There are bad polls, and then there are bad interpretations of polls. Putting them together (i.e. a bad interpretation of a bad poll) can create a mess of misinformation, which is exactly what the New York Times gave us this morning.
Prominently featured on the op-ed page was a piece, "The Palestinians, Alone" by Efraim Karsh (an Israeli-born professor at King's College, London).
Here are Karsh's opening paragraphs:
"It has long been conventional wisdom that the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a prerequisite to peace and stability in the Middle East. Since Arabs and Muslims are so passionate about the Palestine problem, this argument runs, the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate feeds regional anger and despair, gives a larger rationale to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and to the insurgency in Iraq and obstructs the formation of a regional coalition that will help block Iran's quest for nuclear weapons."
"What, then, are we to make of a recent survey for the Al Arabiya television network finding that a staggering 71 percent of the Arabic respondents have no interest in the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks? "This is an alarming indicator," lamented Saleh Qallab, a columnist for the pan-Arab newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat. 'The Arabs, people and regimes alike, have always been as interested in the peace process, its developments and particulars, as they were committed to the Palestinian cause itself.'
Based on his reading of the al Arabiya "survey," Karsh goes on to build a case that the Arabs have indeed abandoned the Palestinians and that, "The sooner the Palestinians recognize that their cause is theirs alone, the sooner they are likely to make peace with the existence of the State of Israel and to understand the need for a negotiated settlement."
But Karsh is dead wrong. His problem begins with his abuse of a "bad poll" that was not a poll at all. In al Arabiya's defense, they never called it a poll and never vouched for its scientific accuracy. It was an "online vote" -- like those sponsored by news networks and websites worldwide in an effort to engage readers and viewers. That's hardly a poll, and certainly not deserving of either Qallab's lamenting or Karsh's gloating.
Karsh's next error was in not checking the survey language. The actual question makes no mention of "Palestine" or "Palestinians." Rather, it asks respondents about their level of interest in the "Middle East peace process" -- to which 71 percent indicate "no interest." Given the lack of results and the repeated disappointments and frustrations experienced during just the last two decades of the so-called "Middle East peace process," this lack of interest displayed by respondents in the al Arabiya website question is hardly surprising. But to go from this result to Qallab's alarming conclusion or Karsh's broader argument is both unwarranted and dangerously wrong.
In fact Arab public opinion remains riveted on the Palestinian question. In my forthcoming book Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us and Why It Matters I present results of recent polling we have conducted across the Arab world, making clear that the issue of Palestine and the rights of the Palestinians are priority concerns for Arabs from Morocco to the Arab Gulf States. While Arab opinion had great hopes in the ability and commitment of President Obama to help Palestinians realize their rights, widespread disappointment in the U.S. now exists across the region.
So are Arabs "fed up" and "not interested" in an on-again, off-again endless process? Yes. But no longer "passionate about Palestine"? Don't bet on it.