The Core Beliefs behind Palestinian Public Opinion

No progress on peace will be possible until and unless “Palestine” becomes a pragmatic political project rather than a religious-ideological cause célèbre.

Palestinian protesters hold up a makeshift Israeli flag, with a swastika replacing the Star of David, during a demonstration in the West Bank city of Hebron on October 16, 2015. HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images.
Palestinian protesters hold up a makeshift Israeli flag, with a swastika replacing the Star of David, during a demonstration in the West Bank city of Hebron on October 16, 2015. HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images.
Nov. 17 2015
About the author

Amir Taheri, formerly the executive editor (1972-79) of Iran’s main daily newspaper, is the author of twelve books and a columnist for the Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat.

No surprises here: that’s the conclusion a reader might draw after making his way through “What Do Palestinians Want?,” Daniel Polisar’s comprehensive essay in Mosaic on Palestinian public opinion. Based on hundreds of polls conducted by different organizations over the years, Polisar’s study confirms, or rather reconfirms, that a large majority of Palestinians think the worst of Israel on all issues related to it.

One question worth asking at the outset is to what extent it is possible to know what Palestinians really think about Israel. Is the survey method, initially designed for marketing purposes and later applied to electoral politics in Western democracies, the most productive means of obtaining an accurate picture in a context removed from both commercial considerations and political trends in pluralist societies?

In the surveys examined by Polisar, questions are posed and Palestinians respond to them from an already fixed position and with no regard to fact, let alone argument. Why did the 1997 peace negotiations fail? The answer is clear: it was Israel’s fault! Who won the third Gaza war? Also clear: Hamas! Even on questions about personal attitudes rather than particular events, one can guess the answer in advance. Does Israel have a secret plan to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque and replace it with a synagogue? Yes! What is the most violent religion under the sun? Judaism!


There are deeper factors at work here, and I’ll return to them; but for the moment let’s stick with the problems intrinsic to the polling method itself. Western-style polling is useful and effective when the population surveyed is in a “serial” mode. An example of a serial population is a crowd waiting at a bus stop. Its members agree on the etiquette regulating the behavior of waiting for, boarding, and riding a bus, which is a public space, but could be divided on all other issues. A population like this lends itself easily to polling exercises.

But then there is another type of population, one consisting of individuals who share certain deep-rooted beliefs about a whole cluster of subjects: say, a religious community. This type of population—call it a “nexus”—can be usefully polled on subjects that do not involve its core beliefs (or, if you like, prejudices). But whenever such core beliefs are touched upon, even remotely, the nexus snaps into operation, making it virtually impossible to get the kinds of answers that pollsters and poll analyzers seek. In such situations, a respondent may even say the opposite of what he knows to be true in order not to step out of the nexus.

Thus, a Palestinian will express his belief that Israel wants to destroy al-Aqsa even if he knows that this is not the case. This is known in Arabic as tizkar al-ma’arouf, or citing what is commonly held even if you don’t agree with it. In a nexus, hiding one’s real sentiments is permitted and in certain cases even obligatory. The several mechanisms for this include taqiyah (dissimulation), kitman (dissembling), and istitar (covering up).

Trying to analyze a nexus with methods designed for a series can lead to misunderstanding. Thus, as Polisar reports, Palestinians think nothing of naming a street after a terrorist murderer of Israeli civilians. But on that issue, as on others, the Palestinians questioned are no doubt simply opting for the answer demanded by the nexus. And Palestinians are not alone in this in the Muslim world. For 30 years, the British have been trying to persuade the mullahs in Iran to remove the name of Bobby Sands, the IRA gunman and de-facto favorite of the regime, from the street in Tehran where Her Majesty’s embassy is located—with no success. Not even Jack Straw, the former British foreign secretary who acted as a virtual lobbyist for the Islamic Republic, could get anywhere on the issue (though his Iranian interlocutors told him privately they agreed with him). For good measure, there’s a Bobby Sands burger bar in Tehran, too.


This takes us to the deeper issues at play where Israel is concerned: the issues arising from the nexus and its core beliefs. To put it at its most basic, the problem is that, over more than six decades, if not from the beginning of the Zionist movement itself, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has assumed a metaphysical dimension that not only excludes the kind of clinical analysis needed to make opinion polls credible but that completely submerges what in other contexts would be “normal” differences over land, water, borders, security, or other similarly mundane issues in international politics.

In Arab eyes, Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state links it to fifteen centuries of, to put it mildly, problematic relations. This is not so say that the Arab-Islamic attitude can be grasped in terms of anti-Semitism, a quintessentially European affliction that reflects racial fears and fantasies. We are dealing instead with pseudo-theological prejudices that nurture a dislike and distrust of Jews dating back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad himself.

As is well known, the Jews of Yathrib, where Muhammad found refuge after fleeing from his native Mecca in fear for his life, initially helped the tiny Muslim community in Arabia strike new roots and prepare for war against its Meccan enemies. Thus, initially, Jews were highly esteemed. In the Quran itself, Moses is mentioned more than 100 times and Muhammad only four (and only once by name). Shorn of the “Jewish” aspects of its narrative, the Quran would shrink to a much slimmer volume.

But the Jews also posed a major problem because of their reluctance to convert to Islam, the final “message” of the One and Only God; and those who did convert were almost always regarded with suspicion as “moles” seeking to corrupt the new faith from within. This is why, although there is seldom or never any mention of the Christian, Hanif, or idolatrous background of others who converted to the new religion, the origin of Jewish converts is always insisted upon. One such convert, Abdullah ibn Saba, would be “exposed” as an agent of Judaism, allegedly tasked by his masters with splitting Islam by creating the Shiite sect. Another, Muhammad bin Abi-Zaynab (also known as Abu al-Khattab), was supposedly assigned to form a splinter of Shiism, the Nusayris, from whom derived the Alawite sect of the current Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

Few Muslims were ever bothered by the fact that the Umayyads, who created the first Islamic empire, had been Muhammad’s arch-enemies and almost certainly never abandoned their pre-Islamic idolatrous beliefs. Yet as recently as 2013, in their obituaries upon the death of Habib-Allah Asgar-Owladi, a financier of Ayatollah Khomeini’s anti-Shah campaign in Iran and one of the early grandees of the Islamic Republic, official Iranian media took care to remind readers about the Jewish origins of the deceased’s family, converts to Islam nearly a century earlier. The subtext: once a Jew, always a Jew—even in the case of one who had served at the head of the influential Islamic Coalition party.

In brief, Israel’s central offense is that it is Jewish, and all other issues are subsidiary. Consider land: when it comes to the loss to non-Muslims of land that was once Muslim, the territory on which Israel sits, at just 20,000 square kilometers, is small fry. The latest chunk of “Muslim land” to be detached from the ummah is South Sudan, with a territory of over 600,000 square kilometers. If one were to rewind the film of history and restore all of Islam’s “lost lands,” one would have to redraw the borders of more than 80 countries including Spain, France, Italy, Russia, China, and India. In the past four years, almost a million Rohingya Muslims have been forced out of their homes in Myanmar (Burma), causing hardly a ripple in the Arab-Islamic sphere. And how many in the Muslim world protested when Vladimir Putin reduced Chechnya to rubble, massacring or driving out half of its population?

Only when Israel and Jews are concerned does land, like every other issue, take on a radioactive importance. And this fact contains a paradoxical lesson for Israel and its supporters.

Those familiar with currents of thought among Arabs and Palestinians are not surprised that, when Israel tries to respond to Arab animosity with gestures of magnanimity, it ends up giving heart to its worst and ideologically most implacable enemies. Retreating from southern Lebanon re-dynamized the Lebanese branch of Hizballah; withdrawal from Gaza re-dynamized Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Similarly, it is not “peacemakers” like Yitzḥak Rabin and Shimon Peres who earn Palestinian respect, let alone admiration, but “warmongers” like Moshe Dayan and Yitzḥak Shamir.

As far as I know, one question has yet to be asked of Palestinians:

Which would you prefer: (1) to see a Palestinian state on the map? (2) to see Israel wiped off the map?

To judge by non-scientific, anecdotal evidence, most Palestinians want both. And this underscores the reality that no progress will be possible until and unless “Palestine” becomes a pragmatic political project rather than a religious-ideological cause célèbre. Until that day dawns, in poll after poll, the Palestinian nexus will continue to provide answers of the type that Daniel Polisar has analyzed with great talent and acumen.

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Palestinian public opinion