The Israeli electorate believes peace with the Arabs is impossible without giving up some of the occupied West Bank but is deeply divided on whether Israel should do so, according to a public opinion survey in the Jewish state by New York pollster Louis Harris.
Harris' survey of 1,026 Jewish voters and 150 Arab voters in Israel, conducted in late June and early July, indicated strong backing for Prime Minister Menachem Begin as a national leader, but ambivalence and divisions about some of Begin's controversial diplomatic positions. The survey eas financed by Seagrams President Edgar Bronfman, an American Jewish leader, and the results presented to Begin and senior White House and State Department officials in mid-July.
By 51 to 30 per cent (the rest were undecided), Israeli Jews questioned by Harris considered Begin's tough stand on the West Bank and other foreign policy issues to be "a bargaining position" that can be softened in negotiations rather than a hard and unbending position.
President Carter, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and other U.S. leaders have pinned their hopes for a Middle East peace on just such a possibility of future flexibility by Begin. However, their hopes have been shaken in recent weeks as Begin expressed unyielding views in private and in public and as Israel proceeded, over U.S. and Arab objections, to create additional Jewish enclaves in the West Bank.
Along with some of Begin's closest aides and associates, the Israeli public today appears to have become highly pessimistic about prospects for peace.
Harris reported that in 1970 an Israeli majority of more than 2 to 1 believed that "in the next few years, it is likely that Israel will reach a peace agreement with the Arab countries."
In the latest pell, a 2-to-1 Jewish majority said such a peace agreement in the next few years is "unlikely." On this point Israeli Arabs held almost identical views.
The deep skepticism about Arab intentions, which is an underlying factor in the Israeli position, is clearly portrayed in the Harris survey. According to the poll results, only 16 percent of the Jewish respondents believe that the Arabs would be "really serious" about peace if they declare nonbelligerency to Israel, and only 21 per cent woulld accept the Arabs as "really serious" if they recognize formally the right of Israel to exist and exchange ambassadors, Israeli Arabs overwhelmingly disagreed with that skeptical view.
On West Bank - Palestinian questions, the Harris survey reported these disparate results:
Fifty-three per cent of the Jewish respondents and 94 per cent of the Arabs said it will be impossible for Israel to obtain a peace settlement while refusing a tive up any of the occupied West Bank. (Thirty-six per cent of the Jews said it would be difficult but not impossible.)
Forty-six per cent of the Jewish voters questioned agreed with Begin's unwillingness to give up any of the West Bank, but 45 per cent disagreed.
"Any flat stand over a sustained period of time by Begin that the West Bank is not negotiable will split the country down the middle into the deepest kind of controversy," Harris reported.
By 60 to 24 per cent, Jewish respondents opposed giving back "most" of the West Bank territory to Jordan under an arrangement whereby land necessary for Israeli defense would be a neutral zone jointly occupied by Israeli and Jordanian troops.
While approving (71 to 22) Begin's refusal to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Jewish respondents were almost evenly divided (46 to 45) on whether to permit PLO participation at a Geneva conderence if the PLO recognizes the right of Israel to exist.
In keeping with findings by Israeli pollsters and political analysts, Harris reported that a strong shift by Sephardic Jews (those of African or Asian ethnic origin) was a crucial factor in Begin's victory. This group is now 54 per cent of the Israeli electorate, Harris said. His results said the Sephardic voters favored Begin's Likud Party over the long-ruling Labor Party by 52 to 21 per cent.
According to Harris, the Sephardic vote is deeply committed to Jewish enclaves in the West Bank (68 to 18) and more than 80 per cent do not like President Carter's advocacy of a Palestinian homeland and of Israeli return to 1967 borders with minor modifications.
At the same time, Harris said it is "highly significant" that Jews with African roots said only narrowly (33 to 29) that peace with the Arabs is not possible under a Begin government, with 38 per cent not sure. Their view is a bit more optimistic than Asian-descended Israelis or Jewish voters as a whole.
According to Harris, 44 per cent of all Jewish respondents said a peace agreement is "not possible" under Begin, compared to 23 per cent who said it is. By 73 to 11, Israeli Arabs questioned believe no peace can come while Begin is prime minister.