Most Israelis want peace, but mistrust Palestinians
Earlier this year, in a Foreign Affairs article titled “Can the Center Hold? Understanding Israel’s Pragmatic Majority,” Yossi Klein Halevi examined the seeming contradiction in Israeli attitudes toward peace: “A majority of Israelis – around 70 per cent, according to a recent poll… support a two-state solution. Yet that same majority is deeply skeptical of Palestinian intentions.”
This majority (sometimes called “the rational centre”), he explained, want to see an end to occupation and a genuine two-state solution so that Israel’s future can be secure as both a Jewish and democratic state. Yet they’re profoundly concerned that the Palestinian leadership, including both Fatah and Hamas, will never accept the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty in present-day Israel.
Klein Halevi reminded readers that when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the UN General Assembly last September, he condemned “63 years of Israeli occupation.” This meant that in his view, all of Israel is “occupied,” not just the West Bank (taken legitimately in a war of self-defence in 1967, let’s not forget). Abbas’ declaration sent chills through the Israeli public, as does the Palestinian leadership’s consistent refusal to give up the principle of the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to Israel rather than to a future Palestinian state.
Klein Halevi focused on the core of Israel’s predicament: “[A]lthough centrists understand how damaging to both sides the occupation has become, they view ending it before the Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish state as an even greater existential threat… in January 2011, nearly 70 per cent of Israelis polled moderately or strongly accepted the claim that even if a peace agreement were signed, the Palestinians would continue their struggle against Israel.”
The Peace Index for April, released last week, shows that this attitude is unchanged. While 71 per cent of the Israeli public favours holding peace negotiations, 67 per cent don’t believe that such talks will lead to peace in the coming years. Some 58 per cent said they don’t think there’s a real chance to resolve the conflict in accordance with the “two states for two peoples” formula within the next 10 years.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for the Palestinians to endorse the central idea of “two states for two peoples” captures the longing of the dominant Israeli centre, and yet his appeal has been repeatedly dismissed by Abbas. Nonetheless, Netanyahu is almost invariably described in the western media as a “hardliner” while Abbas is portrayed as a “moderate” and a “peacenik.”
It’s true that Netanyahu had been constrained by factions on his right flank, up until making a surprise announcement on May 8 that he had entered into an agreement with the Kadima party to create a broad “national unity” government. But this misses a more important point. Until Abbas and the Palestinians address the “rational centre” of Israel and provide assurance of their commitment to put an end to the conflict once and for all, there can be no serious progress on the peace front.
Were one to read last week’s influential Economist, featuring an editorial on the peace process following the Israeli government shakeup, one would know nothing of Israel’s moderate middle – or even basic Palestinian responsibilities. Instead, one would read the standard storyline that if only Netanyahu could become more flexible (now that he has Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz by his side), peace would be dispensed by Abbas, whose “authority [as] the most peace-minded of Palestinian leaders is ebbing.”
The Economist remains skeptical about Netanyahu while simply assuming, as fact, that the Palestinians want full peace: “It is possible, even probable, that Mr. Netanyahu will choose to go on ignoring Palestinian pleas and the ideas of Mr. Mofaz, whose plan [to declare a Palestinian state on 60 per cent of the West bank] is anyway far from fully baked.”
It’s sad but true that the Economist’s failure to understand the crux of the peace impasse is symptomatic of a widespread attitude – with few exceptions – in western media circles in general.
Paul Michaels is director of research and media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.