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On Israel’s 70th anniversary, what does the region think?

- May 15, 2018
A Palestinian man throws leaflets dropped by the Israeli military during a protest against the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem on May 14. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

On the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding — what Palestinians call the Nakba (or catastrophe) — hundreds are marching in mostly nonviolent protests in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. Some are calling this “a perfect storm” that could lead to unprecedented instability.

The Palestinian cause was once the cornerstone of Arab nationalism across the region. However, recently Arab-Israeli relations seem to be shifting and enthusiasm for the Palestinian issue waning. Regimes long considered staunch adversaries of Israel have begun experimenting with opening up relations. But in these authoritarian regimes, do such policy changes reflect citizens’ attitudes?

In a recent survey, we examined Arab opinions toward Israel and the Palestinian cause. We found that, even in the most repressive states, public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to cooperation with Israel and normalization of diplomatic relations, while the Palestinian cause remains highly salient.

How we measure regional opinion

The Arab Opinion Index, a project of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, seeks to gauge Arab public opinion through yearly, regionwide surveys to measure and distinguish the position of the Arab citizens from their governments.

Respondents are chosen through a systematic, multi-staged, stratified sampling method, giving us a sample that is self-weighted with probability proportional to size (PPS). In the 2017 to 2018 survey, we covered 11 countries by working with local partners and polled 18,830 respondents. The fieldwork was carried out by an overall team of 840 individuals, equally balanced on gender, who conducted 45,000 hours of interviews. Polling in all countries was face-to-face except in Saudi Arabia, where we relied on phone surveys.

How do Arab citizens view Israel?

Arabs view Israel as a serious threat to their security and stability, with no significant changes since the previous survey. In an open-ended question on which country posed the greatest threat to the region, Israel continues to come in first. Similarly, when asked specifically about individual countries, 90 percent of those surveyed responded that Israel poses a threat to the stability of the region.

Despite recent trial balloons from Gulf Cooperation Council regimes and talk of normalization, 87 percent of Arab respondents still disapprove of their home countries recognizing Israel. This has remained consistent over the years of the Arab Opinion Index. When asked to elaborate on reasons for the disapproval in an open-ended question, the majority that opposed diplomatic ties highlighted factors such as Israeli racism toward the Palestinians and its expansionist policies. Others cited Israeli racism toward Arabs more generally and its role in regional instability.

Among the minority who accepted recognition of Israel by their governments, their reasons were nuanced. In a similar open-ended question, half of this minority made such recognition conditional on the formation of an independent Palestinian state.

From these open-ended justifications, we found that political reasons — not religious — were most salient for both those who did and did not support recognition.

The Palestinian cause in Arab public opinion

It can be argued that opposition to Israel does not necessarily mean support of the Palestinian cause. In fact, Arab opposition to Israel is often painted in religious terms, or claimed as inherently anti-Semitic.

However, the majority of our respondents, across self-identified religiosity levels, oppose recognition of Israel.

Moreover, our data show that Arab opposition to Israel is strongly linked to support of the Palestinian cause. More than three-quarters of respondents in the latest survey agree that the Palestinian cause concerns all Arabs, not just Palestinians.

Finally, most Arabs we surveyed also disapprove of the various peace treaties signed between a number of Arab states and Israel, including the Oslo Agreements (between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization), the Camp David Accords (Israel and Egypt) and the Wadi Araba Agreement (Israel and Jordan).

Do diplomatic changes shift public opinion?

At the diplomatic level, recent shifts in Arab-Israeli relations have been spurred to a large degree by new political leaders like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Such changes in state policy did seem to interestingly influence the way people there engaged with our survey if not their opinions.

For the first time since 2011, a large number of Saudi respondents quit the survey altogether when asked about the Palestinian cause. Given the recent foreign policy shifts and wave of repression, we believe that Saudi respondents no longer felt comfortable responding to what had become a sensitive issue in their domestic sphere. The direct question on the Palestinian cause had a high rate of nonresponse within Saudi Arabia: 36 percent said they don’t know or refused to answer, vs. 5 to 10 percent in the rest of the countries sampled.

For that reason, we also ran a list experiment with the Saudi sample. List experiments are often used to elicit true feelings regarding sensitive issues. Respondents in our experiment were asked to list the number of items in the question that were important, without identifying which ones. One half of the sample was randomly assigned a question with four items, with varying levels of prevalence, while the other half of the sample is assigned the same question but with five possible items. The fifth item included was “the Palestinian cause.”

If there is a statistically significant difference between the number of items chosen in the two halves of the sample, then we can tell that the inclusion of the fifth item is the reason for this difference.

Indeed, we found that the average number of items chosen in the four-item question was 2.079 and the average number of items chosen in the five-item question was 2.815. This was statistically significant (at the p<0.01 level). This gives us reason to believe that the Palestinian cause remains important to the Saudi sample but that fear of responding truthfully explains the lack of response and high attrition rate.

What does this mean for future regional negotiation?

Despite recent shifts in regime policies and indications of a diplomatic opening of relations between various GCC countries and Israel, seven decades of political animosity won’t likely change.

When headlines laud leaders for coming to the negotiating table, it is important to bear in mind that highly authoritarian regimes do not reflect public opinion to a large degree. The fact that Arab public opinion remains largely supportive of the Palestinian cause and opposed to both domestic and foreign Israeli policy implies that — without addressing political issues — sustainable peace between Israel and its neighbors is unlikely anytime soon.

Dana El Kurd is a researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies at the Doha Institute in Qatar. You can follow her @danaelkurd