Don't Confuse Us With Facts

Baseless beliefs and deeply rooted misconceptions are the main obstacles that prevent Israelis from supporting negotiations as a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, according to recent research

"For some reason, some among us bemoan that day on which Jerusalem was liberated and the capital of Israel was released from the stranglehold," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset on Jerusalem Day.

Few know there is no foundation to his declaration that Jerusalem Day "marks the day when the city began to develop for the good of all its residents." Palestinians make up more than a third of the city's residents, but receive less than 15 percent of the municipal budget. A total of 74 percent of the Palestinian children in East Jerusalem live below the poverty line.

President Shimon Peres could say confidently on Jerusalem Day that "the members of all faiths can worship their God securely" in the holy city. But a Muslim from Ramallah or a Christian from Bethlehem has no chance of getting a permit to pray at Al-Aqsa or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

However, a new study about psychological obstacles to solving the conflict shows that the average Israeli doesn't want to know the facts. He is chock-full of beliefs that would get in the way of achieving a negotiated solution. The separation wall has taken the place of Palestinian terrorism as a central reason for the paralysis of support for a meaningful peace process. A pragmatic Palestinian leadership runs up against Israeli public opinion, which is entrenched in its belief in the rightness of its path, and lacks all trust in the Palestinians.

"People are not born with a concept of 'Jerusalem is ours forever' and many know no political solution is possible without a compromise on Jerusalem," says Tel Aviv University Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal, who carried out the study with Dr. Eran Halperin, from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

"The political system and the education system use all their tools, such as Jerusalem Day, to socialize people with the idea that a unified Jerusalem is Israel's eternal, indivisible capital," says Bar-Tal, a former president of the International Society of Political Psychology, whose research has earned him international awards.

"For years, people have been inculcated with information by a selective steamroller and a reality is constructed for them," Halperin adds. "They are told repeatedly, 'Jerusalem is united,' but they're not told that no other country recognizes the annexation of the eastern part of the city. The result is that any criticism of Israeli activity in East Jerusalem is perceived as pure anti-Semitism."

The Israeli Jewish population's majority support for a two-state solution would seem to indicate a significant barrier to resolving the conflict has been lifted. However, the study found little support for compromises (2.6 on a scale of 1-6, where 1 is "absolutely disagree" and 6 is "absolutely agree" ). Similarly, researchers found little-to-some receptiveness for positive information about the conflict (3.28 ). There was also a high level of feelings of self-victimization (4.33 ) and delegitimization of the Palestinians (4.65 ).

It is not surprising, then, that when it comes to matters of negotiations, polls show the majority of the Jewish Israeli public is against a sweeping withdrawal from the territories, evacuating most of the settlements or dividing Jerusalem.

People, Bar-Tal explains, have a natural tendency to simplify the world and to insulate themselves from facts that confuse them: "Long-term ideological beliefs make many people close themselves - consciously or not - to information that threatens those beliefs." Another example is the fact that the 2002 Arab peace initiative has not become central to the political discourse in Israel.

"When people cling to the average ethos concerning the conflict, which is based on the rightness of the path, a self-perception of morality, delegitimization of the Arabs and a sense of self-victimization - even when they are offered positive information that seemingly could advance a solution to the conflict, they ignore it and focus on negative information," says Halperin, an associate editor of Political Psychology, a leading international journal.

The researchers "offered to send the study subjects free books to enhance their knowledge of possible solutions, but we ran into stone walls," says Halperin. "The more that people believe in the ethos of the conflict, the less they are willing to have you present them with new facts. The resistance to compromises stems in no small measure from insularity. Many Israelis who consider themselves open are afraid to expose themselves to new information about the conflict.

"In the 1950s and through most of the 1960s, the public accepted Israel's existence within the Green Line and did not care what happened on the other side. However, just as the colonialist period was waning in the world, in Israel, with the conquests of 1967, we started to move in the reverse direction," says Halperin. "As opposition to occupations grew in the global community and human rights conventions were adopted, in Israel support began to develop for the occupation along with the systematic infringement of human rights.

"Globalization includes ideas, not just goods. It is impossible to be critical of China and reject information about events in territories a few kilometers from Tel Aviv."

Simplistic views

After the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in July 2000, the controversial version of events - "Barak offered Arafat everything" - became gradually burned into the consciousness even of people who consider themselves "left wing." The tendency to view the conflict through a simplistic ideological prism is reflected in surveys conducted for the Peace Index of the Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University.

During 2008, the majority of the Jewish public in Israel (55 percent ) described the West Bank as "liberated territory" and not as "occupied territory" (32 percent ). This marked a change from 2004, when 51 percent considered the West Bank and Gaza "occupied territory" and only 39 percent thought they were not.

The researchers attribute the general trend to a rapid shift following the Six-Day War, when nearly the entire leadership, the political and cultural elite, the mass media and the school system started to refer to the liberation of the homeland.

Research by Tamir Magal and Neta Oren, conducted jointly with Halperin and Bar-Tal, which examined leadership statements, party platforms and public opinion from 1967 until now, shows that in the first 20 years after the Six-Day War, the dominant mainstream opinion was that the Land of Israel is the exclusive homeland of the Jewish people, that a Palestinian state must not be established and that Israel should settle the territories. Only part of the mainstream was willing to consider a partial territorial compromise in exchange for peace.

True, in the past 20 years, most of the leadership and the public have recognized the need to divide the country due to the threat to the basic character of the state (some are afraid it will lose its Jewish character, others that it will lose its democratic character ), but the idea that the country belongs exclusively to the Jewish people remains.

Even leaders who are ready to entertain far-reaching compromises insist on this exclusivity. For example, former prime minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview in 2006, "We insist strongly on the historic right of the people of Israel to the whole Land of Israel. Every hill in Samaria and every valley in Judea is part of our historic homeland."

Netanyahu reiterated the idea that the territories are "Israeli soil" in his Bar-Ilan University address in June 2009: "The connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel has lasted for more than 3,500 years. Judea and Samaria, the places where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, David and Solomon, and Isaiah and Jeremiah lived, are not alien to us. This is the land of our forefathers."

All the premier had to say about the Palestinians' association with the embattled land was, "within this homeland lives a large Palestinian community. We do not want to rule over them." He also called the Palestinians a "population" and the Land of Israel "the nation-state of the Jewish people."

"There is no doubt that the prevailing opinion that the West Bank is not occupied territory is a central obstacle to the conflict's resolution," Bar-Tal and Halperin note. "The attitude that it is liberated territory generates the feeling that the Jewish nation is the only side contributing anything concrete to the resolution of the conflict."

In a survey the authors conducted in November 2007, they found that 80.8 percent of Israel's Jews agree with the statement, "Despite Israel's desire for peace, the Arabs imposed war time and again." In August 2008, 61 percent expressed at least some agreement with the view that throughout all the years of the conflict, Israel has been the victim, whereas the Arabs and the Palestinians are committing crimes. Furthermore, 77 percent thought Arabs and Palestinians do not place a high value on human life, and 79 percent agreed with the declaration that cheating has always characterized the Palestinians and the Arabs.

"When the prevailing concept is that you were ready to make concessions all along and the Arabs were the ones who rejected our outstretched hand, there is no reason for you to listen to new information or to the approach of the other side," the researchers say.

Indeed, the study shows a sweeping refusal by the Jewish public in Israel to become acquainted with the Palestinian narrative. In a 2009 survey, the majority (56 percent ) was against accepting even partial Israeli responsibility for the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians in the 1948 war, including the refugee problem. This remained true even if the Palestinians were officially to assume part of the responsibility for that war (Peace Index, June 2009 ).

In their study, Bar-Tal and Halperin point out that when people are exposed systematically and holistically from an early age to approaches that suit national goals and ignore the needs of the other side, it is very difficult to induce a conceptual change. Then, it becomes almost natural not to trust the other, to dehumanize and hate him, while viewing your group in aggrandizing terms and seeing yourself as the sole and eternal victim. This ideology, the authors say, is supported by various communication channels and social institutions, which consider those who hold alternative views to be not credible and to have bad intentions.

Public opinion surveys show consistent broad support for the two-state solution among the Palestinian public. A survey conducted last March among 1,153 respondents by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, headed by Dr. Nabil Kukali, found that 58 percent support peace talks with Israel. And when asked, "Do you support, or not, the reaching of a final settlement with the Israelis on the basis of the proposal of the former U.S. president, Bill Clinton, that suggests the transfer of almost all territories of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority and a land swap in certain areas?" - 53 percent of respondents said they were in favor of such a settlement.

However, a large-scale multiyear survey being conducted by Dr. Daphna Canetti from the political science department at the University of Haifa shows that in May-June 2009, 95 percent of respondents thought the Palestinians have an exclusive right to Palestine (down from 97 percent at the end of 2007 ), while 51 percent replied that in the Middle East the only way to achieve something is by force, up from 47 percent in 2007.

In 2009, only 9 percent agreed "somewhat" to "very much" that the two-state formula would include forgoing the Palestinian right of return. They do not want to know that the Arab League has decided that any solution to the Palestinian refugee problem must be acceptable to Israel. An even lower proportion of Palestinians (7 percent ) support a two-state solution that would forgo Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem.