Focus groups show desire for separation between Israelis, Palestinians; also between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians
The RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy conducted a two-year study that saw thirty-three focus groups comprised of the core players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict react to five different courses of action to solve the seemingly endless crisis.
Reacting to an apparent loss of momentum in the so-called “two-state solution” as the lynchpin of the peace process, RAND researchers sought responses from groups of Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, West Bank Palestinians and Gazan Palestinians to a series of options that, in addition to two states, also included the status quo, confederation, annexation and a one-state solution.
The data for the study was compiled in July 2018 and May 2019 before two seminal events in the region: the coronavirus pandemic and the Abraham Accords. It was, however, adjusted in February 2020 in response to the Trump peace initiative.
In the first interview upon release of the report, The Media Line’s Felice Friedson reviewed the results with C. Ross Anthony, director of the RAND Israeli-Palestinian Initiative and co-author of the study.
This is a full transcript of the interview:
TML: The RAND Center for Mideast Public Policy conducted a study over a period of two years, examining alternatives to the two-state state Palestinian solution. C. Ross Anthony is director of the RAND Israeli-Palestinian initiative and co-author of the study. Thank you for joining us!
Anthony: It’s a pleasure to be here!
TML: You conducted focus groups, comprised of a cross section of the Middle East’s cast of characters – Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians from the West Bank and from the Gaza Strip, and ultimately asked them to choose between the status quo and several other options commonly talked about. Not surprising to any Mideast watcher, none of the options seem viable, but in broad terms, what insights were you able to glean from the exercise?
Anthony: The results are very interesting and perhaps what’s interesting – you have to read the whole report to get this – is the words that people spoke and the feelings that they had. And these were, we were talking to ordinary people and not just the policymakers, but we found out that a number of broad solutions that were coordinated, and that is, as you said, [that] none of the alternatives in and of themselves that people find acceptable, but when you ask the Israelis, they preferred the status quo, but [only] slightly better than the two-state solution. And the reason that they preferred the status quo, was because they didn’t, they saw risks in the other solutions and the two-state solution that they thought was not really feasible at the present time for a number of reasons. The Palestinians don’t like the status quo and they want change, almost any change, but what they really found most compelling is the two-state solution where it’s the most accessible, but only if it changed certain characteristics.
They wanted to have control over the borders. They wanted also to have an army and do things and things that generally are not acceptable to Israelis. The second thing that we found also, or the third thing I guess, is that most people did not really understand the alternatives that there are out there. In addition to the two-state solution, there was an annexation, there’s a confederation option, and a democratic one-state solution that we asked them about. And when we provided them with education on all of these various options, which we discussed in detail before, we asked people to rank them beforehand and afterwards and, in general, what was very interesting is people indicated that they really did not understand the various alternatives that were there, and many people felt that they made a much-better-informed decision after having the discussion, and also in some cases changed their opinion. So, what that has said to us is that going forward, it’s going to be important for there to be some kind of education campaign so that people are better informed and can make better-informed decisions.
We also found that interestingly enough, on the Palestinian side, that security was extremely important to them and [for] this kind of security, we need personal security. I mean, it’s not surprising that security was also important to the Israelis. So, what we believe is that international guarantees that emphasize both security and economic incentives are going to be important in helping to find a solution to the issues. And overall, the strongest issue that most people brought forward with the desire for separation, which is again, not overly surprising, but the vehemence in which it was held was surprising.
And it says to us that a much more holistic approach is necessary to solve this problem then people have taken in the past. Economics are important, but ranked lower down when you looked at the rank preference of people than a lot of other issues, so things that take into consideration the entire spectrum of issues, including the political solutions, are going to be key to finding any kind of resolution. Overall, we’d hope in our study that we would be able to find areas of commonality between the parties that they would form the basis, perhaps for dialogue. Sadly, we really did not find that. The data did not show us any of those commonalities that we hoped to see.
TML: And that is sad indeed. I think you can sum it up by those few words. The expression “two-state solution” is more than an option. It becomes a political mantra. And, as you said, it might not mean the same thing to different people. Did your study support two-state as the best choice among weak options?
Anthony: No, we didn’t. We did not try to support anything. We were asked to lay out the five options as impartially as we could. Of course, each one of these options have various characteristics. And in the study, you’ll see that we clearly presented those different characteristics of the various options, so they even had a full understanding. Even in a two-state solution, obviously, there was a discussion about all kinds of, what they’re called in court, status-agreement issues. And the same thing is true, for instance, annexation, in the discussions that they have on the West Bank, the Jordan Valley, the settlements, so there are a lot of variants within that. We do a pride in having a very lengthy appendix that goes through the specifics of all of these different options. But when we presented them to the people, we tried to summarize them and we were clear as to what we’re talking about. We sought not to put forward a preference on our part. We were more interested in hearing what other people had to say, but we did not express any preference from our perspective.
TML: Ross, you have had many focus groups. Can you just explain how that went down?
Anthony: Yeah, we did 33. We actually originally did it in two phases. In the first phase we wanted to see whether this provided us with good information, and in the second phase we were kind of surprised in some senses that we were able to get the focus group in Gaza and so in the second phase, we also wanted to increase the sample size, both of the Gazans and of the Israeli Arabs, so that we had a full set of opinions from all of those different groups.
Basically, we hired a firm to help us, but we put these focus groups together with an idea, trying to find a broad spectrum of the population, both among Israelis and Palestinians, and we think that we achieved that. Certainly, 33 focus groups took a lot of time and effort. There’s a tremendous amount of very interesting information and quotes in the report. And – we’re all of 273 people – we recognize that’s not a huge sample as you’ve seen in polling. But we believe that it gave us a really good idea of what the average Palestinians and Israelis thought across the spectrum
TML: Separation is a much more complex idea than it would appear to be at first glance. The recent situation where Israel was scolded in the media and even by members of the US Congress to provide COVID[-19] vaccines to the Palestinian Authority, even though the Oslo Accords relegates such health care responsibilities to the PA, which was making its own provisions for obtaining the vaccines as an example. So, how do you separate the players? How separate do they really want to be?
Anthony: Well, I think what people are talking about in general, when they’re talking about separation is, is political separation. In this case, the Palestinians, they obviously would like settlers to move and things that have been discussed. Interestingly, and this was not part of the work that in this study, but RAND many years ago, after the swine flu did some joint exercise between Israelis and Palestinians to try to look at how they dealt with the contracting of infectious diseases, and that was actually quite interesting. And actually, it included, as I recall, also people from Lebanon. Certainly, when you talk about the confederation, and we talked about that issue for instance, the way it is positive, that there would be two independent states who would control most of the issues that were relevant to them. But there might be, there will be, certain areas in which they commonly might mutually agree on to cooperate.
And those usually are thought to be things like the environmental issues and also health care. The COVID[-19] does not recognize borders and it’s going to pass back and forth. So, I recognize that the issue of COVID[-19] in the distribution has become an important one in the lack of a vaccine on the Palestinian side, compared to the Israeli side. It’s striking. My understanding is that the Israelis also recently started to share some vaccines with the Palestinians. So, we did not study that in this study, but it’s an important area where people could cooperate in the best interest of both parties.
TML: Water, gas, health, employment, this is something where we see areas of cooperation on a daily basis. So, how is it even feasible to separate? You’re an economist. So, how do you really see this?
Anthony: This was not in the study, but you know, there are certain areas where in other interviews we’ve done in the past where you can’t separate. The quality of the air between [them] is shared. The water and the aquifers are shared. So, there are some areas, even if you had two independent states, where the parties would need to get together and collaborate on what was in the best interests of both.
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TML: Has the Abraham Accords impacted your study at all? Do you see any change in opinion?
Anthony: Our study was done before the Abraham Accords came out and so we just frankly don’t have any information on that, and certainly the accords are an important change in the scenery and the environment, and if we did the surveys again, they might appear to be important. As the surveys were done before them, they really don’t speak for the Abraham Accords in any way.
TML: Ross, President Trump’s approach was to take a totally different approach with the Abraham Accords. Do you think that attitude could work in the Israel-Palestine relationship?
Anthony: The Abraham Accords?
TML: The concept of a different approach. The status quo has not worked.
Anthony: Well, the status quo clearly is not working for the Palestinians. If we go back through the research here, we find that the status quo is working for Israelis. They find it, and you see that in the quotes and the other references, they find it workable. It’s worked for some time. The Israelis are doing well economically, and they see risks in the other alternatives. So, in fact, they are satisfied with the status quo. The Palestinians are very unsatisfied with the status quo.
TML: That is correct, but you’re looking as a policy institute. And in terms of this study of how you’re able to change the whole picture and bring two sides together towards an agreement, so you need both sides partaking in that theory.
Anthony: The final outcome, including both parts of the report, indicate the thing that I had talked about earlier that we certainly need education and understanding on both sides; different factors could be a resolution. And also, it emphasizes the need for leadership. Not only leadership among the Palestinians and the Israelis, as well as national leadership in the United States. Right now we haven’t seen the kinds of strong leadership on really any sides to be able to promote the kind of change and the difficult decisions that will be necessary for the two parties to come together.
TML: I’m glad you brought that up, because Israel and the Palestinians are both nearing elections. Can this change the outcome of your five options?
Anthony: Well, again, we didn’t look at that, but the leadership is important in terms of the two parties being able to talk to each other and reach some kind of agreement or understanding. So yes, I think the elections are important and how they turn out, of course, is the purview of the different parties involved.
TML: I’m speaking with Ross Anthony, who is the director of the RAND Israeli-Palestinian initiative and co-author of a new study that has just come out with regards to 33 focus groups. One of the study’s options was a confederation of the State of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.
TML: How will that look?
Anthony: The configuration could be made up of two states or it could be three, but it’s easier to talk about two – a Palestinian state and an Israeli state – and what that would imply is two independent states, much like, in some senses, the two-state solution. They are independent, except in areas where they mutually agree to cooperate. And, in that situation, involve some kind of federal entity that would help spark coordination and discussion and policy on those areas.
Commonly, the areas mentioned that the parties might agree upon would be the environment, sanitation, health care, and also external security. So, these are areas that are commonly mentioned, but the parties themselves would get together and mutually agree on what they could work together on. A model of that is the European Union, which is in some sense that kind of confederation.
TML: If interest in the scenarios you’ve suggested is so low, the end result doesn’t seem so promising. What one factor would turn it all around?
Anthony: The report emphasizes the need for education and understanding among the two parties, but the policy recommendation which is in the report is that the security and economic guarantees are going to be probably required from the outside, from the international community, to help precipitate movement in the right direction. So, we didn’t go into a lot of the details as to how to resolve the various conflict ideas. There’s a lot of other literature out there on that, but those are two areas that we did suggest.
TML: In looking back over these last two years of trying to move the bar, I’ve heard you say over and over again education, education, education. Do you feel that’s the only thing left at the moment that’s going to change the status quo?
Anthony: No, I think there are other areas that we mentioned. We mentioned leadership and then interviews that we did in addition to the focus groups. People emphasized to us that leadership was important and they also emphasized that leaders could help change the opinions of everyday people if in fact they wanted to do so. So, there are other areas that could be looked at, but the ones that we looked at in the report were confined to the status group recommendations that they made.
TML: C. Ross Anthony, Director of the Rand Israeli-Palestinian Initiative, and co-author of this new study. Thank you so much for joining me here at The Media Line!
Anthony: I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you about the upcoming study.