According to Haaretz editor Chemi Shalev, a recent Palestinian poll shows that 69 percent of Palestinians support the two-state solution — “more than Israelis,” Shalev notes.
“Two-state solution” is a short phrase that packs a whole lot of meaning. They are an easy three words to type, but volumes have been written about what the concept, and its acceptance or rejection, might mean for such lofty concepts as freedom, security, self-determination, acceptance of the Other, and Arab-Israeli peace. It is a phrase should be wielded with precision.
No Reference to “Two States” or “Solution”
So let’s look more closely. Is it true that the March 14 Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC) poll shows such strong Palestinian support for a “two-state solution,” as Shalev, other journalists, and and even the JMCC summary claim? The actual question posed to Palestinians was this: “Do you support a change in Palestinian policy, from demanding an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to demanding equal rights for Arabs and Jews in one state in Historical Palestine, from the river to the sea?”
Note that the question does not explicitly refer to a two-state solution. It does not refer to the legitimacy of the state of Israel. It simply asks the public what they believe leaders should presently “demand,” as a matter of “policy.” And, in the context of the historical and contemporary Palestinian conversation about Israel, the question shouldn’t be seen even as implicitly referring to a two-state solution.
A Transitory State
There is a long-established idea that Palestinians should accept or demand a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a transitory stage toward a larger Palestinian state “from the river to the sea,” one that encompasses all of Israel. During the PLO’s first decade, the revolutionary Palestinian leadership insisted that there should be no compromise on the path to “liberating” Palestinian and eliminating Israel. It would be all or nothing. But in 1974, at a Palestinian National Council meeting, the leadership drew up a “10-point program” that represented a shift in approach.
The program, also know as the “phased plan,” asserted that “any step taken towards liberation is a step towards the realization of the Liberation Organization’s strategy of establishing the democratic Palestinian State,” which would ultimately exist on what Palestinian leaders viewed as “the whole of the soil of their homeland,” replacing Israel. In other words, Palestinians would establish a national authority on any territory they controlled and, “once it is established, the Palestinian national authority will strive to achieve a union of the confrontation countries, with the aim of completing the liberation of all Palestinian territory.”
Simply put, the willingness to accept a smaller state, for example in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, would not necessarily mean willingness to forgo a larger Palestinian state encompassing Israel.
The phased plan idea would continue to be part of the Palestinian political conversation and imagination. Even on the day the Palestinian leadership signed on to the Oslo Accords, and despite assurances in English that the PLO recognizes Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, PLO head Yasir Arafat told his people,
Do not forget that our Palestine National Council accepted the decision in 1974. It called for the establishment of a national authority on any part of Palestinian land that is liberated or from which the Israelis withdrew. … This is the moment of return, the moment of gaining a foothold on the first liberated Palestinian land.
Other Palestinian leaders echoed the sentiment at the time. And still today, many emphasize that the existence of two states would not be a “solution” to the conflict. As Tawfiq Tirawi, a senior Fatah official and former intelligence chief of the Palestinian Authority, put it earlier this year,
Palestine stretches from the river to the sea… a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital, is just a phase, as far as I am concernedDon’t think that there can be a solution to the Palestinian issue by establishing a state the borders of which are limited to the West Bank and Gaza. I challenge any Palestinian to say that the map of Palestine is limited to the West Bank and Gaza.
And of course, Hamas leaders who have entertained the idea of accepting a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip likewise make it clear that they would not see this as a solution to the conflict. Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri described his acceptance of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip as follows:
The Hamas Movement’s position is a clear one: We refuse to recognize the Israeli occupation, but we do not object to any gradual solutions that do not stem from recognition of the Israeli occupation’s state. If we are speaking in the context of a transient and gradual solution, then yes, we do not object to the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders without that leading to the recognition of the occupation’s legitimacy.
Clearly, then, an expressed willingness to accept or demand a smaller Palestinian state does necessarily indicate support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. (Even more explicit expressions support for two states should not be confused with support for the two-states-for-two-peoples solution backed by the international community.)
Different Results for Polls Explicitly Mentioning Two States
So what exactly do the respondents to the JMCC poll believe about a two-state solution, and the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state? We don’t know. The question is simply not precise enough to answer.
We do know, however, that in poll after poll Palestinians have firmly insisted on a so-called “right of return,” which would allow the descendants of Palestinian refugees to flood Israel demographically, turning that country into potentially a 2nd Palestinian state. Any serious discussion of Palestinian attitudes toward two states cannot overlook this position on refugees, which is considered incompatible with the idea of two states for two peoples.
We also know that in a JMCC poll conducted only months earlier that used much more explicit phrasing, the percentage of Palestinians supporting two states was far below the 69 percent figure cited by journalists reporting on this month’s survey. That Sept. 2015 poll asked,
Some believe that a two-state formula is the favored solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict, while others believe that historic Palestine cannot be divided and thus the favored solution is a bi-national state on all of Palestine where Palestinians and Israelis enjoy equal representation and rights. Which of these solutions do you prefer?
A plurality of 44 percent answered that they preferred two states. (A combined majority opted for a “bi-national state,” a vague “Palestinian state,” or a perhaps menacing “no solution.”)
A poll by AWRAD conducted only a month before the March JMCC poll asked a similar question, but simplified the responses by asking only about agreement or disagreement with a statement about a two state solution. A majority disagreed with the statement in favor of a two-state solution.
The wording of poll questions matters. So does the philosophical context in which those words fit. So journalists and readers beware: Unless a poll question explicitly asks about support for two states, or better yet two states for two peoples, then we should be extremely hesitant to assume it sheds light on that subject.