Do Israelis support West Bank annexation? An extremely straightforward question with no straightforward answer. Dueling polls that were released in the past couple of weeks demonstrate why it is very difficult to assess what Israelis think about the potential sea change in the West Bank’s status that Israel’s new government appears to be rushing into headlong, and why it is even more important to describe various annexation plans in precise and clear terms. It also sheds light on why Prime Minister Netanyahu’s actual preferences for the status of the West Bank may not matter this time around, making his past actions less of a reliable predictor of his future ones.
The first poll, commissioned by Commanders for Israel’s Security, was the latest version of the same series of questions that CIS has been asking Israeli respondents for years to assess their preferences for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The survey found that when asked to choose between a two-state agreement, unilateral separation, annexation, or the status quo, 40% of Israeli Jews support a two-state agreement and 22% support separation, versus 26% who support annexation. While support for a two-state agreement has fallen from 47% in November 2018 and support for annexation has risen since then from 16%, the poll clearly shows relatively low support among Israeli Jews for West Bank annexation and a strong majority preference for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians by lessening Israel’s presence in the West Bank rather than strengthening it.
The second poll, released by the Israel Democracy Institute, shows a rather different result. IDI found that 52% of Israeli Jews support application of Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank, representing an absolute majority. IDI did not poll on any other options, but its findings throw the idea into question that Netanyahu and the new Israeli government are proceeding with a policy that is only supported by a minority, notwithstanding that it is an influential and vocal one.
Do not bother trying to reconcile these two polls, or even trying to glean some absolute truth from either of them. It is a futile exercise for the simple reason that their respective framings make them impossible to compare, and also illustrate why it is hard to ascertain what Israelis actually think about annexation at all. The questions posed here are not actually asking about the same issue in Israelis’ minds given their wording and their level of precision.
The CIS poll asks Israelis about annexation without qualifiers or specifics, and juxtaposes annexation to a two-state agreement, which is historically a popular option with either majorities or strong pluralities of Israelis. While even in this formulation annexation is gaining ground, it is not surprising that it remains largely unpopular. Not only is annexation set up against other options that are more attractive for most Israelis, annexation is not defined and thus it is left to respondents to interpret what that means. Some may think it means annexing part of the West Bank while others may think it means annexing the entire West Bank, which means incorporating 2.5 million Palestinians directly into Israel in a move that most Israeli Jews will reject out of hand. The CIS poll reflects one fundamental truth, which is that Israeli Jews are not eager to do anything rash, and the question is asked in a way that makes it easy to interpret annexation as an all-encompassing and far-reaching move.
The IDI poll uses a more precise terminology in that it asks Israeli Jews whether they support “a plan coordinated with the United States for applying sovereignty to parts of the West Bank/Judea and Samaria…brought for the government’s and/or the Knesset’s approval.” For starters, IDI did not ask about alternatives, so rather than consider annexation alongside other options, this is a straight yes or no question to be considered in isolation. More saliently, the question describes what might take place not as annexation, but as application of sovereignty to part of the West Bank in coordination with the U.S. Not only does that explicitly define it as a far less revolutionary or scary measure, it puts it in the context of being part and parcel of a diplomatic approach – and even a two-state outcome, whether or not IDI intended it as such – rather than as a unilateral move.
As I noted last week, the real success of the Trump plan is to redefine the two-state solution as something that can be fulfilled by Israel unilaterally annexing 30% of the West Bank, and the IDI poll plays right into that dynamic. A plan coordinated with the most important international actor that involves nothing more than applying sovereignty to some areas where there are already Jewish communities inside of Judea and Samaria sounds downright moderate compared to unilateral West Bank annexation. It implies a diplomatic process that will absorb Israelis while leaving Palestinians to their own affairs, the pace and unfolding of which is entirely under Israel’s control. It will also be interpreted by some respondents not only as being a moderate compromise position, but as being consistent with a two-state solution. It reflects another fundamental truth, which is that annexing some parts of the West Bank that Israeli Jews already view as being inseparably part of Israel, such as Ma’ale Adumim or Gush Etzion, is very popular. The surprise in this case is not that 52% of Israeli Jews support annexation when described in the terms that the IDI poll uses, but that the number is not far higher.
Whether or not Israelis support annexation writ large or the specific annexation contemplated by the Trump plan, the more relevant variable is what Netanyahu wants to do about it. There is a lot of cynicism, mostly on the right but also on the left, about Netanyahu and annexation, with many holding the view that Netanyahu does not actually want to go through with it and uses the issue solely as a way to manipulate Israelis into supporting him. The best evidence for this is that Netanyahu, despite serving as prime minister uninterrupted now for over a decade, has made no effort to actually annex any part of the West Bank or apply sovereignty to settlements, and never even publicly supported it until days before the April 2019 election. As Anshel Pfeffer points out, Netanyahu could have proceeded with annexation at any point since President Trump’s election but hasn’t, and he argues that because Netanyahu no longer needs to keep the annexation issue on the front burner in order to ensure his reelection, he will continue to come up with excuses not to move ahead.
It is difficult to refute this argument, largely because it is true. Netanyahu has spent years holding up initiatives to extend Israeli sovereignty into the West Bank, and many of those close to him have insisted for years that Netanyahu understands the dangers of doing so and does not want to be the Israeli prime minister who presides over the creation of a de facto bi-national state. But this argument misses a huge structural factor that exists now and has not before, which is Trump and the Trump plan. After Trump’s election but before he took office, Natan Sachs and I wrote in Foreign Affairs that freedom from American pressure was going to limit Netanyahu’s traditional strategy of using the White House as an excuse for throwing cold water on measures that he feels political pressure to act upon but does not want to pursue. In this instance, annexation is in some ways owned and being pushed by the U.S. even more so than by Israel. It is supported by the U.S. in the form of a plan and an actual map, and is raised constantly in interviews by Ambassador David Friedman as something that Israel should do. What Netanyahu wants is not the same as what he is able to do, and there is plenty of reason to suspect that if the White House foists this on him, that will be the controlling factor rather than Netanyahu’s own predilections.
What Israelis think about annexation is important, and what Netanyahu thinks in his heart of hearts is as well. But structure is often more important than agency when it comes to policy decision making, and what makes this moment different than what has come before is that the structural environment in which this all may unfold looks nothing like it did in the past.