Almost a third of Jewish Israelis claim that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people, according to a new opinion survey.
The figure is “very surprising”, said Ephraim Yaar, co-director of the research, which was carried out under the auspices of Tel Aviv University.
There has not been any polling on this subject until now and it was widely presumed that denial of Palestinian peoplehood, once standard among Israelis, had become a fringe position.
The poll found that only 62 per cent of Jewish adults said that a Palestinian people exists; 32 per cent said it does not. Six per cent did not know.
Israelis of all political shades constantly talk about “the Palestinians”, but experts suggest that an unspoken caveat often applies.
“In Israeli discourse, people talk about Palestinians as individuals but not as one nation that deserves a state,” said Tel Aviv University political scientist Amal Jamal.
The most famous denial of Palestinian peoplehood came from Israel’s fourth Prime Minister, Golda Meir, in an interview with the Sunday Times in 1969. She claimed: “There was no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan.
“It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”
Mitchell Barak, CEO of the polling firm Keevoon Research and an expert on contemporary political discourse, said that similar arguments are alive and well on the right today.
“People believe that Arafat created the Palestinian people as a result of the Six-Day War and that it’s not a natural entity,” he said.
A range of historical and contemporary arguments bolster this notion.
Today’s deep division between Fatah and Hamas raises doubts in people’s minds. So does the fact that in 1946 around three-quarters of Palestine became Jordan, yet the population in these areas is generally not deemed part of the Palestinian people.
Dr Yaar’s poll paints an intriguing picture of the Israeli public as favouring giving a state to a people whose existence it doubts.
Recent surveys have placed support for the establishment of a Palestinian state as high as 70 per cent — higher than the number, according to Dr Yaar’s poll, who believe a Palestinian people exists.
A significant minority who denied Palestinian peoplehood still favoured a Palestinian state.
While the figures seem contradictory, Dr Yaar says the Israeli discourse over Palestinian statehood has changed. Though at the time of the Oslo Accords it focused on the right of the Palestinians to self-determination, today this theme is rarely invoked. The emphasis, instead, is on finding a pragmatic option for peace.
He added that Israelis are acutely aware of the threat to the Jewish majority from the occupation, making a Palestinian state an attractive option even among those who deny that the existence of a Palestinian people.
“People make a distinction between what they believe in theory and what goes on in reality.”