Poll shows public endorsement of two-state solution in Middle East

Public opinion in Israel and Palestine suggests that a two-state solution to the conflict should be easier to achieve than power sharing in Northern Ireland, a British academic says. Polling also shows that most people living in the Middle East want peace. By Malachy Browne

For the past fifteen months, a team of researchers headed by Dr Colin Irwin of the University of Liverpool has been measuring public opinion in the Middle East on issues deemed to be at the heart of the conflict. Questionnaires were framed based on  the main issues (and solutions) identified by politicians and people living in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

Respondents gave one of five possible views on key issues (such as new borders, Israeli settlements, political structures):

  • essential;
  • desirable;
  • acceptable;
  • tolerable, or
  • unacceptable.

Colin Irwin has conducted similar studies in Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and Kashmir. He presented his findings on the Middle East at a meeting in Europe House, Dublin last Friday, organised by Pronsias de Rossa.

The standout statistic is the overwhelming support for a negotiated peace, with 79 per cent of Israelis and 71 per cent of Palestinians rating it as either ‘essential’ or ‘desirable’. Support for the much touted two-state solution to the conflict is also promising with only 21 per cent of Israelis and 24 per cent of Palestinians deeming it an ‘unacceptable’ outcome.

In fact, equating power sharing in Northern Ireland to the two-state solution proposed for Israel/Palestine, Irwin says that in terms of “basic constitutional principles… [a two-state solution] should be much easier to reach”. In the Northern Ireland peace process, almost twice as many were opposed to power sharing, with 40 per cent of respondents deeming it unacceptable -  comprising 52 per cent of Protestants and 27 per cent of Catholics.

Colin Irwin’s polling system is rather deliberately composed. He says, “critically, those being interviewed had four chances to say ‘yes’, and only one chance to say ‘no’ [by ticking unacceptable]”. Hence, the polls demonstrate what may be possible to achieve in negotiations and what is clearly unworkable.

There was other positive, or rather ‘not negative’, feedback. Only 23 per cent of Israeli respondents thought it unacceptable that ‘Israel should freeze settlements as a first step to deal with settlements’. Similarly, 23 per cent of Palestinians were opposed to ‘Stop firing rockets from Gaza’ (Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank were polled).

The curtailment of ever-expanding Israeli settlements became a precondition to negotiations around the time of the poll (in March 2009). Irwin had hoped that revealing public opinion on the matter would diminish the issue politically, as had happened with certain issues in Northern Ireland. Instead, he says, media reportage was allowed to be dominated by partisan polling “from an Israeli perspective on an Israeli agenda… culminating in an apparent ‘win’ for Netanyahu [on settlements]”.

However, while support for peace and a two-state solution are relatively strong, certain other issues prove to be more contentious when polled individually, not least the future of Jerusalem. The option to ‘Divide the city according to Palestinian and Israeli neighbourhoods’ was unacceptable to 55 per cent of Israelis and 61 per cent of Palestinians.

Again, Irwin believes that the Northern Ireland process may be instructive in this instance. Rebranding the RUC under a new name was equally sensitive in the North. Disbanding the RUC completely was unacceptable to 82 per cent of Protestants, and renaming the RUC was initially unacceptable to 59 per cent of Protestants. However, when “worked on, rephrased…. and tested as one element in a package [for settlement]” resistance to rebranding the RUC fell to 48 per cent among Protestants. Similarly, Irwin feels that parcelling individually contentious issues as part of a larger package for public opinion may work in the Middle Eastern context.

The importance of public dialogue

Some of Colin Irwin’s comparisons with Northern Ireland may seem profusely optimistic for the Middle East given the depth (and unfairness) of the divisions that exist. Irwin concedes that the regional and global contexts also differ considerably between the North and the Middle East. In the Northern process, Britain, Ireland the US and EU were all agreed on pushing for a settlement, he says. However, the Middle Eastern neighbours of Israel and Palestine are not all “on the same page”.

He has a point in saying that, regional contexts aside and political obstinacy aside, public dialogue demonstrates whether or not the people of Palestine and Israel could reach a consensus if politicians and international community were in agreement.

He concedes that polls are meaningless unless politicians act correspondingly, and that often, political obduracy is the only thing that prevents progress. Indeed, the Northern Peace Process was criticised for proceeding only as fast as the most reluctant constituents.

However, this is not always the case. According to Irwin, after George Mitchell, the US Special Envoy to the Middle East, presented the cross-community statistics on a two-state solution to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister softened his stance on the two-state solution.

Irwin says that in the past opinion polling was mismanaged in the Middle East, with each side to the conflict conducting partisan polls within their respective communities. This was detrimental to the political negotiations by misinforming respective parties and not taking account of each community.

Irwin also says that “lots of Israelis don’t understand what it is like to live in occupied territories, and there is a tremendous disconnect”. He believes that public dialogue can overcome this disconnect by helping “to bring the public along, and to inform them” as to the views of the other.

The sample* for this poll is perhaps not fully representative of Israel and Palestine. Notwithstanding this, the statistics are promising considering they represent the mood within two months of Israel’s near-obliteration of Gaza in January 2009.

Nine such polls were done during the Northern Peace process and reported upon extensively in the media. Regrettably, international support for the process in the Middle East is less forthcoming - the very reason behind the smaller sample populations and Colin Irwin’s pro-bono work.