Israeli Arab attitudes to the refugee issue

Posted: December 12, 2010 by Rex Brynen in Israel, peace process

At an event at the Brookings Institution on December 9, Shibley Telhami (Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland) unveiled the results of recent polls on the attitudes of Israeli Jews, Irsaeli Arabs, and Americans to various aspects of the peace process, the broader Middle East situation, US policy, and world leaders.

The results cast light on a number of aspects of the refugee issue, and related issues of identity. Among Israeli Arabs, only 11% characterize the refugees’ right of return as “not too important.” By contrast, 31% rate it as “important but a compromise should be found,” while fully 57% of Arab citizens of Israel characterize it as “important and cannot be compromised in any way.” Clearly attachment to refugee rights isn’t, as some have charged, a function of the UNRWA or PA education system—these, after all, are Arabs who have attended Israeli schools for three generations.

There is also widespread opposition among Israeli Arabs to recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state,” although a significant minority would be preapred to accept such a definition in the aftermath of the establishment of a Palestinian state, and if Arab citizens of Israel were given full rights (something most feel they lack at present).

Absolute opposition to such recognition, not surprisingly, is even higher (61%)  among those who had relatives forcibly displaced as refugees in 1948. Israeli Arabs also oppose the proposed Israeli “loyalty oath,” with such opposition again strongest among relatives of refugees. (The survey questions don’t appear to distinguish between those who have refugee relatives, and those who were internally displaced and had their properties seized by the Israeli government after 1948—presumably the category includes both groups).

On the question of transferring Arab towns in Israel to the new Palestinian state as part of a future peace agreement, the poll shows that 58% of Arab citizens of Israel oppose this. The reasons for this have much less to do with ideology or politics than with the pragmatic view that the standard of living in Israel is much higher than in the West Bank and Gaza.

The opinion survey doesn’t seem to ask Israeli Jews about their attitude to the refugee issue, although it does ask their view on whether Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state. In this case, while a majority of Israeli Jews support such a demand, only 36% believe it should be a precondition for a settlement freeze or negotiations, while 39% are prepared to postpone the issue until it can form part of an overall peace agreement.

There are no particular surprises in any of this, with the results tending to echo what other polls have found. It would be interesting to see more detailed attitudinal research on refugee and identity issues, however—especially some multivariate or regression analysis that went beyond simple bar graphs and crosstabs and looked in more detail at the demographic, ethnic, political and other factors associated with various views on these issues.

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