For as long as I can remember, the fate of Palestinians living under Israeli rule or in refugee camps in nearby Arab countries was a central concern for publics in the Arab world. Arab citizens, moreover, remained resolutely opposed to normalizing diplomatic, trade, and other relations with Israel before the latter withdrew from the West Bank and Gaza and permitted the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
Recently, James Zogby, a respected Arab-American pollster, discovered through his own surveys in the Middle East that Arab public opinion has shifted rather dramatically. This is how he describes his new and surprising polling results:
- A “sea change” in Arab public opinion on the importance of the Palestinian issue. For decades, Israel-Palestine were at the top of the Arab public’s priorities, Now, they ranked “in the bottom tier” of concern in every Arab country he polled.
- “Significant majorities in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE [United Arab Emirates], moreover, felt it would be desirable for some Arab states to pursue normalization [with Israel] even without peace. Opinion was evenly divided in Lebanon, with four out of ten Palestinians also agreeing.”
- A majority of respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates favored the UAE’s recent decision to recognize Israel and establish diplomatic relations in return for an Israeli commitment to non-annexation of the West Bank.
- The deal between the UAE and Israel has led to a significant drop in public support for annexation among Israel Jews. A dramatic Arab peace overture, in other words, has softened Jewish Israeli public opinion towards the Palestinians.
Peace is not about to break out anytime soon; Jewish settlements in the West Bank are still huge obstacles to peace, are are the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees seeking to return to their homes inside Israel, along with corruption and political paralysis within both the Israeli and Palestinian political classes. Gaza is under the control of Hamas, rather than the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, and the Israeli hard right – religious and otherwise – is still able to block meaningful Israeli concessions.
Still, the Zogby polling results are remarkable and offer some ground for hope. Arab public opinion is shifting, and there is more openness towards trying new ways of persuading Israel to make peace. The more Arab countries’ reach out to Israel, moreover, the less extreme Jewish Israeli positions become.
I used to think that Israeli-Palestinian peace would never occur in my lifetime. My family moved to Israel in the 1970s, and I served in the military in the mid-1980s. In the early 1990s, I became a human rights activist of sorts, traveling throughout Palestine collecting testimony about Israeli military misdeeds. I left Israel in 1993 to pursue graduate studies in the US, exhausted and disgusted by majority Jewish Israeli attitudes towards Palestinians. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the growth of Jewish settlements, myriad wars in Gaza and Lebanon, and the never-ending rule of Bibi Netanyahu have made me even more discouraged.
These new set of polls, however, reveal that major changes are afoot. For the first time in a long while, I see some room for hope. Wow.