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What Are They So Happy About?

Ron Skolnik
December 16, 2011

Trying to Explain Israeli Polling Data

by Ron Skolnik

If things in Israel are so bad, how can they be so good? That’s the paradoxical question that formulated in my brain as I perused the surprising results of a string of public opinion polls commissioned and published by Israel’s newspapers on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. They found that the vast majority of Israelis are happy with their lot and generally pleased with the national situation.

Even under normal circumstances, these results would have seemed counter-intuitive. After all, Israel is generally regarded as a country in perennial crisis, plagued by growing international isolation, hostile neighbors, and chronic internal conflict. A happy nation is not what you expect to read about.

What was especially curious was that just weeks earlier, a whopping 80 to 90 percent of Israelis had told pollsters that they supported the social justice movement -— a result that could only be interpreted as an expression of intense popular dissatisfaction with the status quo. Yet the Rosh Hashanah polls showed that 68.9 percent of Jewish Israelis are either “very satisfied” (22.5 percent) or “rather satisfied” (46.4 percent) with their lives, while only 6.7 percent said they were “not at all” satisfied. Only 11 percent said they would consider emigrating from Israel, compared to 88 percent who wouldn’t. A hefty 76.5 percent were “very optimistic” or “optimistic” about their own lives in the coming year, and a healthy 55 percent were optimistic about the national situation during the year to come, versus 37.5 percent who were pessimistic (with less than a quarter of the pessimists categorizing themselves as “very pessimistic”). These are public opinion numbers that President Obama can only dream about!

Knowing that the poll had been commissioned by the right-wing Makor Rishon newspaper, I trolled for other, “better” data. A poll commissioned by Maariv, however, didn’t prove much different: 74 percent of Israeli Jews said they were optimistic about the country’s strength and resilience, while a pride in being Israeli yielded a robust score of seven on a one-to-ten scale.

Still unconvinced, I made my way to a survey of the highly respected Dahaf Institute — but lo and behold, the poll’s results again confounded my expectations. Commissioned by Israel’s largest-circulation newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, Dahaf found that 88 percent of Israelis (both Jews and Arabs) believe Israel is a good place to live, 74 percent defined their economic situation as “good,” 88 percent said their general mood was positive, and six out of ten described Israel’s security situation as “good.”

I was aware that Israel had been nicknamed a “start-up nation,” but I hadn’t gotten the memo about Israel becoming a “feel-good society”! It just didn’t make sense when, only two months earlier, more than 80 percent of Israelis polled by Haaretz had agreed that the social justice movement was being fueled by “real distress,” while a poll by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute had found 70 percent of Israelis concerned about their country’s international standing in light of the protracted conflict with the Palestinians.

I probed further. Could it be that the general good mood in Israel was the result of some new-found hope for the peace process?

A logical explanation of Israel’s high spirits was not to be found here, either. In fact, Israelis seem more pessimistic than ever about the prospects for peace, and less willing to make concessions. Maariv reported that only 23 percent of Israeli Jews believe there is a “good chance” of reaching peace with the Palestinians, while a full 54 percent saw “no chance at all” (another 23 percent saw a “small chance”). Makor Rishon’s poll produced similar findings: Only 16 percent of Jewish Israelis “definitely agree” that there is a chance for peace, with triple that number, 48 percent, saying “no chance” and another 33 percent calling themselves “skeptical.” To cap it off, Yediot/Dahaf found that two-thirds of all Israelis, Jewish and Arab combined, believe, “there will never be peace with the Palestinians” (emphasis added).

What, then, was the source of their emotional buoyancy?

In March of last year, I had written for my organization’s on-line publication that “Israel’s part-fence, part-wall barrier has not only added security . . . Psychologically, it has severed the average Israeli’s sense of responsibility for what goes on under the Occupation on the other side: Out of sight, out of mind, as it were — except when spasms of violence temporarily upset the general equilibrium.” The Rosh Hashanah poll results substantiated this analysis -— that with terrorism down over the past years, thanks in large part to the improved security cooperation of the Palestinian Authority forces in the West Bank, Israelis are happy to push the difficult question of war and peace to the back burner. Pessimism about peace prospects therefore does not translate to pessimism overall because Israelis have essentially tuned out the “Palestinian problem” as a day-to-day concern.

Asked in the Yediot poll what the most important event of the past year had been, for example, less than one of three Israelis pointed to issues having to do with the country’s Arab neighbors (18 percent referred to the Arab Spring and only 12 percent to Palestinian moves at the United Nations). The other 70 percent cited events that were completely domestic in nature, including the deadly fire in the Carmel forest (27 percent), the social-justice protests (24 percent), the strike by medical residents and interns (8 percent), and the rape conviction of former President Moshe Katzav.

Similarly, a poll commissioned by Maariv found that 73 percent of Jewish Israelis cited domestic concerns when asked about “the most important issue for the upcoming year” (37 percent said “education” and 36 percent “reducing poverty and the cost of living”). Less than one of five Israeli Jews mentioned “peace with the Palestinians.”

Israel polls obsessively to gauge support for the various political parties. These polls, too, have recently made it clear that pessimism about peace is doing little to dampen Israeli optimism. To the contrary, Israel’s two main opposition parties were experiencing a reversal of fortune that was very much the result of the public’s inward focus. Labor’s star was rising with a new party chief, MK Shelly Yachimovich, who is closely identified with Israelis’ bread-and-butter concerns, while Kadima continued to sink under the leadership of Tzipi Livni, who has branded herself as a sober alternative to Netanyahu in the diplomatic arena but has failed to stake a claim as a populist economic leader. (No surprise here: As director-general of the Government Corporations Authority between 1996 and ’99, Livni helped to propel the much-reviled policy of privatization during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first term.)

Remarkably, from August 1st to September 30th, as hundreds of thousands of Israelis protested in the streets, support for the ruling Likud party and other parties in the governing coalition was essentially unchanged. Even the protest atmosphere had not prompted Israelis to want to ‘throw the bums out.”

What, then, should we make of conflicting data about the domestic scene, which showed wall-to-wall support for social-justice protests alongside an equal amount of sanguinity and well-being? Scouring the polls for statistical clues about this, I found little that would reconcile the seeming contradiction — until an otherwise unremarkable editorial on the Israeli YNet News website offered a promising new perspective. Writing over the summer in support of the nascent protest movement, columnist Yehuda Nuriel suggested that it was as much about reviving Israel’s familial sense of national solidarity as it was about the principles of social democracy. “[H]ere is the Zionism we almost lost,” Nuriel gushed, explaining that the protest encampments had allowed “Israelis from all walks of life [to] meet . . . each other, like relatives who had never met.”

Interesting! The idea that the masses of Israelis who had supported the social-justice protests had been less motivated by a sense of fairness and equality than by a more tribal need to reconnect with “kinfolk” in a spirit of self-defense rang a bell for me. During the days of the yishuv, Zionists had endured the difficult struggle for statehood by invoking such principles as arvut hadadit (mutual responsibility), derived from the old Talmudic injunction, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh,” “All Jews are responsible for each other.” Throughout the decades, Jewish Israelis have prided themselves on their ability to overcome their differences and come together as a nation during time of war.

I recalled the words of a leading Israeli peace activist, who analyzed the wave of orchestrated incitement against the country’s human-rights organizations that ratcheted up significantly after the 2009 election of Netanyahu. Israel’s right-wing government, she argued, was well aware that it was directing the country towards a confrontation with the rest of the world. With the Jewish state again facing pariah status, the right knew that Israel could get by only if it felt united in purpose and resolve, and the way to achieve this, the activist reasoned, was to scapegoat a small minority of citizens by branding them as agents of foreign governments and inimical to Israel’s security interests.

Regardless of whether or not this particular theory holds water, Israelis are indeed facing a period of enormous international criticism that is feeding a nationalist response. Most notably, Defense Minister Ehud Barak publicly warned in March that the country would soon face an anti-Israel “tsunami,” leading to “isolation and delegitimization.” As the Palestinians geared up over the summer to apply for UN membership, Israelis braced for a national crisis.

Perhaps what drove most Israelis to protest, therefore, was indeed an inchoate desire to recapture a fading feeling of national togetherness — to evoke the feeling of a golden age when Israelis lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, not in order to find common ground with their neighbors but to stand strong against them.

The hypothesis reconciles the strong support for this summer’s spirit with poll respondents’ insistence that the economy is actually doing just fine. It explains the continuing strong support for a right-wing government that is identified with inequality but that nonetheless rallies the nation against perceived common threats. It meshes with the increasing insularity of Israeli citizens, who seem inclined to ignore the Occupation if at all possible and are much more concerned about hostile foreigners “meddling” in their affairs.

Nonetheless, a hypothesis is just a hypothesis, more than idle speculation but far less than proven “fact.” Hopefully, the hypothesis presented here will be borne out in light of future developments and serve as a useful tool to predict and decipher the reactions of Israel’s body politic. If not, I’ll be back to the drawing board to find another explanation for this happiest of unhappy nations.

Ron Skolnik is executive director of Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA), a non-profit organization that supports a genuine peace between the State of Israel and its neighbors (including the Palestinian people) based on a negotiated land-for-peace solution.