Peace Index: January 2006 Survey Finds Wide and Varied Responses to Hamas' Political Victory

Unlike the reactions of Israeli and foreign leaders, the Hamas victory does not seem to have created for the Jewish public a sense of emergency that would warrant, for example, postponing the elections or changing one's voting intentions. Nor does the public show any uniform pattern in assessing the new situation.

Indeed, a majority believes that Hamas's victory constitutes an existential danger to Israel, and a large majority also believes that, unlike the PLO, there is no chance that Hamas will eventually recognize Israel. Moreover, there is a consensus across the spectrum that the chances of reaching a peace agreement with a Palestinian government headed by Hamas are very small or nil. At the same time, about half the public thinks Hamas will now moderate its involvement in terror attacks, and close to half say it is now the Palestinian people's legitimate representative in every way and that negotiations should be conducted even with a Palestinian government that it forms, despite the meager chances of such negotiations leading to peace.

However, apparently to avoid the risks and ensure that Israel is in no way dependent on a Hamas government, there is broad support for the view that in light of Hamas's victory, Israel should determine its fate and its borders on its own by rapidly completing the separation fence.

These are the main findings of the Peace Index survey that was carried out from Monday, January 30 to Wednesday, February 1, 2006.

Regarding the question, "In light of Hamas' victory in the Palestinian elections, is there a need, in your view, to change the date of the Israeli elections until the situation is clearer?," an overwhelming majority of 86 percent of the Jewish interviewees replied that there is no need, some 9 percent said there is a need and the rest did not know. Among the few who thought the Israeli elections should be postponed, 43 percent support establishing a National Unity Government, while 36 percent favor retaining the current coalition as a caretaker government. Similarly, a majority of 79 percent said they had no intention of changing their vote in the upcoming elections because of Hamas's victory, and 8 percent responded that they are considering the possibility, while 13 percent did not know.

Given the Jewish public's historical tendency to support national unity governments, especially in emergency situations like the period before the Six-Day War or during the second intifada, the fact that few currently support such a step indicates that the Hamas triumph is not perceived as an immediate threat.

The broad agreement on this issue does not mean the Jewish public is not worried by Hamas's rise to power. Some 55 percent agree that Hamas's victory constitutes an existential danger to the state of Israel while 38 percent disagree (and 7 percent do not know). A larger majority (69 percent) thinks that unlike the PLO's agreement in the framework of the Oslo accords to cancel the item in its charter calling for Israel's destruction, the chances that Hamas will take similar steps and ultimately recognize Israel's right to exist are very small or nonexistent (24 percent believe there is a chance and 7 percent do not know).

Peace Agreement

Given these views, it is no wonder that only a tiny minority - 12 percent - believe that negotiations between Israel and a Hamas-led government could lead to a lasting peace agreement, while 83 percent do not see such a possibility. Indeed, as past Peace Index surveys have shown, the Jewish public was not particularly optimistic about the chances of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians even before the recent PA elections. The Hamas win, however, lowered the optimism level even further. During October-December 2005, the rate of those not believing that negotiations with the PA government would lead to a lasting peace was 50 percent-60 percent; today, as noted, it stands at 83 percent.

Here it is interesting that a large majority of the Jewish public (65.5 percent) does not think that because Hamas is by nature a religious movement, rabbis and other Jewish religious figures should be in contact with it. Only 29 percent say that under the present circumstances there is a place for their participation, and 5 percent do not know.

Indeed, a dissection of the public's positions on this question by degree of religiosity shows evenly-split views among the religious, while a large majority of the secular, traditional and even ultra-Orthodox do not see any need to put Jewish religious figures in contact with Hamas.

A further effect of the Hamas victory on the Jewish public's position is the decline we see in this month's survey, compared to the previous month's measurement, in the rate of supporters of an independent Palestinian state. Last month, some 67 percent favored it; this month, only 55 percent checked in.

However, despite the pessimistic view of future relations with the Palestinians under a Hamas-led government, the Jewish public is not reacting uniformly, but rather making distinctions regarding the new situation. Forty percent agree that because Hamas won by a democratic vote, the government it forms will be the confirmed and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in every way - although 44 percent disagree. About half the public (46 percent) also expects Hamas will now moderate its involvement in terror attacks against Israel, as compared with 45 percent who do not think so. Moreover, despite the broad consensus that there is no real chance of reaching a peace agreement with a government headed by Hamas, 43 percent say Israel should conduct political negotiations with the government it establishes, while 53 percent claim otherwise. In other words, a considerable segment of the Jewish public believes at this point in trying to talk to Hamas despite the extremely low chances of a lasting peace agreement.

As expected, there is quite a close link between views on Hamas's likely policy regarding terrorism and the question of engaging in political negotiations with Hamas. Among those who believe Hamas will moderate its involvement in terror attacks, some 56 percent favor negotiations and 37 percent oppose them; among those who do not expect a more moderate Hamas, only 29 percent support negotiations and 67 percent are against talks.

A segmentation of rates of support for negotiations by voting intentions shows considerable gaps between the political camps, in this order: among those saying they will vote for Meretz, 100 percent favor negotiating with a Hamas-led government; among those who say they will vote for Labor, 64 percent; Kadima, 48 percent; Likud, 30 percent; Shas, 28 percent; and the National Union, 17 percent.

One of the questions currently on the agenda is Israel should or should not transfer to the PA the tax revenues it collects for it, as it has done so far. It turns out that, unlike the Israeli government's position as reported in the media, a large majority of the public (69 percent) opposes releasing the funds, while only 22 percent support doing so. Vis-a-viz the question, though, of Hamas turning to Iran and other sources of funding should the United States and other contributing countries end their support of the PA if Hamas fails to annul the clause in its charter calling for Israel's destruction, opinions are more divided: Some 45 percent think this possibility should not be taken into account, whereas 38 percent say it should be.

Apart, though, from controversial questions regarding which policies should be used to deal with a Hamas-led government, there is broad support (75.5 percent) among the Jewish public for Israel, in light of its victory, to "determine its fate and its borders on its own by rapidly completing the building of the separation fence" (only 18 percent opposed this stance and the rest did not know). A segmentation of the responses by voting intentions reveals that except for Meretz voters, among whom 40 percent favor the statement and 60 percent oppose it, voters for the other large parties, including Labor, support it by a large majority.

On certain issues related to Hamas's victory, the Arab public's positions are a "mirror image" of those of the Jewish public. For example, unlike the distribution of opinions on this issue in the Jewish public, a majority of the Arab public (67 percent) thinks Hamas' victory does not entail an existential threat to Israel. And regarding the question of transferring money from Israel to the PA, 68 percent of the Arab public favor doing so as planned. But as for the chances that the Hamas government and the Israeli government will be able to reach a lasting peace agreement, among the Arabs, too, a majority of 56 percent - albeit smaller than among the Jews - see the likelihood as small. And on the issue of including religious figures in negotiations between Israel and Hamas, an overwhelming majority - 72 percent - of the Arab public, too, opposes this.

Oslo Index: General sample - 36.5 (Jewish sample - 33.8)

The Peace Index Project is conducted at the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research and the Evens Program in Mediation and Conflict Resolution of Tel Aviv University, headed by Prof. Ephraim Yaar and Prof. Tamar Hermann. The telephone interviews were conducted by the B.I. Cohen Institute of Tel Aviv University during January 30-February 1, 2006, and included 582 interviewees who represent the adult Jewish and Arab population of Israel (including the territories and the kibbutzim). The sampling error for a sample of this size is about 4.5 percent in each direction.