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Machiavelli, Public Opinion, and Arab-Israeli Peace (Part I)

2 Jan


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Vox populi, vox Dei (The voice of the people is the voice of God). Machiavelli uses this dictum to urge the Prince, who has law and force on his side, to consider even a dictator cannot ignore the will of the people.

In the context of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, specifically between Israel and the Palestinians, this lesson implies a simple truth: There is no achieving peace unless you have the people’s support.

This is precisely why I was troubled by the latest survey of Palestinian public opinion by The Israel Project.  Conducted in October 2010 by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the poll asked Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank if they favor peace talks with Israel. Paradoxically, a majority (61%) favor direct negotiations with Israel and a majority (58%) also agree with the statement “This is a time for armed struggle” as opposed to “engagement with Israel.” And while 60% said they “accept a two-state solution,” the same percentage of respondents also agreed that “the real goal should be to start with two states but then move it to all being one Palestinian state.” Two-thirds of respondents also agreed that Israel does not have a permanent right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, and “over time Palestinians must work to get back all the land for a Palestinian state.”

On the face of it, this confirms the argument of the Israeli Right, which contends that Palestinians object to Israel’s existence within any borders and the two-state solution is really a two-stage solution to establish “Palestine from the river to the sea.

However, a poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) from around the same time found that “a majority [of Palestinians] (71%) is opposed to the abandonment of the two-state solution and the adoption of a one-state solution while 57% is opposed to return to armed intifada.”

Which poll to believe?

First, let’s analyze what each poll is actually asking.

The Israel Project poll offered a choice between armed struggle and engagement with Israel. Between these two choices, Palestinians chose armed struggle. However, the PSR poll asked respondents to support or oppose each statement individually and offered additional options like going to the UN Security Council, a unilateral declaration of statehood, and resort to non-violent resistance. Each of these options received slightly more support from Palestinians than armed struggle. Possible conclusion: While Palestinians may find armed struggle preferable to direct engagement with Israel, they currently do not see it as their primary recourse. (Although even this conclusion does not explain how Palestinians are against engagement with Israel but for negotiations, which would qualify as engagement.)

On whether Palestinians support or reject a one-state solution, the polls seem to differ again. The key is how they define “one-state solution.” The former poll defines it as “one Palestinian state,” meaning Palestine replacing Israel, which a majority of Palestinians agreed should be their real goal. The latter poll defined a “one-state solution” as a bi-national state, which the Palestinians do not prefer.

Does this “Palestine from the River to the Sea” sentiment reflect innocuous wishful thinking or does it imply that a majority of Palestinians are actually in agreement with the Hamas charter, which officially calls for the elimination of Israel?

I will discuss this question and its implications in a later post. For now, think about it.  And while you’re at it, become a fan on the  Street Smart Politics Facebook page.

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