Lies, Damn Lies, and Polls

Do Israelis support negotiating with Hamas? An opinion piece in the Boston Globe (April 9th) and one in the Washington Post (May 11th) claimed that they do, citing a poll that seems to show just that. According to the poll, a Ha’aretz Dialog survey from February, 63% of Israelis favor negotiations with Hamas to end rocket attacks from Gaza and gain the release of kidnaped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

But there’s good reason to doubt the Ha’aretz poll, especially because a much more detailed February survey (opens as pdf file) showed exactly the opposite result. That survey, published in early March by the highly respected Tami Steinmetz Center of Tel Aviv University, found that only 25% of Israelis supported negotiating with Hamas, while 28% favored limited ground operations in Gaza to end the missile fire, and 22% favored re- occupying Gaza. (Among Jewish Israelis only 17% favored talking to Hamas, 33% favored limited ground operations, and 26% favored reoccupying Gaza.)

It is precisely the many choices offered to respondents by the Steinmetz poll that makes it more reliable than the Ha’aretz-Dialog poll, which offered just a yes/no/don’t know choice. Asking people whether they would rather do something or do nothing about a problem will usually bias the result in favor of action, which is why good polls offer multiple choices, preferably the very choices that policymakers are actually considering.

Despite its obvious relevance, the Steinmetz poll was ignored by both of the Op-Ed’s. This is perhaps not surprising, since mentioning the Steinmetz poll to readers would have undermined the policies that the authors were pushing. In particular, the Globe Op-Ed made the surprising claim that there could be “An Israeli-Hamas coalition for peace,” which was the column’s title in the print edition of the paper. Such a coalition is certainly a strange notion, considering that the defining goal of Hamas is to destroy Israel, not reach a peace treaty with it. Perhaps the authors, Geoffrey Lewis and Seymour Reich, both with the Israel Policy Forum, came to realize how jarring the original title was, since the online version quickly got the new title “Finding a way to bring Hamas in.”

According to Lewis and Reich:

IT’S BECOMING increasingly clearer that reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement requires finding a way to bring Hamas into the process …

Many respected Israeli security officials, including two former heads of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, arrived at that conclusion some time ago. So have 64 percent of Israelis, who said, according to a Haaretz-Dialog poll taken in February, that they would negotiate directly with Hamas to end the rocket attacks from Gaza, controlled by Hamas since June 2007, and to secure the release of the captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.

In fact, contrary to Lewis and Reich, “64 percent of Israelis”didn’t favor negotiating with Hamas. Indeed, according to the Steinmetz poll “an overwhelming majority of the Jewish public” opposed such a course. And while a former head and a former deputy head of Mossad may favor such negotiations, unmentioned by Lewis and Reich is the fact that there are many other former security and intelligence chiefs who take exactly the opposite position.

The Washington Post Op-Ed, titled “5 Myths on Who’s Really ‘Pro-Israel’,” argues it is a myth that “talking peace with your enemies demonstrates weakness.” The author, Jeremy Ben-Ami, heads the new “J Street” lobby, a would-be “progressive” alternative to the supposedly right-wing AIPAC. According to Ben-Ami:

You don’t need an advanced degree in international relations to recognize that pursuing peace only with people you like is pointless. Most Israelis know this; a recent poll in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that two-thirds of Israelis favor cease-fire negotiations between their government and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip, exactly because Hamas is such a bitter foe.

In fact, contrary to Ben-Ami, “two-thirds of Israelis” didn’t “favor cease-fire negotiations” with Hamas; on the contrary, as the Steinmetz poll showed.

Only by citing a deeply flawed poll while ignoring a reliable one could these authors have come to their deceptive conclusions. Or, to update an old truism, “There are lies, damn lies, and polls.”

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