January 21, 2019

Wording of Survey’s Questions Matters

new survey by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland shows that an increasing number of Americans support a one-state solution for Israel and the Palestinian territories. “When one considers that many Israelis and Palestinians, as well as many Middle East experts, already believe that a two-state solution is no longer possible, especially given the large expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank,” Telhami writes, “it’s not hard to see why more people would be drawn to a one-state solution.”

Is this new finding important? It is and it isn’t.

It’s important because it shows that Israel fails to communicate its position to American audiences, especially Democratic voters and younger voters (of which 42 percent support a one-state solution).

It’s not important because the one-state solution is still not a viable option, and thus not an option.

Telhami conducts his poll every year, and almost every time, I write critically about it. This is because his polls, conducted under the pretense of being impartial, in fact raise the suspicion that they are an act of advocacy for certain positions.

Take the question of the one-state solution. What it offers is a mirage. “A one-state solution: A single democratic state in which both Jews and Arabs are full and equal citizens, covering all of what is now Israel and the Palestinian Territories.”

Sounds good? It does. In fact, I see no reason why Americans wouldn’t support such solution to a nagging problem. But what would happen if the survey question were reworded to reflect a more plausible outcome: “A one-state solution: An attempt to establish a single state that is likely to result in Jews and Arabs constantly fighting for control and spilling even more blood than today.” Would Americans still support it?

Another choice offered to Americans is this: “Do you favor the Jewishness of Israel more than its democracy” or “Israel’s democracy more than its Jewishness”?

Presented with this false dichotomy, most Americans give the answer you’d expect. They favor democracy (one wonders: should non-Jewish Americans even worry about Israel’s Jewishness?)

Telhami argues (in the publication Foreign Policy) that “What many read as a rising anti-Israeli sentiment among Democrats is mischaracterized; it reflects anger toward Israeli policies and … the values projected by the current Israeli government.”

The semantics Telhami uses here (and he is not alone) are simple: Place the bar for being anti-Israel so high that it becomes almost impossible to reach. That’s convenient, especially for anti-Israel activists.

I know that in left-wing circles it’s becoming popular to argue that being anti-Israel is not akin to being anti-Semitic. But read this question and see if it makes you feel somewhat uneasy: “How much influence do you believe the Israeli government has on American politics and policies?”

The answer, of course, is that the Jews (and by this, we mean the Jews of Israel — not the good Jews of America) might have too much influence. Fifty-five percent of Democrats think they do; 44 percent of young Americans think they do. Would they also say that the governments of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain or China have too much influence on American politics? I bet many of them would — but Telhami didn’t ask.

Americans want fairness, and hence many of them expect their government to “lean toward neither side” when “mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

But how does one measure “leaning?” Here is an example: If the U.S. government says, “We would not tolerate Palestinian suicide bombers killing innocent people in Tel Aviv,” does this count as “leaning” toward Israel, because it’s critical of something that only Palestinians do? Another example: If the U.S. government says, “We believe that Palestinian insistence on a right of return imperils any prospect for a successful peace process,” does this count as “leaning” toward Israel, because an impartial position would be to say, “Let’s compromise on a right of return for half the people”?

In other words, what if the U.S. government doesn’t “lean” toward the Israeli position but rather toward a more reasonable position that tends to be the Israeli position? Would Americans want their government to lean toward an unreasonable position for the sake of being impartial?