Israeli Public Supports a Nuclear-Free Middle East

By Bilal Y. Saab – Former Brookings colleague Shibley Telhami and his co-workers conducted a poll of Israelis on their attitudes toward a Middle East Nuclear Free Weapons Zone. 64% of Israeli jews favor the establishment of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.


This is quite remarkable. I am not sure how much impact it will have on actual Israeli policy or even the policy debate itself (polling is an imperfect science and one could question the methodolgy not just of this poll but of polling in general), but it is still very interesting. Add to that the recent popular movements in Israel and Iran promoting peace and love between the two countries and you’ve got some people power, or at least a not insignificant voice in Israel and Iran calling for reducing tensions and averting war.

But back to the Israeli public opinion poll. It needs to be placed in its proper context, as all polls should. I like how Anshel Pfeffer explains it in Haaretz. He says that when it comes to Israeli opinions about an Israeli strike against Iran, there are three categories:

About a third favors a strike against Iran under almost any circumstance – with or without the blessing of Barack Obama’s administration. Another third opposes a strike, almost unconditionally. This is the section of the public that is responsible for the recent Facebook and YouTube campaigns pledging love to Iran and promising Iranians that Israel will not bomb them. And there is a third of Israelis who are undecided; they believe that a strike is probably inevitable, but are afraid of the repercussions and want the Israeli government to do everything possible to ensure U.S. support before carrying it out.    

But one must fight his way through an almost impenetrable thicket of polls to reach even this level of clarity.    

The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) released a poll last week showing that a clear majority of Israelis (65 percent) believe a strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities would be preferable to accepting an Islamic Republic which has a military nuclear capability. Sixty percent said that only an attack could stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, while 37 percent believed that there are other ways of averting an Iranian bomb.    

A similar majority – 64 percent – are confident that the IDF can significantly damage the Iranian nuclear installations, while 63 percent assume that retaliation against Israel’s civilian front will take place regardless of who carried out the attack – Israel or the U.S.    

This last statistic is particularly interesting, because the very pollster who carried out the poll for JCPA is Prof. Camil Fuchs, Haaretz’ regular pollster. A couple of weeks ago, in a poll for Haaretz, he found that 58 percent of Israelis oppose an attack on Iran without American support. This would seem to indicate that while Israelis are very worried about the Iranian threat and have little faith in diplomacy and sanctions, many of them are ambiguous over the wisdom of such attack, especially one that is carried out without U.S. support.    

Naturally, there is some overlap between the majorities in either of Fuchs’ polls, and polling is always largely a reflection of the question’s wording by the organizations commissioning the surveys. Other polls carried out by different organizations paint an even more bewildering picture. At the end of February, the Saban Center at the Brookings Institute published a survey of Israeli public opinion carried out by the Deaf Company, which showed major reservations among the public.    

According to the poll, only 19 percent of Israelis would support a strike without American backing, 42 percent would be in favor of attacking only if the U.S. is on board, and 34 percent were against striking in any case. This is by far the most detailed of polls to come out recently, and it reveals that Israelis are divided on a wide range of questions such as the support that the U.S. will ultimately give Israel if it attacks, the duration of a conflict, and whether such a move would seriously delay the Iranian nuclear project. It does seem, though, that most Israelis believe an attack on Iran would almost certainly lead to a wider conflict which will include Hezbollah in Lebanon and would last for at least a few months.    

Fast-forward nearly a month, and there is a new survey carried out by the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University and this one has 42 percent of Israelis supporting an attack on Iran, even if Israel has to go it alone, and 69 percent favor a strike in cooperation with the Americans.    

Does the reason for this increase in those backing an attack lie in different polling methodology, in the specific wording of the questions in each survey, or in the fact that the respondents in the Truman poll had since heard Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama’s speeches at the AIPAC conference? Maybe the pollsters have the answers.    

Another poll carried out by the Midgam project ten days ago for Channel 10 – also after the speeches in Washington – is much closer to the Brookings results – It has only 23 percent of Israelis in favor of a solo attack on Iran, with 56 percent against. 21 percent have no opinion (in itself a surprising statistic).    

Netanyahu, known as a notorious polling-junky, is fully aware of the existence and fears of the undecided and skeptical and these endless surveys prove that he still has to go some way to win over a majority of the public. He was trying to do just this in his Knesset speech earlier this month when he reiterated the absolute necessity that Israel retains the sovereign right to strike and repeated the Americans’ agreement to this, in principle.    

In his speech, Netanyahu mentioned Menachem Begin’s decision in 1981 to defy American opposition and bomb Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor. That operation was supported retroactively by a wide Israeli consensus, but the same wasn’t true of Begin’s next military initiative, which Netanyahu did not mention in his speech – the first Lebanon war. While a majority of the public initially supported Operation Peace in Galilee, as the IDF became increasingly bogged down in the Lebanese mud, the support eroded and the Lebanon war went down in history as Israel’s first Milchemet Breira – “a war of choice.”    

If the prime minister has indeed decided on embarking on a war with Iran, he will have to continue to do everything in his power to win over the undecided third’s support for his position that this is a Milchemet ein-breira – “a war of no choice.”

Are you confused already? Because I am.