Does Public Opinion Matter in the Middle East?

by Daoud Kuttab
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Jerusalem - The Palestinian Israeli conflict is very strange. It has lasted so long that public opinion has lost its power to affect policy or leaders' decision making. No matter what the Palestinian or Israeli public wants, what happens on the ground and in decision making circles in Tel Aviv and Ramallah rarely reflects public opinion.

If public opinion counted we would long ago have solved this conflict. It is a scientific fact that the majority of Palestinians and Israelis know exactly what the solution to the conflict will look like: two sovereign states roughly along the 1967 borders, some adjustments for the big settlement blocks, a few refugees returning for symbolic value, and a functional solution for Jerusalem.

But public opinion doesn't count. Just look at the victims of those who tried to follow public opinion. Quite a few PLO representatives who wanted to reflect Palestinian public opinion by beginning dialogue with Israelis were assassinated. A popular Israeli prime minister who was doing what the majority of Israelis wanted was similarly killed. In both instances the killers were not from the other side, but from their own people. Yasser Arafat and his Israeli counter parts had to negotiate in secret to reach the Oslo Accords. And Yasser Arafat told Clinton that he would be killed if he agreed on the ideas that Barak was offering. Ariel Sharon had to have an exaggerated number of body guards to protect him from assassination while he was enforcing what polls showed was a popular decision to withdraw from Gaza. He has not been able to do anything else despite polls showing that any further withdrawals in the West Bank would also gain majority support from Israelis.

The reasons for the lack of effectiveness of public opinion vary. For issues that are of higher national and strategic interests, the public gives those in power much more leeway. The average person in the Middle East feels that those in power have a lot more information at their disposal than they do that will allow them to decide what is best for the nation. The public might argue with authority on almost any issue except subjects dealing with security and of national strategic importance. Leaders are given the benefit of the doubt in these areas and their judgment is rarely questioned.

Unfortunately, leaders take advantage of this public position. They tend to carry out decisions reflecting what they want, assured that the public will rarely question them on issues relating to security.

This issue is more felt in the case of Israel. As a young country that was established against many odds, the Israeli public has an exaggerated sense of faith in their security forces. And since the majority of the Israeli political leaders have come from the army, the public has blind support for whatever their leaders have to say in security related matters. And while the Israeli public will question almost any other decision, they tend to be unanimously silent on strategic issues or security related subjects.

Before completely trashing the importance of public opinion even on security-related issues, let me partially retract my total dismissal of public opinion. In normal societies, when someone talks about public opinion they are talking about issues that have the support of say 55 or 60% of the public. But in the Middle East, for public opinion to really count it must top 2/3 of the majority, or even more.

When the majority of Israelis protested against the Sabra and Shatilla massacres the government had to respond. When the vast majority of Palestinians opposed the Qassam rockets launched after the explosion during the Hamas parade, the leaders of the Islamic movement quickly retracted and unilaterally declared a stoppage of the attacks.

If regular public opinion doesn't matter, what is it that does count? The way to make change in the Middle East is in one of two ways. With the first method, an effort is made to reach overwhelming public support in any one community. To do that, activists will need to lower their expectations and agree on the common denominator that will produce overwhelming public support. The only other way is for outside pressure to be exerted on leaders. We saw this in the case of the Gaza withdrawals as the international pressure on Sharon to move in the peace process (within the Road Map framework) forced him to come up with a political plan that received the approval of the White House, even though it didn't have overwhelming support in Israel.

Change in the Middle East conflict will not happen simply by a slight improvement in public opinion. Only when other key elements of change are lined up and an overwhelming transformation in public opinion takes place can we expect substantial change in this protracted conflict.

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* Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah. This article is part of a series of views on “The Dynamics of Public Opinion,” published in partnership with United Press International (UPI).

Source: Common Ground News Service, November 24, 2005.

Visit the Common Ground News Service Online: www.commongroundnews.org

Distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

Copyright permission is granted for publication.
 
 
 
 
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Other articles in this series

The Shifting Sands of Israeli and Palestinian Public Opinion by Gershon Baskin and Hanna Siniora
Work with the public, not against it by Shira Herzog
There is a Message: Where’s the Messenger? by Naomi Chazan
Beyond the Looking Glass by Lucy Nusseibeh