Peace: The Toughest Selling Job in the World

With the Israeli-Palestinian talks in crisis, negotiators need to learn how to craft a deal that their publics will actually buy. Polling is a key tool.

With a U.S. president not running for another term and a secretary of state not seeking higher office, John Kerry has been able to move the Middle East peace process forward thus far in ways not available to Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell. Assuming he can keep the show on the road, he probably still has to get a deal done before the UN General Assembly meets again next year. He not only has to secure a Final Status Agreement - and most commentators think he can’t - he also has to guide the Palestinians and Israelis through a referendum to a ‘Yes’ vote. 

Critically, on this point, even the optimistic J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami noted:

“The publics on both sides have hardened their positions in the last 20 years…I think the ultimate deal will involve sacrifices and compromises…all of us will have a tough selling job to do and we have to be ready to do that.”

In the face of strident opposition from all those opposed to an agreement, a “tough selling job” is probably the winning understatement of this year's J Street annual conference. Can it be done and, at the same time, help secure peace? Providing the American, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are willing to learn the lessons of the successful peace process and referendum in Northern Ireland, the failed referendum in Cyprus and failed negotiations in Kosovo, I think they can.

In Northern Ireland, the parties to the negotiations designed and managed their own programs of public opinion research to test policy options for their maximum acceptability in both communities. They got so good at it they were able to predict the results of the referendum to an accuracy of one percent. The most sensitive issues were finessed as required with, for example, police reform being referred to a post-agreement commission, and prisoner releases being done on license, so that reoffenders could be returned to jail. Even so, the implementation of the peace agreement has taken the best part of ten years to ‘bed in.'

Public opinion research suggests that an agreement should not be significantly more difficult to reach in Israel and Palestine than it was in Northern Ireland, at least from a public opinion perspective. Implementation, however, may be a very different story. In Northern Ireland people could stay where they were, and as members of the European Union, they could take up joint Irish and British citizenship if they so wished. Managing the future rights and fates of Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlers will not be that easy, but a way to mitigate the inevitable disappointments and frustrations must be found.

In Kosovo public opinion polls that were run in 2005, as a prelude to peace negotiations, identified the status of the divided city of Mitrovica as one of the most critical issues that had to be addressed. In 2007 the negotiations failed, and in 2008 Kosovo declared independence unilaterally without reference to an accommodation on the status of Mitrovica. So Mitrovica became a ‘running sore’ in the peace process from then to the present day. An agreement to establish an Association of Serb Municipalities with special powers in April 2013 has gone some way to finding a solution to the problem but greater efforts should have been made to try and resolve this issue after it was identified eight years earlier.

In Cyprus, the negotiation of the 2004 UN sponsored Annan [peace] Plan was undertaken without adequate reference being made to the views of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot publics. The plan was published on 31 March 2004, and a referendum held just under a month later. This gave those opposed to the plan more than ample time to undermine it by focusing on its shortcomings. The referendum was lost on the Greek side. A public opinion ‘post-mortem’ identified the critical failings that had contributed to its rejection and on this point Sir Kieran Prendergast told the UN Security Council (where he was under secretary for political affairs) a year later:

“I was interested to learn that an independent bi-communal survey, that polled attitudes to potential changes to the UN plan, found the encouraging result among grassroots opinion on both sides that it might be possible to make certain changes that would secure majority support for the plan in both communities.”

But this was all too little too late, and the status quo of a divided island remains to the present day. Israel and Palestine have been forewarned.

It is now generally accepted that past Middle East negotiations failed, in part, because the Israeli and Palestinian publics were not prepared for a settlement, let alone a referendum. But the Israel-Palestine conflict is probably the most researched conflict in the world, and when it comes to polling, the negotiators are spoilt for choice. Mina Tzemach, Tamar Hermann and Jacob Shamir in Israel; Khalil Shikaki, Ghassan Khatib and Nader Said in Palestine, to name just a few, are some of the best pollsters around. Almost everyone in Israel and Palestine understands a percentage. Polling is part of their political culture.

But Rabin famously pointed out that “We make peace with our enemies, not with our friends," and so it necessarily follows that effective peace research must be a coordinated activity between the opposing communities. Technically most of the polling undertaken in Israel and Palestine is of a very high standard but, regrettably, it is more often carried out by separate teams of investigators, Israeli and Palestinians, to identify and track their own societies’ problems. This means there isn't the adequate testing and fine tuning of the full range of possible solutions needed for a peace agreement. Negotiators who cannot resolve points of disagreement that have to be voted on in a referendum by their respective publics, without reference to carefully researched facts on those points, are simply not working to modern standards of negotiation best practice.

When it comes to making peace, a problem for the Israelis is a problem for the Palestinians, and a problem for the Palestinians is a problem for the Israelis. Polling, public opinion research and public diplomacy can all be used to help identify both problems and their solutions, to refine the Final Status Agreement, to win a referendum and to ensure the very best prospects for its full implementation. None of which will be easy. But why make it more difficult than it has to be when we know how to do things so much better?

Dr. Colin Irwin is a Research Fellow in the Department of Politics at the University of Liverpool. He managed the public opinion research undertaken in support of the Northern Ireland peace process and subsequently extended his work to include the Balkans, Middle East and Asia. 

AP