Israelis, Palestinians: Desperately Seeking Leadership

Small majorities of both people still cling to the idea that a negotiated two-state solution could happen. What is lacking is leadership.

Amazing as it may sound to many skeptics who have watched the Israeli-Palestinian conflict become increasingly violent, a new joint poll by Israeli and Palestinian organizations shows that a small majority of the publics on both sides still favors a two-state permanent peace settlement. I say this is amazing because the recent trend on both sides has been towards hardened political positions and increasingly aggressive and violent actions on the ground, rather than accommodation to the other’s rights.

The poll, by Israeli and Palestinian political scientists Tamar Hermann and Khalil Shikaki, found that 51 percent of Palestinians and 59 percent of Israelis still support a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that results in two states living side-by-side; in Israel, 53 percent of Jews and 87 percent of Arabs support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Just 34 percent of Palestinians and 20 percent of Israelis support the idea of a single state that accommodates both people as equal citizens.

These results are somewhat surprising in view of the rightward drift of public opinion on both sides in the past few decades, and the harsh realities of actions on the ground. Israelis continue to expand their illegal settlements in Arab lands occupied in 1967 (the most recent this week were plans to build new Jewish-only colonies near Bethlehem and in Hebron), while more and more Palestinians see Hamas-style armed resistance as an appropriate response to the continued Israeli colonization and killing spree.

In the past year or so, Palestinians have killed 34 Israelis in attacks using knives and cars mostly, while Israeli security forces and armed settlers have killed 206 Palestinians. Both sides justify the killings on the basis of self-defense.

So why should small majorities of both people still cling to the idea that a negotiated two-state solution could happen? This certainly does not reflect confidence in the diplomatic process itself. It has been two years since Palestinians and Israelis last sat down and tried to negotiate a peace agreement, and it will be at least another year until they try again, if history is any guide. This is because both sides want the United States to mediate and guarantee the outcome of this process, and nothing will happen in Washington until the new American administration takes office and gets all its personnel in place by summer of next year.

Perhaps these numbers reflect the fact that Israelis and Palestinians are no different from anyone else in the world. They will both fight to the death to preserve their own people and interests, but at some point they also realize that eternal warfare among two determined communities leads only to perpetual suffering and grief. Exhaustion could be a factor as well, but in either case dynamic leadership among both sides, coupled with quality mediation, are required to trigger a serious peace process, and all three of these are missing today.

Another possible explanation for the stubborn support for a negotiated two-state solution is that both sides may be worried about their place in the international community. Israelis are seriously concerned about the growing global support for the movement to boycott, sanction, and divest from Israel (BDS) for its illegal policies in the occupied territories and mistreatment of Palestinians. The BDS movement grows because it is non-violent, legitimate protest in the tradition of the anti-apartheid struggle against South African racism decades ago; so it continues to inch into mainstream global commercial, religious, and professional arenas, including in the United States and other Western societies, to Israel’s dismay.

Palestinians for their part grow increasingly frustrated that they enjoy verbal and symbolic support from states and societies around the world, but when it comes to facts on the ground—such as expanded Jewish colonial settlements, apartheid-like configurations in Hebron and many other places, rampant Israeli destruction of Palestinian homes, or barbaric military assaults on Gaza—the world expresses regret or even some condemnation, but little else changes. The United States goes on negotiating a long-term military aid agreement to give Israel nearly $4 billion a year.

Palestinians have little to show for the international support they enjoy beyond their subsistence existence, so it would be natural for some of them to wonder if resolving the conflict on equitable and acceptable terms might be a better option than perpetuating their subjugation and suffering. The particularly devastating attacks on Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon in recent years also highlight the chronic vulnerability of millions of refugees who suffer repeated traumas, without any resolution of their underlying problem and denial of rights.

The main conclusion I draw from the new poll results is that Palestinians and Israelis remain two reasonable people with very unreasonable leaderships, desperately in need of quality political leaders and foreign mediators who could translate their latent acceptance of a negotiated two-state permanent settlement into a reality.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Follow him on Twitter @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global