With Israeli elections coming up and changes expected in U.S. President Barack Obama's key cabinet posts (secretary of state and secretary of defense), the Palestinian-Israeli peace process is nowhere to be found: it's been put on hold for now, if not further derailed by the Palestinians' status upgrade at the UN and the subsequent Israeli announcement about construction in the E-1 area of the West Bank and in other parts of East Jerusalem.
But how do the people with the most at stake feel about the conflict at this point?
Well, the Arab American Institute organized a survey to gauge just that (the survey was conducted on behalf of the United Arab Emirates' Sir Bani Yas forum). They approached Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, as well as Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and members of the American Jewish community, and asked them all similar questions about the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Not surprisingly, the responses showed wide gaps on most crucial issues, as well as deep mutual mistrust between the groups. But there was some good news, too. The data confirms that on all sides, people are more willing to compromise when they see the bigger picture and the negotiations are designed to reach an end deal, not a midpoint. When all the issues are packaged together, they become more digestible, and concessions more palatable.
In forums across Washington, this view was repeated and stressed. Obama, D.C. insiders say, should heed its lessons as he proceeds in his efforts to restart negotiations.
As is usually the case with ancient, intractable conflicts, each group values its own members' opinions while tending to dismiss the ideas of others. One interesting point revealed by the survey, however, that both Israelis and Palestinians are valuing the opinions of Israeli Arabs – Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship – as second only to their own.
Arab American Institute President Dr. James Zogby sees this as an optimistic sign. Data proves Israeli Arabs tend to hold more moderate positions than Palestinian refugees or Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. It is this group, he believes, that can serve as an important bridge. Israeli Arabs' voice, Zogby said, is not heard enough.
Zogby makes an interesting point, especially in the same week that controversial Israeli Arab MK Hanin Zuabi (Balad) was disqualified from the upcoming Israeli elections because of her participation in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla of May 2010 (although the High Court may still overturn that).
Even the Israeli left isn't exactly clamoring to invite Arab parties to join the coalition, and in some Israeli polls the "Arab parties" are all lumped into this one category, implying that Israeli Jews aren't all that interested in differentiating between Arabs.
The American administration has spent a serious chunk of time convincing Israelis, Palestinians and the surrounding Arab nations to produce confidence-building measures that would boost trust, a crucial element of peace talks. The problem is that the public, largely detached from the other's realities, tends to underestimate the importance of such gestures.
"Take, for instance, differences in perceptions of what would make peace more possible," Zogby says. "Only 25 percent of Israeli Jews think removing roadblocks would help – as opposed to 56 percent of the Palestinians. Fifty-eight percent of Jews think Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would make peace more possible – and only 35 percent of the Palestinians. Refugees seem to be most intransigent, but they are rarely asked for their opinion, whereas if you work with them you will find them to be a flexible partner in the process. You've had leaders making decisions for people who are never part of the conversation. Netanyahu engaged his public in this discussion, Palestinian leaders have not. How do we negotiate a solution to the refugee problem? The right is ours, but how you negotiate these rights and find a solution is what this is all about."
The survey also showed that some respondents were simply turned off by terms related to the peace process that are perceived as negative buzz words. For example, only 22 percent of Israeli Jews expressed willingness to accept the Arab peace initiative, but when asked specific questions about its content, the number jumped to 49 percent.
On the core issues, differences run pretty deep though: Eighty-four percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza supported an independent, sovereign, and contiguous state of Palestine, compared to only 36 percent of Israeli Jews. Eighty-nine percent of Israeli Jews mentioned the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state by Palestinians as the top issue, but only 20 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza saw it that way.
Fifty-four percent of respondents on both sides opposed the idea of Jerusalem as the capital of both states (Israeli Arabs are the only group who overwhelmingly – 71 percent – supported Jerusalem being the capital of two states).
Eighty-two percent of the Palestinians insisted on the right of return, but only 19 percent of Israeli Jews were ready to accept it. Sixty-two percent of Israeli Jews supported a demilitarized Palestinian state, but on the Palestinian side only 12 percent were willing to back such an idea. Half of Israeli Jews supported the right to build settlements, while three-quarters of Palestinians wanted all settlements evacuated.
Palestinian refugees in the countries surrounding Israel have their differences, too. In Lebanon, for instance, only 4 percent support recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, while in Jordan, 36 percent support the idea while 48 percent oppose it.
All groups surveyed view peace as unlikely in the next five years, with Israeli Jews and Palestinian refugees in Jordan the most pessimistic (70 percent and 68 percent, respectively, say peace is unlikely or impossible in the next five years).
In Israel, the biggest pessimists about peace are Israelis under age 25 and Orthodox Jews. Gaza and West Bank residents were the most optimistic, although the numbers were modest – 48 percent said they thought peace was likely or possible, while 48 percent held the opposite view.
Despite these somewhat dismal findings, the survey showed that a package deal would be easier to accept than piecemeal solutions. Consider this: Only 26 percent of Israelis believe peace is possible in the next five years. But if Palestinians would agree to uphold the Quartet's principles, the number of optimistic Israelis doubles. Palestinians, for their part, were more flexible when land swaps were taken into account and restrictions on movement and trade were to be lifted.
Israeli leaders like to trumpet disunity between Palestinian factions as a reason for no deal being sight. But when it comes to the core issues, the poll did not reveal any significant difference of opinion between Fatah and Hamas supporters. It also found vast similarities between refugees and non-refugees.
American Jews, who have a sway on U.S. administration policy, are more willing than their Jewish counterparts in Israel to accept Jerusalem as the capital of two states. They are also quicker to agree to recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees, and are less supportive of West Bank settlements.
Twenty-eight percent of them were ready to support whatever policies are advocated by the Israeli government. Twenty-nine percent, meanwhile, said they "do not believe my views should play a role." Twenty-three percent of them named the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as the Jewish organization they support the most, while 33 percent sided with Israel's peace camp, and 32% didn't seem to care much one way or another.
Thirty-six percent said they would support the U.S. government if it pressures Israel to impose another freeze on settlement construction, while 28 percent would be neutral on the topic and 32 percent would be opposed.
When asked their views on the importance of a U.S. political candidate's position on Israel, 49 percent of American Jews said they would vote for a candidate if they agreed with him or her on most issues, even if they disagreed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For 33 percent of American Jewish voters, however, that would be a dealbreaker.
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