Most official Arab reactions to the September 1993 Israel-PLO agreement on a declaration of principles for peace have been impressively positive. This reaction followed a similarly positive disposition to the American-sponsored peace process, launched formally in Madrid in October 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the coalition victory in the Gulf war.

These official reactions have, in turn, given rise to a series of highly symbolic acts indicating that real positive change is in the air. Arab princes and ministers have participated in multilateral track negotiations side-by-side with Israeli diplomats, including in both Tunisia and Oman, the pictures beamed throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Israelis openly meet with representatives of Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Since Madrid, even the usually dissenting Syrian leadership has expressed its willingness to cooperate in the quest for peace. In short, the Arab governments, as a group, have gone through a remarkable political transformation in recent years, for what would have been politically suicidal in previous decades appears now to be acceptable.

But governments alone cannot end a deep-seated conflict such as the one between the Arabs and Israel. It takes more than a handshake to make real peace. Real peace requires more than mutual recognition on the political level; it requires a reconciliation of the heart. In the end, peoples as well as governments must agree to end a conflict.

Even if Arab political systems are not democratic, the views of their citizenry still matter. They set at least informal limits on what governments can do, not in that they can literally stop a regime from its determined actions but rather in that they have the power to grant or withhold a kind of informal legitimacy. Since even autocracies crave consent, they must attend to opinion either by accommodating it, extirpating it, or leading it to new destinations. For genuine peace between Arabs and Israelis to come about, Arab governments must work to move their public opinion from belligerence to goodwill.

Can one say that a shift has taken place among the Arabs? Some analysts believe so. Aaron D. Miller thinks that "Arab and Palestinian attitudes toward Israel have changed greatly but quietly in recent years."[1] Sara Roy reports that the Palestinian refugees in Gaza now acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel and recognize the need to compromise with it.[2] Muhammad Muslih resorts to legalism to conclude that the Palestinian mind has evolved to accept coexistence with Israel, basing his assertion on a "profound and consistent evolution" in the content of the resolutions of the Palestine National Council since 1974.[3] Implicit in such formulations is the notion that Arab governments have been more moderate and forthcoming lately because their populations' changing views have allowed it.

But there is good reason to doubt that Arab public opinion is ready for peace with Israel. Survey research conducted among one thousand Muslim Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians on the eve of the signing of the September 13 agreement suggests that elite attitudes are very ahead of mass attitudes when it comes to contemplating peace with Israel.[4] This suggests, in turn, that Arab leaders risk delegitimizing themselves, perhaps dangerously so, if they persist with current policies, and that the Arab governments favoring peace need to pay more attention to civic leadership and peace education in their own countries if they are to reduce the domestic risks inherent in their regional diplomacy.

In carrying out this survey, it was assumed that three variables amenable to empirical testing indicate a basic Arab readiness for peace with Israel: (1) support for the peace talks; (2) perception that peace is feasible; and (3) positive projection of Israel's long-term intentions towards the Arabs. After assessing the data, it will be examined in light of published views and policy implications.


Peace with Israel means recognizing the Jewish state as a sovereign political entity, something Arabs have been conditioned not to accept. Accordingly, the peace process severely divides public opinion in the Levant. The responses in table 1 demonstrate deep disagreement about the issue of peace with Israel. Growing awareness among Arabs that Israel has become well established in the region has not generated fully commensurate shifts in positive perception toward Israel. At the same time, the fact that a strong minority of respondents are positive on the matter may indicate some positive changes in attitudes toward Israel.

Several factors appear to influence a respondent's outlook, including religious affiliation, nationality, and religiosity.

Religious affiliation. Lebanese Shi‘is express considerably more support for the talks than do Sunnis, whether Lebanese, Syrian, or Palestinian. Many Shi‘is in Lebanon believe that they were caught in the middle of a confrontation that they had nothing to do with. The Amal movement articulated the views of the Shi‘is, who asked the PLO as early as 1975, with little success, to spare southern Lebanon from destruction.

Nationality. Interestingly, the percentage of Syrians and Palestinians who cannot decide about their views of the peace talks is noticeably higher than that of their Lebanese counterparts. Placed in perspective, one can understand why many Syrian and Palestinian respondents could not make up their minds on the question of whether to accept peace with Israel. A good percentage of them have not yet succeeded in reconciling what they still ultimately want with what they believe they can get today. This feeling may have to do with the talks catching the Syrians by surprise. Also, successive military leaders in Syria have heavily indoctrinated their fellow citizens to abhor Israel, even to seek its destruction. In fact, official Syrian policies vis-à-vis Israel have been more belligerent than those of other Arab states.

As for the Palestinians, their previous territorial expectations exceeded what the peace talks in Washington offered them. In the 1950s, they aspired to eradicate Israel; in the 1960s, they were told by the PLO that a secular state in Palestine in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews could live in peace was possible, in the 1970s and 1980s they came to assume that an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza was within reach. Once the peace talks were initiated, however, it became obvious that they could not possibly achieve more than limited autonomy.

Conversely, Lebanon's open mass media appears to have made it easier for Lebanese respondents to be less hesitant than Palestinians and Syrians in taking a position on peace with Israel. Lebanon has many book publishers, newspapers, weeklies, and private television and radio stations. The Lebanese have better access to independent sources of political information than elsewhere in the Arab world.

Religiosity. What about the impact of religiosity on perceptions of the peace talks? It would have been best to measure the impact of a fundamentalist Islamic outlook rather than religiosity (not all religious people are necessarily fundamentalists), but it would be senseless to ask Syrian respondents if they considered themselves fundamentalist Muslims, given their government's severe repression of fundamentalists. The intensity of respondents' religiosity was first determined. The statistics in table 2 reveal that Sunnis are generally more religious than Shi‘is. The distribution of religiosity appears proportionate among Sunnis of all three national groups--a finding that increases confidence in the quality of the data and points to a similar politico-cultural environment throughout the Levant.

Cross-tabulation then shows a strong inverse relationship between religiosity and support for the peace talks with Israel. The impact of religiosity on withholding support for the talks is stronger among Shi‘is than Sunnis, as can be observed in the figures presented in table 3. That may have to do with the fact that Hizbullah, which embodies Shi‘i fundamentalism in Lebanon, is militarily active against Israel in southern Lebanon. Its activities appear to have increased political mobilization among religious Shi‘is and prompted more of them to dismiss the very idea of peace talks. Would a similar development occur among the Sunnis if their fundamentalist groups attain the level of Hizbullah's militancy? It is worth mentioning that highly religious Palestinian respondents from Amman--here, owing to geographic proximity, exposure to activities of the Hamas movement (the symbol of Palestinian fundamentalism) is more frequent than elsewhere--indicate stronger rejection of the peace talks than Palestinian respondents from Beirut.


Support for the peace talks provides a necessary but not sufficient building block for genuine peace. Acceptance of the principle of negotiations may not suggest a positive disposition toward peace, for negotiations can have objectives other than harmony. Asking about views on the likelihood of peace with Israel suggest something more about the respondents' expectations. The views of those who reject the peace talks are looked at first, followed by analyses of those who accept them.

Against the talks. Two-thirds of those polled responded to the first question in table 4, which asked them to recommend alternatives to direct negotiations. Immediate military confrontation with Israel, replied three-quarters of them. The remaining one-fourth called for maintaining the present situation of no peace, no war, pending the time when Arabs can attain their objectives. The choice of military confrontation as an alternative to peace talks reflects willful preference, and not resignation about its inevitability.

That so many respondents call for immediate military confrontation against Israel prompts two comments: when half the respondents look forward to war, it hardly augurs well for the cause of real peace; and when they call for military action, they demonstrate themselves to be out of touch with reality. If Arabs could not destroy Israel during the peak of superpower polarity, they are unlikely to do so in a time of U.S. predominance. Responses to this question imply an alarming lack of understanding of the new political reality in the world and the region. What explains this lack of realism?

Perhaps the talk of war serves as a form of catharsis. Raphael Patai explains that among Arabic speakers, talking "about what is not within the realm of possible . . . serves as a substitute for achievement and accomplishment."[5] Respondents who call for immediate war against Israel may simply want to reduce the intensity of their frustration about Arab military weakness. Another explanation derives from Sanai Hamady's argument that an Arab's "ability to generalize is low, and so is his capacity to grasp the whole. Poor in logic, the Arab shows also a lack of purposive directness in his thought."[6]

It has been previously argued that the Arab mind needs restructuring in a way that emphasizes critical analysis, better understanding of reality, rigorous methodological criteria, and inquisitiveness.[7] As an example of the problem, here's an Israeli officer's reaction to the Palestinians' military behavior during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon:

They were brave . . . but they acted illogically. A squad would suddenly pop up under a tree to fire on our tanks. We blasted its men from a distance--for the most part before they managed to fire off their weapons. Then, a few meters away, another squad would pop and attempt to fire on us--even though its men had seen what happened to their comrades--and they, too, were cut down by heavy fire. Israeli soldiers would never behave that way. They wouldn't stand up and expose themselves after witnessing the fate of their predecessors. It was foolish but uncommonly brave. To stand up in front of a tank after seeing what happened a moment before--that is almost irrational. But that's what happened all along the road.[8]

This description helps explain how so many respondents call for an immediate military confrontation with Israel.

For the talks. Do respondents supporting the peace talks believe an agreement with Israel can endure? Almost 90 percent are not optimistic; they seem to suspect that the agreement would be sabotaged. By whom? The third query probes this question. Most respondents point to fundamentalist Muslims as the culprits, while only a minority see Israeli radicals as the likely saboteurs. This is not hard to explain. The unyielding opposition of fundamentalist Muslim groups to peace with Israel is well known to Arab public opinion. However, skeptical Arabs may be of Israelis, they do know that a large peace movement exists in Israel and that it has no counterpart in the Arab world.

Respondents who support peace appear not to be committed to it as a lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Responses to the fourth question came as a great surprise, for not a single respondent gave a positive justification for peace as the only available alternative to the present; as a chance to recover some territory occupied by Israel since the Six Day War; as an opportunity to put a halt to "Israeli aggression"; or (the most popular view) as an interim period for Arabs to reorganize themselves. Reorganize for what? Most likely to initiate a new round of hostilities. More than 90 percent of peace supporters said (in response to the fifth question) that they would cease to support peace if regional and international circumstances turned against Israel. A Beirut newspaper expresses what goes in the minds of Arabs:

Imposed peace will be the price that we must pay as a consequence of our failure to contain Israel . . . But peace means nothing to us . . . The world is bound to change, and American might will eventually decline. Sooner or later the Arabs will unite, and Israel will face the bitter reality.[9]

One therefore concludes that those who support the peace negotiations view it merely as a truce.

The survey findings point to the strong anti-Israeli feelings that remain in Arab political culture. Indeed, recent indications suggest a new course for anti-Zionism. Despite the popularity of taking immediate military action, this approach is losing ground to a different strategy; long-term preparation for a confrontation in the distant future.

What about Israeli visitors in Arab lands (the sixth question)? Peace implies willingness to communicate with former enemies. Travel can play an instrumental role in bringing different peoples together by facilitating interpersonal interaction and encouraging mutual cultural appreciation. The respondents are nearly unanimous in anticipating negative reactions to Israeli visitors in their countries. A meager 3 percent responded positively. Moreover, respondents used strong words such as "anger," "sadness," and "indifference," to convey their negative feelings to would-be Israeli visitors.

The conclusion to be drawn from this data is that Arabs are not quite ready psychologically for peace with Israel, even when they advocate it. The untoward effects of heavy anti-Israeli socialization are still manifest.


Questions about Israel's long-term expectations from peace bear out this conclusion. Table 5 displays the results and weighted scores to a question on this subject, broken down into five general groupings. The respondents worry most that peace will enable Israel to become the Middle East's economic superpower, followed by concerns that it will try to obtain the lion's share of the region's water resources and instigate sectarian conflict. Some respondents express concern that Israel will attempt to create puppet regimes in the Arab world, while others suspect that Israel plans to expand its territory.

Many Arabs charge Israel with fomenting the Lebanese civil war, compounding the Kurdish question in northern Iraq, and aggravating the rebellion in southern Sudan. They perceive a grand Zionist scheme to create ministates replacing Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. To achieve this objective (and other ones), Israel will have to erect puppet Arab regimes. Many respondents see Israel engaged in the peace process for conspiratorial purposes--as part of its ultimate aim to establish a Greater Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates.[10]

Such suspicions of Israel point to two major behavioral shortcomings on the part of Arabs. For one, this gloomy thinking limits cooperation between Arabs and Israelis in the years ahead. For another, such views belong to the early days of Arab-Israeli conflict; that they remain vibrant indicates intellectual stagnation and points to a failure to understand the complexity and dynamism of politics. A simplistic black-and-white approach may result in part from what Mamduh Qannawi calls "state-led intellectual terrorism."[11] Denied the opportunity to develop their analytical capacities, many Arabs opt instead for ready-made analysis. Regrettably, the respondents, two-thirds of whom are professionals, have fallen victim to uncritical political evaluations.


News that Israel and the PLO signed a declaration of principles did not create a positive shock in the Levant. Instead, the agreement generated three negative reactions:

(1) Support peace agreements in principle but oppose this one because of its unilateral nature. Syrian and Lebanese officials reject this agreement, not the idea of peace with Israel. They hold that the Arabs should seek a comprehensive deal that maximizes their gains. President Hafiz al-Asad of Syria uses relatively mild terms to describe his displeasure with the agreement, saying that "the agreement is a breach . . . It is not in the interest of Arabs and Palestinians."[12]

(2) Accept peace with Israel but oppose normalization of relations with the Jewish state. Shaykh Muhammad Mahdi Shamsuddin, the politically moderate Lebanese Shi‘i jurisprudent, believes that a formal peace with Israel does not commit the Arab people. He calls for preventing all aspects of normalization with Israel, and proposes a fatwa (a religious edict) prohibiting transaction of business with Israelis.[13]

(3) Totally oppose peace with Israel. Fundamentalist Muslims and revolutionary leftists fall into this category. According to the chief of the At-Tawhid al-Islami Movement: "Palestine concerns the entire Arab nation. Arab rulers (including Palestinians) do not have the authority to surrender even a part of Palestine. We oppose peace, reject the Jews and denounce whoever allies himself with America."[14] George Habash, general secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, condemns the agreement of "indignity and treachery" and demands the establishment of a national-Islamic front for defeating the "infamous deal between Arafat and Rabin."[15]

Nor are leaders alone; journalists, academics, and others join them in rejecting the peace agreements. On the eve of the agreement's signing, an editorial in a conservative Beiruti newspaper exhorted Arabs:

We must control events at this twist of history, and avoid degenerating into nothingness. Those who feel they should finish up this business [the Palestinian question] will be stunned by historical change. Documents, treaties, and recognitions mean nothing. . . .This is a long confrontation. Why rush the end?[16]

Suhayl Zakar, a professor of history at Damascus University, expressed his negative views about peace with Israel in a forthright manner: "I have learned two things as a Muslim in the past 50 years. There is one God, and there is one enemy, the Israeli." An unnamed female Syrian social researcher provides an appropriate coda: "You can have an authoritarian government like Assad's that can make anything stick. But popular acceptance of Israel is another story."[17] Arab leaders know very well how their masses think and react towards peace with this knowledge in mind.

The critical tone of reports and commentaries, in short, coincided in almost every detail with the findings of this empirical study.


A striking new development appears to be under way. While some 60 percent of Palestinians living in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 support the Israel-PLO deal, Palestinians living in the diaspora, as well as Lebanese and Syrians, see it much more dimly.

Why so? Direct interaction between Israelis and Palestinians in the territories over a twenty-seven-year period helps one to understand the latter's high hopes. While their relations were marred by conflict and violence, frequent exposure also engendered familiarity and a willingness to cooperate. Palestinian employment in Israel and other economic linkages apparently increased the number of Palestinians who support an agreement. Owing to its cathartic impact on the Palestinian psyche, the intifada laid the grounds for a constructive relationship between Israel and the local Palestinians. On the other hand, the Israel-PLO accord says nothing about the complex issue of Palestinian refugees living in the Arab countries. It is only reasonable that Palestinians in the diaspora do not support the deal as intensely as those in the territories.

What about the Syrians and Lebanese? Lebanese are not happy with the deal because it does not consider the future of more than 350,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon. The prospect of permanent Palestinian settlement in Lebanon haunts both the government and several religious groups, who fear that it might further upset the country's delicate demographic balance. There is a psychological dimension, too, to Syrian and Lebanese opposition to peace. Many in those two countries believe Israel is not seriously concerned about peace with them. They may feel righteous to reciprocate by avoiding commitment to the cause of peace. Most Lebanese argue that Israel's destruction of thirty-five villages in southern Lebanon last July, while peace talks were under way in Washington, indicates it is not quite interested in a real peace with Lebanon. And, indeed, the evidence points to Jerusalem not rushing peace with Damascus and Beirut.


This study has produced sobering results. The respondents show little understanding of the meaning of peace, much less an appreciation of its possible benefits. Quite the contrary, they see peace as surrender and display attitudes that suggest the conflict with Israel has yet a long life ahead.

The leadership bears considerable responsibility for this state of affairs. Since the early 1920s, the elite has heavily socialized the populations to suspect Jews, hate Zionists, and then to seek the destruction of the State of Israel. And when Arab leaders finally chose to take part in peace talks with Israel, they did not adequately prepare their people for what might ensue. Their "peace by stealth"[18] consists of one step forward, two steps backward. Leaders once exaggerated their tough stance against Israel; now they underestimate the implications of peace.

As a result, news analyses in the Levant deal with the possibility of peace with Israel as a grievous development. Radio listeners are often reminded that Jerusalem was taken by the crusaders in 1099 A.D. but recaptured by Muslims under Saladin less than a century later. Just as the many peace agreements between Muslims and crusaders did not prevent the collapse of the latter's presence in the East, so will they do little for Israel.[19]

Crusader rule in our land was viewed [then] as eternal. They changed the contours of the land, built castles, erected monuments and expanded the boundaries of their kingdoms. . .only their ruins remain in attestation to their failure. . .We look at the present in agony and rage. This so-called peace [between Arabs and Israelis] is not the first, and will not be the final one. The present era is a sad one in our existence. . .[I]t will not last because it negates the logic of life and historical probabilities. . .We are bitter but not afraid.[20]

The quite that prevails in the Levant these days could very well be a calm that precedes the storm. Arabs are in a state of muted rebellion, feeling abandoned by their leaders, bypassed by modernity and political liberalization, and looking for mortal enemies.

To prevent these attitudes from halting progress between the Arabs and Israel, the Arab states need to take several steps. First, they should not conclude total peace hastily, in a way that creates a schism between the obligations that are bound to transpire from ending confrontation and public capacity to conform to them. But they should seek it diligently and conscientiously. The elimination of the side effects of long-term hostility takes time. Peace grows; it cannot be implanted. This logic has been appreciated by the architects of the Israel-PLO accord, who perceived durable peace as a multi-stage process. Speed does not protect peace from the opposition any better than caution. It is not the signing of peace that weakens the opposition but rather the consolidation of the peace that takes time. Secondly, the Arab governments should begin the process of transformation to peace by telling the masses something about the benefits of peace--about peace not being surrender, and so forth.

The U.S. government can take steps to help insure that peace sticks. It should urge Arab leaders to become much more forthright about their peace endeavors with their own populations. It should introduce programs on peace education. The United States is an ethnically and racially diverse country that operates as a well-functioning multicultural society. It has numerous research centers and peace institutions doing pioneering studies on conflict resolution. Such vast political and academic experience can help introduce Arabs and Israelis to each other and promote cooperation among them. It should help create viable economic alternatives to factious thinking. Extensive economic linkages between Arabs and Israelis will make the cost of military confrontation prohibitive to both parties. Ideally speaking, mutual economic ties should be established by Arabs and Israelis themselves, but since this may not be possible during the initial stages of peace--owing to apprehension--the United States can step in and direct the establishment of crosscutting interests. Genuine peace is not improbable, but it demands profound resocialization. This change must take place; the United States can help by promoting mutual interaction, cooperation, and understanding so that peace eventually stands on its own.


The opinions reported in the present paper express those of one thousand Muslim respondents (500 Lebanese, 250 Syrians, and 250 Palestinians) interviewed during the period extending March 10 to July 5, 1993. The sample included eight subgroups, six selected on the basis of quota sampling (necessitated by the fact that representative selection is not possible) and two selected randomly.

The six quota subgroups included 200 Lebanese professionals (divided equally between Sunnis and Shi‘is), 100 Syrian laborers working in Beirut, 150 Syrian professionals residing in Damascus, and 250 Palestinian professionals (of whom 100 live in Beirut, and the remainder in Amman). The two random subgroups made up of Lebanese Sunni and Shi‘i college students were selected (150 respondents for each subgroup) from two private academic institutions: the Beirut University College and the American University of Beirut. The low proportion of women in the study (150 respondents, 55 percent of whom were Lebanese college students) reflects their small professional role in the Arab world.

Nonresponse rates came to 4 percent for Lebanese participants, 6 percent for Palestinian participants, and 12 percent for Syrian participants. Fifteen highly trained graduate students at the American University of Beirut collected the data.

The author and graduate students collaboratively developed the research instrument. Included in the questionnaire were eight items that operationalize the three components of Arab reactions to the peace process with Israel. (The specific wording of these items appears in the text of the study.) A pretest of thirty-five interviewees provided results that helped rewrite vague questions and omit leading questions. Two standard reliability checks were applied (internal consistency test and response data test) to the data; all inconsistent responses were deleted from the analysis.

In addition, the intensity of religiosity was measured (as an independent variable) by six queries on (1) reading of Qur‘an; (2) praying; (3) fasting during Ramadan; (4) offering contributions to the needy; (5) involvement in public religious events; and (6) participation in private religious teaching sessions.

Hilal Khashan, associate professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, is the author of Inside the Lebanese Confessional Mind (Lanahm, Md.: University Press of America, 1992).

[1] Aaron D. Miller, "Changing Arab Attitudes Toward Israel," in Daniel Pipes, ed., Sandstorm (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 1993), p. 131.
[2] Sara Roy, "Changing Political Attitudes among Gaza Refugees, " Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 19 no. 1 (1989), pp. 78-79.
[3] Muhammad Muslih, Toward Coexistence: An Analysis of the Resolutions of the Palestine National Council (Washington, D.C.: The Institute for Palestine Studies, 1990) pp. vii-viii.
[4] For methodological background, please see the appendix.
[5] Raphael Patai, The Arab Mind (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973), p. 63.
[6] Sania Hamady, Temperament and Character of Arabs (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1960) p. 211.
[7] Hilal Khashan, "The Quagmire of Arab Democracy," Arab Studies Quarterly, Winter 1992, p. 28.
[8] Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Ya'ari,m, Israel's Lebanon War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 122.
[9] Al-Liwa', Aug. 31, 1993.
[10] See the article by Daniel Pipes in this issue.
[11] Mamduh Qannawi, "Tahrir al-Insan al-‘Arabi Huwa al-Makhraj," in Lufti al-Khawli, ed., al-Ma'ziq al-‘Arabi (Cairo: Al-Ahram, 1986), p.195.
[12] Ath-Thawra, Sept. 26, 1993.
[13] As-Safir, Sept. 29, 1993.
[14] Ad-Diyar, Sept. 24, 1993
[15] Ibid., Sept. 19, 1993.
[16] An-Nahar, Sept. 11, 1993.
[17] The Christian Science Monitor, Oct. 20, 1993.
[18] The Washington Post, Aug. 8, 1993.
[19] Sawt Lubnan (radio station), Aug. 16, 1993.
[20] An-Nahar, Aug. 21. 1993.