Because we should care about what people are thinking about critical issues, polling is important. It opens a window so we can hear the voices of public opinion and make intelligent policy decisions.
Sometimes, poll results affirm what we believe to be true and we feel gratified. On other occasions, the findings run counter to our expectations and we face a dilemma. We can either examine why our assumptions were mistaken or we can ignore the results that ran counter to our expectations and denounce the pollster. Shooting the messenger might make you feel good, but by ignoring information we don’t like we run the risk of making a bad situation worse.
I am prompted to write this piece because I’ve been reading criticisms of the UAE-Israel accord, many of which raise valid concerns about Palestinian rights and Israeli impunity. But what has troubled me are those critics who say that this agreement is out of sync with “the overwhelming majority of Arab public opinion” on how to achieve Palestinian rights. This is unfortunately not true. Attitudes across the Arab world have undergone a dramatic change in the past few years and this new political reality must be understood.
In the past two decades, I’ve polled Arab opinion across the region. One constant has always been the centrality of Palestine. In 2002, for example, we found that this issue was ranked, along with employment and health care, one of the three top political concerns in most Arab countries (especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia). It remained a priority up until a few years ago.
In September of 2019 we, at Zogby Research Services (ZRS), conducted another of our omnibus polls across the Arab world. Much of what we found was expected – with regard to Syria, Iraq, the failure of the Arab Spring, and concerns about Iran’s behaviour in the region. What shocked me was the sea of change in attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It ranked in the bottom tier of priorities in every country.
Our findings showed that most Arabs still fault the US and Israel for the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and continue to support the Arab Peace Initiative (API). But while a significant number in all countries affirmed their support for the API, they also said that Arab states should be doing more to advance this initiative. What was striking was that significant majorities in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE felt it would be desirable for some Arab states to pursue normalisation even without peace. Opinion was evenly divided in Lebanon, with four out of 10 Palestinians also agreeing.
These responses were so out of line with previous results, that we repolled this question and followed it with open-ended questions to learn why respondents thought that normalisation might be desirable. Our repolling reaffirmed the initial findings and the qualitative responses to the “opens” were instructive.
In June of 2020, in the midst of the furore over Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s threat to annex much of the West Bank, we went back into the field to test Arab opinion on the question of normalising before peace. The UAE Ambassador to the US had just published an op-ed in an Israeli daily warning that Israel could have either normalisation or annexation, Jordan’s King Abdullah had issued a dire warning about the consequences of annexation, 19 EU ministers had threatened sanctions if Netanyahu went ahead with his plans, and leading Democrats in Congress had sent letter stating their opposition. We polled in five Arab countries (Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) and Israel.
We found that significant majorities across the board believed that resolution of the conflict was important and were hopeful that a solution could be found in the next five years. As someone who, for the past five decades, has been a staunch advocate for justice for Palestinians and who has for the past two decades taken Arab public opinion seriously – I’ll admit that I was confounded by these findings. At the same time, I know they must be considered and understood. Any evaluation of the UAE-Israel agreement must keep this context of evolving Arab opinion in mind.