Is the two state solution dead? Will Israeli or Iranian protests succeed? And other questions.
The new wave of the Middle East Scholars Barometer is full of fascinating trends
The Middle East Scholars Barometer: Fifth Wave (Spring 2023)
By Marc Lynch and Shibley Telhami
According to the fifth wave of the Middle East Scholar Barometer, jointly fielded by the Project on Middle East Political Science and the University of Maryland’s Critical Issuss poll, Middle East academic experts continue to grow more pessimistic about the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian two state solution and even more likely to describe its current reality as a one state reality akin to apartheid. They are almost universally critical of the current extreme right-wing Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in both its domestic policies and its approach to Palestinians. Vanishingly few believe that Iran’s protest movement will topple the Islamic Republic, but the recent China-brokered Saudi-Iranian rapprochement has introduced some rare optimism into their views of the region’s prospects. And last year’s belief that US leadership of the defense of Ukraine against Russia’s invasion would improve its influence in MENA has virtually vanished.
Those are some of the headline findings of the fifth wave of the Middle East Scholars Barometer, fielded last month to the membership of the Middle East Studies Association, the MENA Politics Organized Section of the American Political Science Association, and members of the American Historical Association who indicate Middle East as at least one of their areas of specialization. The survey was fielded from March 27-April 11, 2023, and received 449 responses, for an overall response rate of 30% (the percentage of political scientists responding to our poll increased to 46% from 43% in March 2022). The fourth wave of the survey (fall 2022) focused on professional and disciplinary questions (see the results here), so this is the first time since spring 2022 that we have repeated key questions about regional politics and current events. The full questionnaire and results can be found here.
Now for the results. In our recent book and Foreign Affairs article, we describe the current reality between Israel and Palestine as a “One State Reality” and suggest that this once marginal view has become something of a conventional wisdom among certain key sectors. The MESB results continue to support that view, even more strongly than in previous waves. When asked what description best fit the current reality, 67.9% chose “a one-state reality akin to apartheid.” That’s up from 60% a year ago, with no meaningful differences between scholars of different disciplines.
Not everyone believes that a two state solution is already impossible. The survey asks whether the two state solution is no longer possible, still possible but unlikely, or possible and probable. In this wave, 62.6% overall say that it is no longer possible, with scholars from other disciplines about 10 points more likely to say so – one of the largest disciplinary divides on any question asked. That’s a pretty pessimistic view -- especially when one adds the 32.9% who say it’s improbable in the next 10 years -- but it’s worth noting that it’s basically the same as the results a year ago when 60.7% said the same despite all that has happened in the interim. It may be that perceptions of the viability of a two state solution are at this point in history too fixed to really change much in response to events. When asked what would happen were the two state solution to become no longer possible, 80.2% expect the result to be a one state reality akin to apartheid.
It will probably come as no surprise that the scholars participating in the survey take a dim view of the current Israeli government, aligning their views for the most part with those of the massive and ongoing protests in Israel against Netanyahu’s judicial reform plans. 89.1% have an unfavorable view of the Netanyahu government’s judicial reforms, 93% have an unfavorable view of its policies towards relations between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of Israel, and nearly everyone in the survey (97.4%) has an unfavorable view of its policies towards the West Bank (93.1% very negative). Interestingly, it isn’t just about Netanyahu’s extremist coalition. Only 9% of respondents see the trends in the Netanyahu government as totally new; the vast majority (78.1%) see it as new only in its intensity.
Will the months of impressive wave of protests by Israelis against Netanyahu’s proposed reforms make a difference? Respondents have notably mixed views on the likely impact of the Israeli protests: only 5.5% think they will cause Netanyahu’s government to fall and trigger new elections, and only 3.8% expect him to withdraw the reforms completely; 30.8% expect him to implement the reforms as originally designed and 48.1% expect him to modify the reforms before implementing. It would be fascinating to compare those results to similar questions asked contemporaneously about, say, Algeria’s Hirak movement (which also protested weekly for months on end, forcing the removal of the elderly President but changing little otherwise) or other MENA protest movements. We can’t go back in time to ask those questions, but we do have one point of comparison in this wave: we asked about the prospects for success of the Iranian protests against the Islamic Republic. Only 7.3% think it is at least somewhat likely that protests will overthrow the Iranian regime in the next two years. 47.4% think this is very unlikely – and, in one of the largest disciplinary divides anywhere in the survey, 54.1% of political scientists think so compared to 41.7% of respondents from other disciplines.
We further asked about a question currently being debated by Israelis protesting against the Netanyahu government’s judicial reform proposals: is it possible for Israel to have full democracy for all its citizens while maintaining military rule over Palestinians in the occupied territories? 87.2% said no. That position is somewhat at odds with the mainstream of the Israeli protest movement which has for the most part kept its focus on the judicial reforms and resisted efforts to link the protests to the occupation. That’s a difference in worldviews between many Israeli protestors and much of the academic community worth thinking about.
What about calls to boycott Israel over the occupation? In the fall 2022 wave of the survey, we asked respondents this question indirectly, focusing a question on their views on the recently passed MESA boycott resolution. We “found that only a slight majority (54 percent) of the more than 500 respondents said they support the Middle East Studies Association boycott. And there’s a significant disciplinary divide. Only 43 percent of political scientists supported the MESA resolution, compared with 62 percent of scholars from other disciplines.”
This spring, for the first time, we directly asked respondents their opinion on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. 30.7% said they supported it unconditionally, while 50.3% expressed conditional support. Only 11.1% opposed it unconditionally – which is broadly consistent with the 9% in the previous survey who said the same about the MESA resolution. For comparison, we also asked respondents to disregard the issue of BDS and provide their position on boycotts of Israel generically. We found little difference between respondent’s support for BDS and their support for boycotts in general (26.6% of respondents supported all boycotts of Israel and 57.8% supported some boycotts of Israel). Only 8% opposed all boycotts of Israel, compared to 11.1% opposition to BDS. Almost nobody supports the criminalization of boycotts of Israel, regardless of their own position: only 2.3% said that they would support laws that penalize those who boycott Israel.
Finally, views haven’t improved of the effects of the Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Israel, the UAE and a few other Arab states. Scholars held a negative assessment on the Biden administrations adoption of the Abraham Accords. Only 27.2% think Biden is likely to be successful in expanding the Accords to more countries, and even if those efforts are successful, scholars see the impact as more negative than positive. A majority of respondents said this policy would negatively impact the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace (74.4%) and advancing democracy/human rights in the Middle East (65.6%).
It is worth noting here that since the earlier waves of the survey asked questions about Israel and Palestine, MESA passed a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions in support of the broader Palestinian civil society-led call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. The resolution led a number of academics to cancel their membership, and the Association for Israel Studies to sever its institutional relationship. Such a change in MESA’s membership could, in principle, shape the results towards views more critical of Israel by changing the composition of the respondent pool. To this point, we see little evidence of such a shift; those scholars who may have left MESA are still on our mailing list inviting their participation in the survey. We looked closely at the demographics of survey participants and non-participants, and found no significant changes.
The survey also asked a wide range of questions about MENA issues outside of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Respondents still overwhelmingly think that a return to the JCPOA would make it less likely that Iran gets a nuclear weapon, but there’s been a sharp drop in those who see such a return is likely – from 25.4% in September 2021 to 13.5% this year. We also asked a series of new questions reflecting recent developments and concerns. 28.6% see war between Israel and Iran in the next two years as at least somewhat likely, which isn’t a huge percentage but is still uncomfortably high. On the other side, 46.7% think that the recent Saudi Iranian rapprochement has made such a war less likely. Israel aside, 65.6% expect a reduction in proxy wars across the region as a result, though only 35.5% see it making a return to the JCPOA more likely.
What about Ukraine? In March 2022, 39.3% of respondents thought that the US leadership against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would increase America’s regional influence; this year, only 6.6% feel the same. That’s one of the biggest changes on any question, and should be a wake up call for the Biden administration. Russia hasn’t been the beneficiary of this – there has actually been a slight decline in those seeing the war as increasing Russian influence. The big winner looks to be China; 76.1% say that the war has increased Chinese influence in the region, up from 63.4% a year ago. For the most part, respondents view the independent behavior of American allies in the region as grounded in their self-interest: 93.4% endorsed that Realpolitik view of things. A much smaller majority of 55.2% thought that perceived US hypocrisy on Israel/Palestine contributed to the disinterest of regional allies in supporting the US on Ukraine.
Finally, regarding the devastating earthquake that hit parts of Syria and Türkiye on February 6, 2023, 65.3% of scholars felt the earthquake provided a cover for Arab and other governments to implement a strategic shift they had already made to normalize relations with the Syrian regime. A majority of scholars supported either altering sanctions (59%) or lifting sanctions (25.4%) on Syria to prioritize humanitarian relief.
The MESB is meant to serve our scholarly community and to inform publics of its views. If you have questions you’d like to see asked in the fall 2023 wave of the survey, please send us a note and we’ll consider whether it would work.
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