How to Look for Signs of Life in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

Defiant Israelis, despairing Palestinians: Why dire polls expressing rock-bottom belief in peace and disillusionment with democracy could also be cause for hope

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Palestinians protesting the Israeli nationalist Flag March in Jerusalem: Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are betraying their people by exploiting despair to avoid peace
Palestinians protesting the Israeli nationalist Flag March in Jerusalem: Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are betraying their people by exploiting despair to avoid peaceCredit: Olivier Fitoussi
Dahlia Scheindlin
Dahlia Scheindlin

Six months ago, a new Israeli government took office and inherited the country’s primordial problem. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so enduring that many believe it has faded into the background, like a stage set in a permanent theater of war. 

The parties of the "change coalition," left to right, acknowledged in effect that "change" could apply to every issue but one. The new government embarked on the well-trammeled path of previous Israeli leaders in recent years – marching away from conflict resolution, while deepening Israeli control over land and people for years to come. The current euphemism of "shrinking the conflict" is mostly identical to earlier iterations – "managing the conflict," or "status quo." 

The Israeli government is bargaining on two trends for two peoples: first, that the voting public – Israelis – accept or even support continuity, and second, that Palestinians – the non-voting public – will allow their quest for self-determination to be permanently thwarted, without major upheaval. 

That thesis could be right. In joint Israeli-Palestinian survey research, Palestinian researcher Khalil Shikaki and I have repeatedly observed that neither public is about to hit the streets demanding peace. 

But that’s a terrible reason to do nothing. 

The new 'change' government led by Naftali Bennett at the presidential residence the week it was formedCredit: Emil Salman

Just as the conflict "status quo" is anything but static, neither is public opinion. The "public" is made up of living people, whose attitudes shift – not due to caprice, but in response to reality.

Polling now shows dire trends. Just one quarter of Israelis (24 percent) polled in the soon-to-be-published December Peace Index by Tel Aviv University, believe that negotiations would succeed at reaching a peace agreement, and similarly, only 26 percent of Palestinians support a return to bilateral negotiations, according to Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research December survey. 

Support for two states has been waning for years. Just one-third of Israeli Jews supported "the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel" in the December Peace Index, with nearly twice as many (61 percent) Jews actively opposed.

Even with the stalwart support of nearly two-thirds of Arab citizens, just 40 percent of Israelis in total support two states, a nadir in a decade-long decline from over 70 percent in the past. In October’s PSR survey, more Palestinians, 46 percent, supported the two state solution than Israeli Jews. 

The inauspicious conditions for peace run deeper. Most Israeli Jews defiantly justify their cause. When the December Peace Index asked if respondents feel guilt or shame about Israel’s ongoing "control over Palestinians in Judea & Samaria," nearly three-quarters of Jews said they did not feel either sentiment (72 and 74 percent, respectively). 

Using the biblical terms for the West Bank has become standard for pollsters in Israel; the term "West Bank" has become rare enough in Israel beyond the left-wing camp that it could indicate a research bias to poll respondents.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas shows maps of historical Palestine at the emergency Arab League summit called to discuss the Trump peace plan last yearCredit: AFP

Palestinians express profound despair: in December, nearly three-quarters believe the chances of establishing a Palestinian state soon are slim to none, and in a separate question, 59 percent say the two state solution is no longer feasible due to settlement spread. Forty-two percent, a plurality, believe the most effective means of ending the Israeli occupation is armed struggle. 

Worryingly, both sides are disillusioned with democracy. In October, just one-quarter of Palestinians said conditions for democracy and human rights where they live (Gaza, West Bank and East Jerusalem) were good or very good. Three-quarters told pollsters they wished President Mahmoud Abbas would resign, but large majorities (over 70 percent in the West Bank, and over 60 percent in Gaza) say they do not have the freedom to criticize authorities. 

Although Israeli citizens have far more opportunities to practice their democratic rights, public faith in Israel’s democratic resilience is only  somewhat stronger. The October Voice Index of the Israel Democracy Institute found that just 35 percent of Israelis expressed optimism for the future of democratic governance in Israel. The finding is not an anomaly over the last two years, when the upper range for optimism rarely crossed 45 percent, as in November this year.

Democracy is not marginal to peace. If most Israelis despair of democracy but feel no guilt or shame for controlling Palestinians, why should they care about ending the occupation? If Palestinians believe armed struggle is the effective way to end occupation and give up on democracy, why not support a military campaign under theocratic, authoritarian Hamas rule, the political camp that already leads in national (presidential and legislative) election polls?

Palestinians wave national and Hamas flags in front of the Dome of the Rock shrine at the al-Aqsa mosque complex in Jerusalem earlier this yearCredit: AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean

Or conversely, what’s to stop an outburst of violence that precipitates full, dystopian Israeli military re-occupation over all Palestinians? 

If the leaders choose those paths, the public might not stop them. But that’s not leadership. 

Israel’s change government has a choice, and perhaps given the post-Netanyahu rainbow coalition, a chance to do better. Instead of exploiting despair, the government can drive public opinion forward. 

History shows that enough Israelis and Palestinians have changed their minds towards peace when asked to do so – from the legendary Israeli turnaround from over 70 percent opposition to supporting withdrawal from the Sinai following the Camp David peace agreement, to the steady rise in support for compromises with the Palestinians during the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Camp David in the year 2000. 

Palestinians, too, transformed their national aim from conquering all of historic Palestine to strong support for the nascent Oslo Accords in 1993, and later embracing a two state solution. Palestinian support for the two state solution even rose ten points this October in response, Shikaki believes, to expectations of positive developments, such as a new U.S. administration reviving relations with Palestinians, and confidence-building measures from the Israeli government, before declining slightly in December.

Leaders betray their people when they exploit despair to avoid peace. This column will be my eyes on the process and finger on the pulse; I hope to bring an analytic voice of conscience asking whether Israeli and Palestinian societies, leaders and people are moving towards peace or deepening the conflict. Who is doing what and why? The conflict may be transparent, even invisible, to some, but it overshadows everything – and we the people cannot let our leaders forget that. 

Dahlia Scheindlin is a political scientist and public opinion expert, and a policy fellow at The Century Foundation. Twitter: @dahliasc

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