On July 1, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings hosted a policy forum to discuss how publics, particularly in the Arab world, view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shibley Telhami, Saban Center Nonresident Senior Fellow and Anwar Sadat Professor at the University of Maryland, presented his analysis paper, Does the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict Still Matter? Steven Kull, Director of WorldPublicOpinion.org and the Program on International Policy Attitudes, presented the findings of WorldPublicOpinion.org’s most recent public opinion poll conducted in 18 countries throughout the world.
Telhami began by presenting his newest survey of public opinion in six Arab countries: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan. Telhami has polled public opinion in these countries for the past 6 years, and as such has been able to conduct trend analysis. One consistent question in Telhami’s polls has been, “How important is the issue of Palestine in your priorities?” In 2002, the first time the question was asked, 73 percent of those surveyed said it was either the single most important issue to them or one of the three top issues most important to them. In 2008, 86 percent ranked the issue either the single most important to them or among the top three. The two strongest corollaries to respondents’ opinion, Telhami said, are violence and the position of the United States. The more violence there is in the Palestinian territories and the more tension there is between the United States and Palestinians, Telhami said, the higher people in the Arab world rank the Palestinian issue among their priorities.
Regarding tensions within the Palestinian territories, particularly between Fatah and Hamas, Telhami said the data indicate that the Arab world prefers Palestinian unity as opposed to the current fracture, and thus desires a Palestinian unity government over either a Fatah-led or a Hamas-led government. However, if asked to choose between the two sides, those who expressed a preference chose Hamas over Fatah.
Telhami said that in each of the annual polls he has conducted, participants have been asked how they formulate their opinion of the United States. Every year, roughly three-quarters answer that they base their judgment of the United States on its policies, not on its values. In the polls conducted in 2006 and 2008, participants were asked what steps would improve their views of the United States. The number-one policy that is most influential to public opinion is the peace process. At the same time, a majority of Arabs support the principle of the two-state solution (based on a question asked in 2006 and 2008). However, the number of people who don’t believe it will ever happen has increased. When asked what the result of not having a two-state solution would be, the vast majority said there would likely be deep conflict for many years to come.
Telhami said that when asked to name the two states that are most threatening, the vast majority of people in each of the six countries surveyed in both 2006 and 2008 named the United States and Israel. At the same time, the three most popular leaders right now (asked in an open-ended question) are non-Sunni Arabs – of particular interest because U.S. policymakers often see a Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East. Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, is the single most-popular leader in the Arab world, with over a quarter of those surveyed saying that he is their favorite leader. One consequence of these opinion trends, Telhami said, is that Iran may be empowered and continue to use the Arab-Israeli conflict to radicalize the region.
Steven Kull gave an overview of a public opinion survey conducted in 18 countries by the Worldpublicopinion.org consortium (a consortium of research centers around the world that collaborate on polls on an ongoing basis). Kull noted that because the project is collaborative, not every country is asked the same questions.
Kull began by presenting findings to the question of whether people felt that in the Israel-Palestinian conflict their country should take a side or be neutral. In 14 out of the 18 countries surveyed, the dominant opinion was favoring one’s country to be neutral. When asked how well various parties are doing to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on average, across all the countries surveyed, 54 percent gave Israel poor ratings and just 22 percent gave Israel positive ratings. Similarly, on average, across all the countries surveyed, 47 percent gave the Palestinians poor ratings, whereas 28 percent gave them positive ratings. Overall, 13 of the countries surveyed held negative views of Israel, whereas ten of the countries surveyed held negative views of the Palestinians.
Kull said that among the most interesting findings were opinions about how to respond to the conflict. When participants were asked about various options for the international community to undertake, there was robust support for sending a peacekeeping force to enforce a peace agreement. On average, 67 percent of those surveyed endorsed the idea of the United Nations offering to send a peacekeeping force if an agreement is reached. In addition, there is fairly strong support for some non-conventional policies: on average, 45 percent support the idea of protecting Israel should it be attacked whereas 55 percent support the idea of making a commitment to protect Arab countries if they are attacked by Israel.
Overall, Kull said, world opinion can be characterized as people feeling that they don’t want their governments to take sides, they favor an even-handed approach, and they think all the parties are not doing their part to end the conflict.
During the question and answer portion of the event, Telhami said that one challenge for the United States today is that many in the Arab world have largely lost confidence in the United States. Confidence measure have gone down so much, Telhami said, that people don’t trust the United States’ intentions when the United States engages in efforts to resolve the conflict. Kull also argued that policymakers should understand that there is a large gap between the sentiments of Arab governments and their publics.
Kull said that understanding public opinion is of critical importance to policymaking because it represents legitimacy. As a result, not having public opinion on one’s side creates costs for policymakers.