Spreading the Secret


One of the best kept secrets in Israel is that most Israelis are fed up with the occupation, and just want to get out.

According to June’s findings by Mina Zemach, Israel’s foremost pollster, 63% of Israelis are in favor of “unilateral withdrawal”. In fact, 69% call for the evacuation of “all” or “most of” the settlements.

Mina’s numbers are corroborated by everybody else: The Peace Index of Tel-Aviv University’s Tami Steinmitz Center found that 65% of Israelis “are prepared to evacuate the settlements under a unilateral separation program”.

A poll commissioned by Peace Now a month earlier revealed that 59% of Israelis support immediate evacuation of most settlements, followed by a unilateral withdrawal of the army from the occupied territories.

Here’s another “secret” revealed by Mina Zemach: 60% of Israelis believe that Israel should agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state as part of a peace agreement.

Is this too much good news all at once? To temper it, here are a few more findings by Mina Zemach: 74% of Israelis say that Sharon is doing a good job and 60% believe that the Israeli army should be allowed to attack the refugee camps in Gaza.

To quote Mina Zemach’s closing remarks (at a lecture I heard her give in Tel Aviv yesterday, sponsored by the New Israel Fund), “Similar trends appear on the Palestinian side in surveys conducted by my Palestinian colleagues. Both sides want their leaders to be very aggressive, but most are willing to have a peaceful, two-state solution.”

Mis-perceptions and Manipulations

The findings alone are impressively pro-peace, but there are two more amazing aspects, in my opinion. The first is that most Israelis are not aware that the majority want the occupation to go away. To illustrate, I report an informal experiment conducted by peace activist Ron HaCohen in his Tel-Aviv University class. When asked what opinion the students believed was most common among Israelis, they guessed “dismantle most” or “dismantle only a few” of the settlements. Little did they suspect that the category “dismantle ALL the settlements” was the one most commonly chosen. Ron’s students guessed that the Israeli public was much more pro-settlement than it actually is. Most people, I believe, feel this way.

The second amazing aspect relates to the fact that the government can get away with ignoring this information. To quote columnist Hannah Kim in yesterday’s Ha’aretz, “This has been and still is one of the great mysteries: How is it that there is no political expression of the fact that most of the Israeli public is in favor of evacuating the settlements?” For months, I have been asking people their thoughts about this. The following answers seem to sum up the views I heard:

(1) First, Mark Mellman, one of the top political consultants in Washington, was not surprised. He said that it’s not unusual for policymakers to ignore majority views, and that it’s our job to get them to sit up and notice.

(2) Ron HaCohen said, “Our main source of information about what people think, feel or believe is the mass media. The media portray the Israeli people as much more pro-settlements than they really are.”

(3) Hanna Kim suggests that the power of the settlements is a combination of their integration into the Israeli economy [Boycott settler goods! – GS] and the effectiveness of their Knesset lobby. This fits into what is generally known about the power of small, but determined lobbies…on many issues and in many countries.

To all the above, I would add the determination of the Sharon government to play deaf to this view. When asked about abandoning even remote, isolated settlements, Sharon sidesteps the question. When pressed, he recently responded that Netzarim – the Gaza settlement that everyone loves to hate – is as dear to his heart as Tel Aviv. In other words, not a single settlement is negotiable.

I was privileged to hear a great panel discussion this evening, sponsored by Bat Shalom, on the subject of the “fence” that Israel has begun to erect between Israel and Palestine. All the panelists (five Israeli and Palestinian women professors who are also peace activists) felt that the fence would conceal the real issue – the Palestinian suffering on the other side as a result of the occupation – and would replace a negotiated peace agreement. Galia Golan also pointed out that the fence was being used to grab more land, as it was not being built on the Green Line, and that it ultimately would provide little protection, as mortars and rockets could go right over it. Other speakers were Rima Hamami, Inas Haj, Naomi Chazan, and Tanya Reinhart.

The most impassioned plea of the evening came from Tanya, who begged the audience to listen to the polls and trust that people mean what they are saying. “Now is the time to call for leaving the territories immediately, unilaterally,” said Tanya, “just as we did in Lebanon.”

I think she’s right.