Parsing a Palestinian Poll on Peace, With Prejudice

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published December 01, 2010, issue of December 10, 2010.
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What’s in a name — or, in the case at hand, in a headline?

Well, if you’re the Zionist Organization of America, what’s in your headline is whatever distortion of the data you’re discussing that you think you can get away with.

Case in point: On November 11, the ZOA released a statement intended to prove that Israel has no partner for peace. This conforms to the ZOA view of the world, so it comes as no surprise. The headline of the ZOA release reads, “Poll: 85% Of Palestinians Oppose Peace If It Means Compromise On ‘Right of Return,’ J’Lem, Borders, Settlements,” and the next line informs us that “83% say Arab state should be all Israel/W. Bank/Gaza.”

Presumably most of those who read the release did not delve into the actual survey, which was conducted by a Palestinian research center based in Ramallah. They likely took the conclusion reached by Morton Klein, national president of the ZOA, as a fair statement of the results. Here is how Klein put it: “This poll is important because it goes into greater detail than usual as to what Palestinians think about negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. It is therefore quite clear from these results — as well as that to be found in several earlier polls of Palestinian opinion — that the vast majority of Palestinians do not accept Israel’s existence under any circumstances. Even the so-called ‘one state solution’ is not at all supported if it requires equal rights and equal power for Jews. It could scarcely be clearer that the bulk of Palestinians want an Arab-dominated Palestinian state on all the territory of Israel, not a peaceful polity of their own alongside Israel.”

From which it follows that it is folly for Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians, much less to make any concessions to them.

But it turns out that the poll itself, the one that enables Klein to say these hopeless things, is considerably more complicated than the release implies. So, for example, it turns out that 66% of Palestinians favor peace negotiations with Israel, even if they are skeptical that such negotiations will in fact lead to peace.

True, respondents overwhelmingly say that a Palestine that stretched all the way from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean would be desirable (a full 65% call it “essential”) — but at the same time, in assessing the desirability of a two-state solution, 69% regard it as either “tolerable,” “acceptable,” “desirable” or “essential,” and a plurality think it the most realistic and achievable outcome.

Klein and his ZOA do not misstate the results they report; they simply ignore other results that, taken together, indicate substantial ambivalence regarding the current situation, an ambivalence that, in many ways, is mirrored among Israel’s Jews. If one could simply wish away the Palestinians, would Israelis not prefer an Israel from the Jordan to the Mediterranean? But do they not regard a two-state solution as the best solution, given all the circumstances of the conflict?

In fact, the more surprising result of the poll is the dramatic growth in approval of Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction as compared to Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas, even in Gaza itself. Overall, 43% of Palestinians rate the performance of President Abbas as “good,” and 27% say they would vote for him today — including 38% of Gazans. Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, receives only an 18% “good” rating, and just 9% would vote for him today.

The poll was conducted by the Arab World for Research and Development, and its own executive summary is as sunny as the ZOA press release is glum: “The results confirm the in-principle commitment of Palestinians to peace negotiations. Hesitance to support the current process is a reflection of the inability of the process to deliver rather than an ideological opposition to peace, negotiations and coexistence.” Indeed, while only 27% believe that the current negotiations sponsored by the United States will ever lead to a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, another 38% believe that the current negotiations might lead to a state; in contrast, just 33% say that the current negotiations won’t lead to a state.

It is difficult, if not downright impossible, to draw definitive conclusions from polls of people caught up in an immensely complicated process that has rendered many of them ambivalent and that finds a good number with views that appear to contradict each other. We in America can see this in polls on the new health care law. But the ZOA does not suffer ambivalence gladly; where others choose to ponder, it chooses to pounce.

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