Among the Palestinians, particularly Hamas activists, the argument goes that the armed struggle was the decisive factor in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to evacuate Gaza and the settlements of northern Samaria. They point out that the decision was made in the second half of 2003, when the intifada was raging. From the Palestinian point of view, seemingly, the strategy of violence pays. In short, vote Hamas.
From their perspective the significance is that with regard to the Israeli public, the withdrawal from Gaza is the ultimate proof that the intifada broke the Israeli spirit.
A comprehensive study by Brig. Gen. (res.) Meir Elran, of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, tried to identify the roots of the disengagement initiative in the earlier changes among the Israeli public, or the characteristics of its resilience in the period beforehand. The former deputy commander of Military Intelligence looked for symptoms of a weakening of the material, feebleness or a leftward pull in the Israeli public. He looked for evidence of the worrisome view that behind Sharon's plan was a weakening of the Israeli public's resolve.
Elran found that in most of the objective and subjective indicators that were examined, a common leitmotif was findings that were evidence of social stability: The terror attacks did result in a slight rise in patriotism, but the nadir of Israeli desire to remain in the country was before the intifada; the highest levels in the percent of Israelis who were convinced they wanted to live in the country came at the height of the terror wave, in mid-2002.
During the toughest part of the intifada, most of the public - an average of 73.5 percent - believed the State of Israel was capable and will be capable in the future of dealing with the difficulties it faces. The height of optimism came in the spring of 2002, at the height of the terror attacks.
The study found no evidence to show that the intifada cased public pressure that threatened the prime minister's position. On the contrary, the violence intensified the support Israelis gave to the statement "A number of strong leaders can help a state more than all the discussions and laws." That finding, by the way, places Israel at the bottom of the list of democratic countries, beside India and Romania. Israel is one of the only four democratic countries where a majority of those questioned said a regime of "strong leaders" is a good or very good idea.
The study's findings are not good news for those who reckoned or expected that the intifada made a significant change in Israeli public opinion toward concessions on basic positions. Most of the public, particularly the Jews, generally accepted the main message of the government that "there's nobody to talk to" and "there should be no negotiations under fire."
In a February 2004 poll conducted by the Jaffee Center (after the disengagement plan was announced), 51 percent of the Jewish respondents said that the intifada had no influence over their positions on security and foreign affairs, compared to 26 percent who said that they were ready for less concessions than in the past and 23 percent who said their positions were more flexible.
The lessons that the Palestinians must learn from the study is that the heroes of the withdrawal from Gaza are not the suicide bombers, and that additional attacks will not yield further withdrawals, but will only stiffen the Israeli public's positions.
So, what could crystallize Israeli public support for getting out of the territories? Political psychologist Prof. Danny Bartal and the Shavit Foundation at Tel Aviv University, which studied the positions of the Israeli public after the failure of Camp David and the intifada, found that ending the violence is a necessary condition for rehabilitating faith in peace agreements. Necessary - but not enough: For real change, the type that brings the end of the conflict nearer, negotiations are necessary. Not suicide bombings or withdrawals.
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