Polls: Israeli Public Opinion on the Golan and Syria

With the breakdown of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the decision of the Israeli government not to renew a West Bank building freeze, and the PA to seek unilateral recognition of statehood in Latin America, things are not looking good (as usual) for the Middle East peace process. Yet, for better or for worse, there is an attitude among Israeli political elites and the international community at large that even if the prospects for peace are abysmal, negotiations must continue.

Now that the Israeli-Palestinian peace track is again deadlocked, some in Israel and, more prominently, the American administration have begun looking again across the northern border to Syria. Both Israel and the United States have an interest in delinking the Assad regime from its alliance with Iran and their continued open support of Hamas and Hezbollah. In apparently secret contacts between the US government and Damascus, Syria has expressed a willingness to do just this. The price tag, they have consistently argued, is a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

Israelis remain skeptical of these claims. Syria, since the 1993 Oslo Accords, has made irregular peace overtures to Israel while often simultaneously implicitly or explicitly threatening war. Indeed, even as the Syrian regime suggested that it might be willing to break its alliance with Iran and join the “moderate” Arab states in cooperation with the United States, they were building a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Destroyed by Israel in September 2007, the Syrians still deny the nature of the program despite significant evidence to the contrary.

Israelis, moreover, view the Golan as a critical security asset which is necessary for the defense of their country from a hostile neighbor. Between 1949 and 1967, the northern communities of Israel were subject to regular shelling by the Syrian military from the Heights, which was also used as the launching ground for the failed Syrian invasion of Israel in 1967. With its capture in 1967, Israeli politicians and the security establishment quickly set it aside as an area from which they were especially reticent to withdraw. With Israeli settlement of the territory beginning with Merom Golan in July 1967 and full annexation of the territory in December 1981, the popular Israeli attitude toward withdrawal has consistently been in the negative.

As with previous posts examining Israeli public opinion, I am drawing most of the data here from survey research conducted on behalf of the Peace Index, a project of the Evens Program for Conflict Resolution at Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute. The raw data cited here can be found on their website: http://www.peaceindex.org. Every monthly survey includes between 500 and 600 respondents and exact calculations of measurement error for each survey can be found in their monthly reports.

Here I am highlighting the responses to two questions: “What is your position on full peace with Syria in exchange for full withdrawal from the Golan?” and “In the coming years, will there be peace between Israel and Syria?” Each question is graded on a 5-point scale with a medial “so-so” category (ככה ככב) as well as a possible “don’t know” response. The results here are derived from December surveys with the exception of November 1999, July 2003, November 2004, August 2007, and November 2008 when both questions were not posed in December. The Peace Index did not pose questions related to the Golan or Syria in 2005, 2009, or 2010.

golan-withdrawal-poll

What is your position on full peace with Syria in exchange for full withdrawal from the Golan?

 

Strongly Support

Support

So-so

Against

Strongly Against

Don’t Know

1995 17.1 14.5 20.5 17.2 28.1 2.6
1996 10.1 14.6 18.6 21.7 31.3 3.7
1997 10.3 16.3 15.5 15.8 38.2 3.9
1998 14.4 12.9 20 15.2 33.9 3.6
1999 10.6 12.6 13 10.9 47 5.8
2000 9.1 19.5 7.8 14.3 44.9 4.4
2001 9.5 10.5 14.7 14.7 47.9 2.8
2002 10.7 11.3 11.7 13.7 48.4 4.2
2003 9.7 12 13.1 16.3 46.2 2.7
2004 10.2 14.1 16.7 13.7 42.5 2.7
2006 6.6 10.7 9.8 19.9 50.4 2.7
2007 7.9 8.3 9.6 13.3 59 1.9
2008 10 10 16.2 13 46.8 4.4

For the periods selected, hard opposition to full withdrawal from the Golan always represents the strong plurality of the responses climbing to a majority by 2006 and dropping again in 2008. In no period between 1996 and 2007 did simple support for withdrawal outweigh simple opposition, and indeed, opposition was the majority opinion in every period with the exception of 1995 (45.3%) and 1998 (49.1%) Simple opposition reached its highest point in 2007 at 72.3% (the same year as Israel bombed Syria’s clandestine nuclear facility). Simple support was highest in 1995 at 31.6% about a year after the Oslo process began.

peace-with-syria-poll

In the coming years, will there be peace between Israel and Syria?

Definitely Yes

Yes

So-so

No

Definitely No

Don’t Know

1996 6.2 27.7 18 27.2 15.5 5.4
1997 6.8 27.2 17.9 26.3 17.3 4.5
1998 6.9 30.4 21.1 21.4 16.9 3.4
1999 7.6 31.4 14.2 19 21.5 6.3
2000 5 31 9.5 29.2 20.2 4.4
2001 3.6 20.4 18.4 30.3 22.8 4.6
2002 2.6 16.6 16.6 27.1 29.1 7.3
2003 2.9 27.1 19.1 23.3 22.2 5.4
2004 3.7 27.5 19.2 24.7 22 2.9
2006 1 17.6 20.3 29.3 27.3 4.5
2007 4.6 14.8 17.7 23 34.6 5.3

For the second question, responses were not given in 1995 or 2008. For the remaining periods, strong disbelieve in peace with Syria was highest in 2007 at 34.6% while strong believe was highest, although only at 7.6%, in 1999. Simple belief that peace with Syria would be achieved peaked in 1999 at 36%, while simple disbelief also peaked in 2007 at 57.6%. Unlike opposition to withdrawal from the Golan, belief in peace is more evenly distributed between the yes, so-so, no, and definitely no categories with no consistently predominant value. Definitely yes remains the consistently weakest response.

peace-syria-attitudes

Aggregate Support and Opposition to Golan withdrawal and Aggregate Belief and Disbelief in Peace with Syria

 

Support

Against

Yes

No

1995 31.6 45.3    
1996 24.7 53 33.9 42.7
1997 26.6 54 34 43.6
1998 27.3 49.1 37.3 38.3
1999 23.2 57.9 39 40.5
2000 28.6 59.2 36 49.4
2001 20 62.6 24 53.1
2002 22 62.1 19.2 56.2
2003 21.7 62.5 30 45.5
2004 24.3 56.2 31.2 46.7
2006 17.3 70.3 18.6 56.6
2007 16.2 72.3 19.4 57.6
2008 20 59.8    

Visual examination of trends in support and opposition to withdrawal from the Golan do appear to be correlated with belief and disbelief in the prospects for peace with Syria. It does appear to be much less so than the apparent relationship between Israeli support for the Palestinian peace track and expectations that it will lead to peace. However, the latter relationship does not necessarily take into account territorial withdrawal and displacement of Israeli citizens.

As to why the relationship would be weak, it may be reasonable to hypothesize on several levels: 1) Israeli experience vis-à-vis Syria has led to a strong distrust and an unwillingness to make significant concessions even in exchange for peace. 2) Israelis have enjoyed a relatively quiet northern border with Syria (although not with Lebanon) and may believe that quiet without territorial concessions is preferable to an uncertain peace with territorial concessions. 3) As with attitudes toward withdrawal from settlements in the West Bank, Israelis may be more willing to accept partial withdrawals than total ones.

One question asked by the Peace Index fairly consistently between 1994 and 1997 inquired how much territory Israelis would be willing to concede territory to Syria in exchange for peace: all of the Golan, a partial withdrawal, or none at all. Although the final category hovered between around 35-50%, comparable to the “strongly against” category regarding a full withdrawal for peace, a partial withdrawal received support between 30-40%. Full withdrawal was consistently the weakest category typically between 15-23%. As with the Palestinian track, then, it might be that Israelis would be more open to territorial concessions when demands are open to negotiation.

2 Responses to Polls: Israeli Public Opinion on the Golan and Syria

  1. […] that he is ready to “give it,” but it is not the right time. However, in the end, it is really the public who will give him the power to keep the Golan or give it […]

  2. Liam Getreu says:

    […] showed that more people reject the idea of giving up the Golan at roughly the same level (see these two polls) dividing Jerusalem. Think about that — an area that Jews have virtually no religious […]

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