research and is the principle investigator in a major study of social support of anti-American terrorist groups in Islamic countries. He has authored several books in addition to publishing articles in multiple academic journals and regularly provides analysis of public opinion for both U.S. and international media outlets. He presented findings from a recent poll of 18 countries gauging international opinions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The presentation was introduced and moderated by Martin Indyk, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program at the Brookings Institution. Indyk served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, prior to which he was principle adviser to the president and the National Security Adviser under the Clinton administration. Preceding his government service, Ambassador Indyk founded and directed the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and taught both at Johns Hopkins University school of Advanced International Studies and at Colombia University’s Middle East Institute as well as Tel Aviv University and Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

Why does Palestine matter?

Dr. Telhami began by introducing his paper and outlining the set of questions it addressed regarding Arab public perceptions. Survey respondents were comprised of population samples from six Arab countries – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, and Jordan – totaling approximately 4,000 people per year polled. Respondents first ranked the Palestine issue among their personal priorities, with results recorded as percentages of respondents placing the issue either “most important” or “top three.” Formulated based on the theory that an issue’s ranking is a strong indicator of behavioral consequences, the question yielded relatively consistent responses across countries each year, with demographics appearing to have little influence on response, with the exception of a slight negative correlation between income level and prioritization, indicating that wealthy individuals hold values more in line with their government’s political agendas. Overwhelmingly, the trends over time corresponded with the issue’s prominence in the news at the time the question was posed. For example, prioritization in the 2008 polls, which were taken in March, rose across the board, which Telhami attributes to the survey’s proximity to the Israeli incursion into Gaza.

The second question the survey posed gauged Arab public opinion on the Hamas-Fatah divide and this finding’s role in evaluating the Palestine question. The dominant trend showed higher support for Hamas in all countries, especially among men and lower income respondents, as well as strong preference for a Palestinian Unity government in all countries polled. Increasing support for opposition was another apparent trend, demonstrated by stronger backing for Hezbollah in Lebanon, as moderates have not delivered in terms of public services and security, and are often perceived as pawns of the Bush administration.

Third, the survey asked respondents what step taken by Washington would most improve their perceptions of the U.S. The number one response in all countries polled was brokerage of the peace process based on the 1967 borders, followed by troop U.S. withdrawal from the region. Over 75 percent of respondents said their judgment of America was based more on U.S. policies than on their perceptions of American values.

The following question examined Arab public opinion toward Israel. Only posed twice, in 2006 and 2008, the results indicate a drop in the number of Arabs who perceive Israel as on its way to defeat. This explains why many Arabs and Israelis both see a two-state solution as preferable, but most do not expect that such an arrangement would be acceptable to the other side, predicting protracted violence to be the outcome of the situation.

Telhami’s next question addressed the prism through which Arabs view the U.S. Surprisingly, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict exerts the most dominant influence on this perception, as Arabs view the U.S. and Israel as the two countries posing the greatest threats, despite Iran’s close geographic proximity. Arabs still viewed Iran as a threat, but their responses to this question are telling in terms of the way they prioritize issues. Dr. Telhami referenced this prism as a “prism of pain,” in which the Palestinian-Israeli conflict “trumps all else.”

The final question measured the popularity of leaders in the Arab world, again indicating a trend toward opposition, as the most popular leaders among the Arab public were those with the most aggressive public images. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, topped the list.

Concluding Dr. Telhami’s presentation, his descriptions of these prisms spearheaded his explanation of why public opinion matters for government behavior. For each of the six countries surveyed, as well as the Gulf states, he asserted, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict holds critical importance as a basic security concern and is integrally tied to more complex domestic and foreign relations matters.

Is Israel here to stay?

Kull then presented the findings from his 2008 survey of 18 countries, including most of the world’s largest countries, and representing 59 percent of the world’s population. A segment of the respondents, he noted, were Palestinians, however, though they are typically included, no Israelis participated in the survey this year. His results indicated low levels of confidence in all leaders involved in resolving the conflict – Israeli, Palestinian, American, and Arab, alike. International perception is that no one is doing enough. When asked if the U.N. should assume a more active role, the response was an overwhelming yes. Sixteen of the 17 countries polled for this question demonstrated at least plurality support, with the average percentage of positive responses among countries at 67 percent. Ironically, other polls suggest that these populations hold relatively negative views of the U.N., suggesting that the reasoning behind this dislike is a belief that the organization is not active enough. Kull stated his overall findings indicate that most people worldwide attach strong importance to the issue and would prefer that their governments take an even-handed approach rather than favoring one side.

Indyk led off the question and answer period that followed, asking, “Is there a trend here in Arab public opinion that is questioning the permanence of Israel?”

Telhami described the so-called prisoner’s dilemma situation that is driving both states toward militancy even while preferring a two-state resolution: “diplomacy has to create possibilities…to change their assessment of prospects,” he asserted. According to Telhami, however, Israel’s permanence is no longer in question; most believe the collapse of the two-state agreement will lead to protracted conflict, not to the disappearance of the country.

Kull described it as a psychological bargaining game – “it’s a question of whose side time is on.” Israel used the settlement issue to demonstrate that time was on its side, predicated on the fact that Arabs accepted the two-state solution. Remove the two-state arrangement and time becomes demographic again, the panelists concluded.

Wrapping up a morning of analysis, Kull addressed the underlying question, “Why does world public opinion matter?”

A “force of legitimacy,” he described public opinion as a mold for establishing order between states. “Public opinion changes costs… (It) is ultimately a rational, emotional reaction,” a determining factor for state behavior and an indicator of things to come in Palestinian-Israeli

Sunday, November 23rd 2008
Summer Marion

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