His statement is a campaign promise and may well never be fulfilled, but it is one to be taken seriously. The country’s leaders have been advancing or advocating piecemeal annexation in the West Bank through legislation, rhetoric and de facto expansion on the ground for at least the last decade in a form of “creeping annexation.”
What does the Israeli public think about the annexation of the West Bank and its 2.7 million Palestinians, which would end the two-state solution forever?
How to measure Israeli opinion on annexation
Assessing the public’s position is complex, given the range of incremental options for annexation that have been raised in recent years. In mid-2017, I wrote two studies looking at different approaches that range from the incremental option of annexing just one settlement to more extreme options of annexing the entire West Bank or Area C (a labyrinthine land area covering over 60 percent of the West Bank). The questions about annexation scenarios included different citizenship options for Palestinians who would fall under Israeli sovereignty as a result of annexation.
The two studies were commissioned independently of one another, one by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem in May 2017 and the other by the Carter Center in July 2017. The July study provided an opportunity to test identical questions on the annexation issue as a way to repeat the experiments from May.
Both samples comprised 650 Israeli adult citizens: 500 Jews and 150 Arabs. The samples were weighted accordingly based on demographic data of the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. Fieldwork for both was conducted by New Wave Research for the Jewish sample and by Statnet for the Arab sample, and the margin of error is four percentage points.
The findings were stark. Israelis show powerful support for annexation of individual settlements that do not include Palestinians. The more land slated for annexation, the more divided the public is. And the more Palestinians who would become citizens with full civil rights, the more Israelis oppose the policy.
Incremental or extreme options
When looking at incremental options, we asked if respondents support annexing the settlement of Maaleh Adumim, which lies east of Jerusalem. Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) supported it in July 2017. There is also support for it from 29 percent of Arabs and 82 percent of Jews. The findings were almost identical to the survey from May. The gap is not surprising: In nearly any poll question addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as support for a two-state solution or specific concessions, Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel hold vastly different views.
We also asked about annexing the entire West Bank — as the more extreme approach to annexation — and providing full civil rights to all Palestinians. Avoiding clearly politicized terminology such as “one-state solution” or “binational state,” the question read: “Do you support or oppose annexation of all Judea and Samaria/the West Bank with full citizenship for all residents, … [meaning] Israeli law will be applied equally, including the right to vote for Knesset for Jews and Palestinians, including in East Jerusalem?”
In July 2017, only 22 percent of Israelis supported this option; among Jews, just 18 percent. The study three months earlier showed similar responses, but slightly more support: 22 percent among Jews, and 26 percent in total supported annexing the entire West Bank and providing full civil rights to all Palestinians. In both July and May, Arab respondents were more supportive: In July nearly one-quarter “strongly” supported the option, and 41 percent in total supported it. These respondents were clearly attracted by the idea of equal law and voting rights for all.
But this question produced one highly unusual finding: The Israeli left, center, and right are almost entirely unified in rejecting full annexation of the West Bank with full rights: 84 percent, 89 percent and 79 percent reject the idea, respectively.
What’s different this time?
The current debate avoids both annexation extremes. Many right-wing politicians have proposed annexing Area C as a start. This region encircles and cuts through the middle of the West Bank. All settlements are located in Area C. The areas Netanyahu has marked for sovereignty also overlap heavily with Area C.
In the July 2017 survey, we asked: “Do you support or oppose the annexation of Area C, which includes 60 percent of Judea-Samaria/the West Bank where most of the settlers are located, the Jordan Valley, and about 300,000 Palestinians who will receive full Israeli citizenship?” (The number of Palestinians there is disputed. This figure was collected by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.)
Forty-three percent of all Israelis supported the Area C annexation. Among Jews, 45 percent supported it (49 percent in May), and 35 percent among Arabs. However, as an experiment, only half of respondents were asked the question above (in two surveys, thus providing a full sample).
In each survey, the remaining half of respondents were asked the same question but told Palestinians would be permanent residents rather than full Israeli citizens and, thus, unable to vote for the Knesset (like East Jerusalem Palestinians). This time 52 percent of Jews supported the idea, confirming the May study which showed 54 percent support among Jews. Among Israelis who defined themselves as right-wing, two-thirds supported such a move in the July study. These are the voters Netanyahu is courting.
More recent polls affirm the trend. The Israel Democracy Institute recently published a survey conducted during the last week of August. Nearly half, 48 percent of Jews and 63 percent of right-wingers, support annexation of Area C (if President Trump were to support it). Only 11 percent of Arabs did. When asked about the best approach for the Palestinians living there, over one-third of Jews opted to transfer Palestinians out of the area.
Netanyahu’s statement did not appear in a political vacuum. His promises reflect continuity with his policies and he is surely aware of high support from his constituency for the incremental approach. Overall Israeli support for sovereignty in the West Bank is substantial; the public only unites against annexation when they realize Palestinians swept up in sovereignty might be equal to Israelis.
Dahlia Scheindlin (@dahliasc) is a political analyst and a public opinion expert who has worked on seven campaigns in Israel and conducted research for the current campaign of the Democratic Union; she is a regular writer at +972 Magazine, a policy fellow at Mitvim — the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a nonresident fellow at the Century Foundation. Scheindlin co-hosts the Tel Aviv Review podcast, on TLV1 Radio.