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How Israeli Society Has Changed Since The Six-Day War

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, Israel is still living with the legacy of those fateful days, when the future of the young Jewish State seemed to hang in the balance.

While many point to 1967 as the high-water mark of “liberal Israel,” after which public sentiment hardened, the reality is much more complex. We know this from detailed opinion surveys taken before, during, and after the war, a half a century ago by the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research (today part of the Israel Democracy Institute).

In these groundbreaking polls, analysts measured the mood and policy preferences of the Israeli public. The results should give pause to the common thesis nowadays about the growing extremism of Israeli society.

One conclusion from the data is that the readiness of the Israeli public to make concessions for peace has grown over time. In June 1967, following the war, over 90% of Israelis supported holding on to Jerusalem’s recently captured Old City “at any cost,” and more than 80% said the same regarding the West Bank. Contrast this with today’s numbers, which consistently show that a majority of Israelis favor a two-state solution, including territorial concessions.

Notably, even in the immediate aftermath of the war, 60% to 70% of the public were in favor of “small concessions for the sake of peace.” And in the post-victory euphoria of 1967, only 2% of the public thought that reaching a peace agreement was “impossible.”

The question of exactly how Israel should reach such an agreement has remained more or less constant over the years. A full 82% of the public thought that peace had to come via bilateral talks, while less than 10% thought an agreement should be mediated by an external actor like the United Nations or a foreign power.

Wariness about international bias and foreign intervention in the Israeli-Arab conflict, it seems, has persisted even half a century later. Israelis continue to believe that their fate should remain in their own hands.

At the same time, Israel’s internal social cohesion has held remarkably constant over the last five decades. In 1967, 84% of the public thought that relations between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews were good (although a majority did maintain that there was discrimination) — a surprising data point given the very real improvements in social mobility and equality in the intervening decades.

Even more surprising, a majority of Jewish Israelis were amenable to being “friends with Arabs,” with 32% answering positively and approximately 20% stating that it “depends on the circumstances.” Within weeks of the end of hostilities, only a minority of Israelis flatly stated that they would not be willing to be friends with Arabs.

Another constant between then and now is the overwhelmingly positive attitude toward the United States. One reflection of this was the fact that fully 93% of those surveyed in 1967 felt confident that the U.S. “would help Israel” in the future.

Respondents were somewhat conflicted about the role of Diaspora Jewry, however. A full 94% of respondents in 1967 stated that Jews living abroad “must support” the State of Israel; but only 43% agreed with the idea that Diaspora Jews could “express an opinion about Israel’s internal affairs.” While the numbers may have softened, the tension between the expectation of Diaspora support on the one hand, and relative unwillingness to provide a role for Diaspora Jewry in Israeli affairs on the other, continues to this day.

Surprisingly, the biggest shift in public attitudes between now and then has to do less with the prospects for peace, and more to do with the institutions that govern public life. The Israeli public in 1967 expressed full confidence in their leadership. An overwhelming 89% felt that “the government was coping well with the problems presented by the current situation.” Trust in the media stood at an eye-watering 90%. Today, trust in those same institutions has plummeted to historic lows. According to IDI’s most recent polling data, only 27% of the public trusts the government (and 14% trust the political parties), while trust in the media has dropped to 24%. These and other measures indicate that Israelis have lost confidence in their leadership, in their public institutions, and in their governing system.

Fifty years on, Israel is still grappling with the legacy of the Six-Day War and the unresolved Palestinian question. Israeli society by and large has maintained both its cohesiveness and a pragmatic willingness to compromise under the right circumstances. But the institutions that govern Israeli life have experienced a severe erosion of trust. We must make the effort to reform the government and restore the public’s faith in its democratic system our top priority in the coming years.

Yohanan Plesner is president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

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