Surveys by Israeli Democracy Index and Tel Aviv University find that most Israeli Jews prefer separate buses for Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank; one-quarter of Arab respondents support the torching of Jerusalem’s only mixed Jewish-Arab school.
As Israel heads into election cycle, a shower of political punditry will yet again distract everyone from the issues that affect people’s lives. That is the main reason, in my opinion, why the prime minister wanted elections. He has exhausted all other means of doing nothing.
Yet it’s worth remembering the issues. The following is a selection of public opinion data from the two recent Israel Peace Index surveys conducted by the Israel Democracy Index and Tel Aviv University.* I’ve chosen a few themes that will likely be, or should be, central to the coming campaign debates.
Crisis in U.S.-Israel relations
– Sixty-two percent of Israelis think that relations between Netanyahu and the Obama Administration are poor or very poor, and even more, 70 percent, among the Jewish population.
– Forty percent believe this is the fault of the U.S., but 30 percent also blame the Israeli side. Another 20 percent think both are to blame. Thus, half the population believes Israel is at least partly to blame.
– However, a strong majority apparently believes that the tension between Israel and the U.S. is a matter of ebb and flow, rhetoric and posturing, with few consequences. Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) disagree with the idea that continued deterioration of relations will lead to the U.S. no longer being a very close ally.
– Finally, Israelis were asked about concrete American policy steps to pressure Israel. Participants were asked their opinion if, “the United States no longer vetoes anti-Israel Security Council resolutions, greatly reduces its economic support for Israel, and stops providing Israel with the most advanced military equipment.” Nearly half of respondents, 48 percent, said these steps would harm Israel’s security, compared to just over 38 percent who said they could actually strengthen Israeli independence. There was minimal difference between Arabs and Jews regarding those who said it would harm Israeli security. However, more Jews, 40 percent, thought (or hoped) such measures would bolster Israel’s independence from the U.S.
Election time means heightened sensitivities. Taking such steps could easily cause a nationalist backlash against the U.S. that plays into the right. But getting Israelis to realize that harsh rhetoric is followed by actual policy could highlight what Israelis fear: that their country is becoming isolated, alienated and friendless.
Netanyahu: Policy for himself, not for the people
A remarkable finding is the strong majority that believes the prime minister makes decisions of great national importance based on his own political interests, rather than those of the country.
– When asked why Netanyahu announced renewed construction in the territories in October, 62 percent of the public – 64 percent among Jews – said this was pandering to the Right.
– Just one-fifth (21 percent) thinks Netanyahu really believes construction serves the interests of Israel. Among Jewish respondents the portion was the same as the total (22 percent).
Similarly, the “Jewish Nation-State Law” triggered a premature NIS 3 billion election cycle, further poisoned the environment between Arabs and Jews, and drove an ultra-nationalist discourse with violent manifestations. All this, the public believes, was for Netanyahu’s personal gain.
– Nearly two thirds – 64 percent – say Netanyahu was mainly trying boost his popularity among the right wing and settlers. Seventy-seven percent of Arabs feel this way.
– Just 30 percent of Jews and only 18 percent of Arabs (27 percent of the whole public) think Netanyahu supported the law out of genuine concern for the issue.
– Most striking: nearly half the population (45 percent) think the law will damage the interests of the State of Israel, while only 28 percent think it will advance the state’s interests. Among Jews, 40 percent think it will do damage; another 22 percent think the law will have no influence. Together, a striking 62 percent of the Jewish population sees nothing good coming from this law. Among Arabs, fully 71 percent think it will do damage.
These findings represent an extraordinary rift between the will of the people and the elected representatives who are mired in a dark game of ultra-nationalist outbidding, at the expense of governance.
Too much support for separation and discrimination
The good news is that for most of the questions, the majority rejects dramatic apartheid-like behavior. The bad news is that one of the most egregious and symbolic such measures – the Jim Crow-like separation of buses – is supported by a majority. Perhaps worse still, the minorities that favor other discriminatory actions are not single-digits or radical margins but large chunks of society. Some understandably wish that recent racist incidents were isolated exceptions. But the numbers show a large and ugly iceberg beneath the sharp peaks that break the water. Thus:
– Fully 51 percent of Israeli society – and 56 percent of the Jewish population – support the defense minister’s call to ban Palestinians from riding on the same buses with Jews to and from the West Bank.
– While 34 percent of Jews oppose such a measure, just 20 percent of the total sample are strongly against it – more than those who are moderately opposed (14 percent).
– Notably, 29 percent of Arab respondents also support the ban.
– Just 10 percent support the vandalism and 86 percent reject it. Still, 10 percent? That represents 800,000 Israeli people who would burn down a school.
– Another disturbing finding: Over one-quarter of the Arab respondents support the action, compared to just over six percent of the Jewish respondents. (The small sample means a high margin of error, but even as an indication, it is worrisome.)
In between these two poles of high support for Jim Crow policies and majority rejection of violence against schools lies a middle ground of discriminatory actions against Arabs that are apparently more acceptable. About one-quarter to nearly half of Jews support such actions (the questions were not asked of Arabs).
– Forty-three percent of Jews support calls not to employ Arabs in areas near Jewish kindergartens.
– Over one-quarter – 26 percent – of Jews oppose employing Arabs in hospitals and nursing institutions (Arabs represent an increasingly prominent portion of the medical staff in Israel at all levels).
These respondents probably do not view themselves as radicals or see these as extreme measures, but rather as pragmatic responses to an unfortunate situation. That is precisely the danger of burning schools. It is less about damaging Jewish-Arab education – the “Hand-in-Hand” initiative has seen an outpouring of support since the attack. But it makes expulsion from the workplace look legitimate. It makes racist policies look reasonable and helps self-described moderates embrace them. And everyone thinks he or she is a moderate.
*The two polls were fielded in early November and early December, among representative samples of 602 and 603 respondents, respectively. More information about the surveys is available on the Peace Index website.