Opinion Polls and Imaginary Peace

On December 30th 2012 the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz published a report by Barak Ravid on some seemingly surprising opinion poll results (followed the next day by an English version of the report). Two parallel polls in December asked the same question about voting intentions in an imagined referendum on a peace agreement along the lines of a two-state solution. What made the poll results newsworthy was that they showed that “most Likud-Beiteinu and the further-right Habayit Hayehudi voters would support a peace agreement establishing a demilitarized Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, Israel’s retention of major settlement blocs and a division of Jerusalem.” Not surprisingly, support among the general Israeli public was higher, being significantly higher among voters for the centre-left parties.

As Israeli peace activist Adam Keller writes in his Crazy Country blog, these poll results present a puzzle: “Half of the voters for both these parties are willing in principle to support a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but in practice they are about to fill Knesset seats with dozens of extreme right Members as well as those from the even more extreme right, who are completely opposed to even the most petty and cosmetic of concessions.” What are we to make of these people who in an opinion poll say they want one thing (peace) but at the same time declare their intention to intensify occupation? Are they subject to some sort of cognitive dissonance, or suffering from sort of neurotic ailment whereby they deny their own desires by fulfilling the demands of a nationalist super-ego?

Adam Keller’s answer is that “they believe what they had been repeatedly told over the past twelve years: there is no partner, the Palestinians do not want peace, there is no chance for peace, and all talk of peace is a pipe dream.” So, the poll asks the polled to engage in a game of “fantasy peace-making”. It’s not a problem to say you’d agree to a peace agreement when you’re asked to imagine a series of qualifying conditions, as in this case, where support was given to an agreement “whose implementation would take place only after the Palestinians would fulfil all their commitments with an emphasis on fighting terror, and the implementation would be monitored and verified by the United States”. The poll was also conducted in a way that sweetened the deal even further by offering “a number of additional favorable (from an Israeli viewpoint) elements” such as building a strong security fence along the border, disarming Hamas, and a US security guarantee, which increased support for the imagined agreement by about 8%. The basic principles of the agreement without these additional enticements already excluded any Palestinian right of return to Israel (only to the future Palestinian state), as well as consideration of Israel’s security needs in any territory exchanges based on the 1967 lines. (The full details of the polls can be found here).

As reflected in the Ha’aretz headline – “Most rightist Israelis would support Palestinian state, dividing Jerusalem” – the polls were conducted as part of a well-meaning effort to convey a message that most Israelis really do want peace, and so there is still hope for a two-state solution to the conflict, so long as Israelis’ security concerns are addressed. The polls were commissioned by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which “works with leaders and policymakers in the United States and the Middle East to help reach a just and comprehensive peace that will bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.” It’s not a grass-roots peace organisation bringing Israelis and Palestinians together to understand and trust each other. The opinion polls are produced for the benefit of the policymakers.

So, what can the policymakers learn from such polls? Not that most Israelis have a deep desire for peace, but that they are happy to play fantasy peace negotiation, in which they deal with themselves about what the right conditions would be to vote “yes” in an imagined referendum. As the Dachaf poll organisation states in its report, among the polled public there is significant “disbelief that the Palestinians will uphold the conditions of peace and especially those elements dealing with security.” The solution then is to present those polled “with a peace plan that fortifies security elements.” The poll doesn’t actually show that most Israelis want peace: it shows that they want “security”.

It is this pursuit of security that is the real fantasy. It is a pursuit of security that seeks solutions in technical, instrumental notions of security: fences, counter-missile missiles, demilitarized zones. It’s the pursuit of security without building peaceful relations with one’s enemy. It’s security that does not secure, because it addresses the needs of only one side. Somehow the Palestinians, most of whom have known Israelis only as military conquerors and occupiers, are supposed to feel secure without the means to defend themselves. It’s a pursuit of security that will bring no peace, because it imagines the enemy will always be an enemy, always need to be held at bay, in check, in a vice. It’s a pursuit of security that will bring no peace to Israel, because it does not bring Israel to be at peace with itself, with its past, with the deep trauma that underlies its insecurity. So, yes, in the meantime it’s fine to be distracted by polls about imaginary peace agreements, so long as nobody asks too closely about what would really make Israelis feel secure, or about what peace really means.

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