The Insecure Leading the Confused: Public Opinion and Settlement Policy In Israel

Trying to answer if and how Israeli public opinion effects settlement policy is a tough question to answer and does not yield clear answers, yet the pursuit of those elusive answers is still very illuminating and worthwhile.

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse April 28, 2018

by Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter@bfry1981) April 28th, 2018

Israeli financial Minister Netanyahu, Prime Minister Sharon and Vice Premier Peres attend a session at the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem. (L-R) Israeli financial Minister and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Vice Premier Shimon Peres attend a session at the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, February 14, 2005. Israeli security services are stepping up protection of public officials after death threats against cabinet ministers by militant Jews opposed to a planned pullout from the Gaza Strip, officials said on Sunday. Incitement and threats against officials in favour of the withdrawal have reached such a peak that the daughter of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wrote in an open letter that the “writing is on the wall” for another assassination. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen – RTRNBK4

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AMMAN — Israeli public opinion is, to quote The Economist, “a remarkably forgetful and fickle force.” The same can be said for Israeli politics in general. So it is hardly a stretch to say that measuring Israeli public opinion’s effects on Israeli policy is a significant challenge. And one of the most controversial of all of Israel’s policies over the years has been that of creating and expanding Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory over several decades. Especially given what a lightning-rod issue the settlements are and, in typical Israeli fashion, how complicated everything about them has become, this is a question worth asking.

Challenging Data for a Challenging Question

Almost as soon as I began this project, I knew there were many challenges that would make it impossible for any kind of definitive, clear, unqualified conclusions to emerge from this exploration, in the sense that public opinion cannot simply be said to be Variable A affecting settlement policy, Variable B, in such-and-such a way.

Such simplicity is as elusive as the “Two-State Solution” itself.

For one thing, Israel is a small country, and though it is powerful for its size, it is subject to a remarkable amount of factors from within and without, and its sensitive reactions to these factors are often intense, with Israel’s increasingly volatile neighborhood (and often volatile involvement in that neighborhood) only compounding these effects. Therefore, rather than look at public opinion and settlement policy as some sort of isolated factors, it is essential to account, at the very least, for some of the other major forces that can account for shifts in policy and opinion. Thus, when I was assembling my data points, I knew it would be essential to frame shifts in both Israeli public opinion and Israeli settlement policy against the backdrop of the more salient events affecting Israel, generally, those that could generally affect the feelings of Israelis and, specifically, those that could affect settlement policy. This approach should be more than obvious in the dataset I have uploaded here (this will be an ongoing project, so check back frequently for changes).

As time went on and I looked more and more at the different surveys, I also realized that measuring public opinion in Israel carries a unique set of challenges in contrast to studying similar subjects in the United States. 

The U.S. is a huge country, with hundreds of millions of people spread across a continent; Israel has far less than even ten million people squeezed into a tiny sliver of the Mediterranean coast. During major U.S. elections, political polls are ubiquitous, and even not during election cycles, major issues are polled often. Whatever the polls, there are usually long histories of polling by that firm and other major polling firms, asking relatively similar questions and often the same questions.

Israeli political polling is another beast entirely: there are far, far fewer pollsters, and there is little consistency in how questions are phrased between pollsters and, sometimes, even with the same polling outfit. Also, because there are far fewer data points the polling data must be taken with much more of a grain of salt than American polling.

We simply don’t have ten or even twelve years of data that says “Do you approve or disapprove of Israeli settlements?” What this means is that there is a broad array of approaches to categorizing the data and presenting it. The only agenda I pursued in my presentation was one of simplicity, and I take responsibility for the costs such an approach carries. For example, instead of a question asking “Are you for or against evacuating settlements?” a question might ask “Are you a.) for removing all settlements b.) for removing most settlements except major ones near the Green Line [i.e., 1967 borders] c.) for removing settlements from the Green Line and illegal outposts d.) for removing illegal outposts e.) against any removals?” In this case, I would (and basically did) combine a.), b.), and c.) to refer to serious support for full or partial settlement removal, ignored d.) as not really being conclusive of sentiment supporting settlement removal in general, and took e.) for being against removal. Other may have found it more beneficial to include all these nuances or created different categories and groupings. I opted for the ones I chose, again, for the sake of simplicity, but I welcome comments and suggestions.

Even with the limitations and subjective approach I took, I still feel there is value in looking at this data thus arrayed, and I can say with confidence that no one else has undertaken a similar effort as comprehensive as mine, at least not in English but also not likely in Hebrew, either. As imperfect as the data may be, it can still help to give a relative sense of the forces at work. See the dataset here (data does not include East Jerusalem)

The Inconsistent Effects of Public Opinion on Israeli Settlement Policy

Looking at my (provisional) compilation of the data, in the years just before the Palestinians’ First Intifada (uprising) at the end of 1987, over half of Israelis (as high as 57%) were inclined to annex Palestinian land in part or in full, therefore making many or all the settlements permanent Israeli communities, and support for “land for peace” initiatives was below 50% (as low as 39%). In reaction to the (relatively moderate-to-low-scale) violence of the Intifada, public opinion reversed: sentiment supporting “land for peace” began to steadily increase, and support for annexation dipped below 50% and continued to decline as the Intifada continued. By 1991, the positions has essentially reversed, with one poll showing 58% for “land for peace” style ideas and only 40% for annexation.

Yet with the exception of a small dip in 1989, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s hardline government continued with steady settlement population increases and construction expansion, with the highest settler population increases in 1987 and 1991, which also had dramatically higher percentage increases in settlement construction (over 144% and over 314%, respectively). Though the latter coincided with the peak years of the Soviet-Jewish Aliya (immigration) to Israel, U.S. president George H. W. Bush still felt that Shamir’s government was going far too far on settlements, and exerted heavy pressure on him and Israel to curtail settlement growth and construction. Along with changing public sentiment, this helped precipitate the rise of Yitzhak Rabin’s pro-peace Labor government in 1992, which would severely curtail settlement construction, though not so much settlement population growth. 

Here would be one of the times that Israeli public opinion on settlements seemed to lead and push Israel, its politicians, and its government on settlement policy. 

The year before and year of Rabin’s assassination were two of the deadliest years in all of the 1990s for Israelis in terms of Palestinian violence, and, according to one survey, sympathy for settlers among the Israeli public rose in the year after Rabin’s assassination, even as settlement activity was being curtailed. This same year was when Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud, pro-settlement forces pushed Labor out of power, and it is ironic that under Netanyahu’s three years in power, sentiment (with some vacillation) seemed to increase and remain high for “land for peace” (60s and high 50s) initiatives and for evacuating settlements (high 60s/low 70s), while support for annexation was far lower than before (mid-20s). Yet Netanyahu—who had himself hold the housing ministry responsible for settlement construction along with the office of prime minister for the entirety of his prime ministership—pushed ahead robustly with settlement expansion.

This may in part help to explain the rise of Labor and peace candidate Ehud Barak’s government in 1999, under whose watch public opinion in several surveys increased sharply against settlements and rise sharply for “land for peace.”

But this would be short-lived. Under the intense diplomatic efforts of U.S. President Bill Clinton, Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat engaged in intense U.S.-mediated negotiations in 2000, and settlement expansion activity by the Israeli government accordingly fell sharply. But these talks fell apart, with some encouragement by Barak’s rival, Likudnik Ariel Sharon, who could have been fairly said to have helped instigate the Second Intifada late in 2000. Amidst a dramatic rise in violence—far worse than anything during the First Intifada and the rest of the 1990s—Sharon, the famously harsh warrior, toppled Barak’s government amid plummeting support for “land for peace” and settlement evacuation, a pessimism that was only reinforced by the 9/11 attacks in America.

Previously, Labor had ridden waves of anti-settlement and pro-“land for peace” sentiment with Rabin and Barak, and Likud had tried (but failed) to lead public opinion with Netanyahu. Sharon, it seems, would succeed where Netanyahu had failed. But Sharon would have a unique and surprising agenda: even while crushing the Palestinian uprising with overwhelming force, Sharon would shepherd his people towards a historic disengagement, a sort of a “land for peace” led by an archconservative, much like strong anti-Communist Nixon would credibly able to normalize relations with Mao’s China.

Under Sharon, Arafat died and the settler population steadily if moderately expanded, even as Sharon withdrew all 8,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005 (even allowing for that, both the settler population and settlement construction saw a net increase that year), though Sharon’s government definitely curtailed construction of new units.

The pullout from Gaza caused a rift in the pro-settler Likud party, so much so that Sharon broke off and formed a new, centrist Kadima party, which led a new government that would significantly curtail support for settlement expansion. 

But the next year, Sharon would fall into a coma, while Hamas would win elections in the evacuated Gaza Strip and Israel would become embroiled in an embarrassing and controversial war in Lebanon. Amidst these developments, Israeli anti-settler and “land for peace” sentiment fell sharply, even as Sharon’s Kadima successor, Ehud Olmert, would risk major peace talks with Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas in 2008. When these fell apart, more conflict in Gaza ensued and set the stage for Netanyahu’s comeback as prime minister. Since then, opinion has been conflicted, with volatile opinions on whether settlements should be evacuated and a tightening of pro/con land-for-peace sentiment and an increase in pro-annexation sentiment up until the major conflict with Gaza in 2014. Sentiment on settlements under Netanyahu remained divided up through 2014, so it seems ironically fitting that in his right-wing, pro-settler government, a moderate has been giving the housing ministry. The major declines in government support for the settlers during this period coincided with Obama’s first-term pressure on Israel to freeze settlement activity and his second-term peace effort, led by John Kerry.

Conclusion: It’s Complicated

In summary, there is no overall consistent effect of public opinion on settlement policy. In the 90s, Labor seemed to chase public sentiment as it turned against settlements and for “land-for-peace,” but violence and an assassination meant this did not lead to any long-term peace deal or long-term change in settlement policy. Likud tried twice—first, failing, second, succeeding—to shape public opinion and succeeded, but that led to a strong-willed Sharon forming a new party, and his coma mirrored Rabin’s assassination attempt in seeing efforts fail before new leadership acted to halt new trends in government policy, in both cases, Netanyahu. Thus, it would seem public opinion is at best only as strong a factor as individual leadership, violence from Palestinians, American pressure, and other x-factor events, and that opinion is highly susceptible to all of these factors. It is public opinion that is more variable then, when compared with relatively consistent settlement policy, perhaps best exemplified in the net increases in settlement construction and population growth the same year Sharon took about 8,500 settlers out of Gaza. 

Thus, whether public opinion shapes settlement policy depends on a number of factors, and is hardly the most dominant of factors affecting that policy.

© 2018 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer, academic, and consultant from the New York City area currently based in Amman, Jordan. You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981

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