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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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Israelis favour peace, but think it can’t happen

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Last month, in a Globe and Mail column titled “Netanyahu’s in – his drama’s on the right,” Shira Herzog provided readers with solid insights into the Jan. 22 Israeli election.

Numerous polls indicate that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party has formed an alliance with Yisrael Beiteinu to form Likud-Beiteinu, is heavily favoured to win. The question is what sort of coalition arrangement would result, given the strong rise, to Netanyahu’s right, of Naftali Bennett’s religious-nationalist “Jewish Home” party.

Herzog referred to “the pervasive swing to the right in the country’s political discourse, which mirrors public attitudes that have deepened over the past decade.” But she immediately added the essential context for this shift: “Scarred by the bloody Palestinian intifadah of 2000, wars in Lebanon and Hamas-dominated Gaza and ongoing rocket attacks, Israelis have little appetite for an agreement with the Palestinians, even though, in principle, they support the notion of two states.”

Israelis have indeed reacted to the hostility and rejectionism they have encountered for many years and continue to see on virtually every front. Still, it’s important to note that Israelis have not moved to the right. Rather, some of the key conservative parties have shifted further right.

Although Herzog stated that Israelis have “little appetite” for an agreement with the Palestinians, it’s perhaps more apt to say that Israelis have “little faith” that such an agreement is even possible at this time. In an interview with Gil Hoffman (in the Dec. 31 Jerusalem Report), Isaac Herzog, second on the Labor party list, discussed the necessity of trying to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. However, Herzog added: “A lot depends on the issue of trust, and currently there isn’t any. The Palestinians earned their lack of trust. Abbas is a tough partner. Israel should expose him.”

That observation is key, since much reporting and commentary on this subject simply assumes that if only Israel makes the expected gestures, the Palestinians would readily say yes to a deal. Sadly, the facts show otherwise.

Despite their pessimism about the feasibility of a peace agreement, Israelis still support in principle the idea of a two-state solution, as Herzog noted.

Opinion surveys confirm this trend. For instance, as reported in the Jerusalem Post in December, a Smith Research poll showed that “58 per cent of Israelis would prefer to see Israel remain as a Jewish, democratic state through fixed state borders along the route of the West Bank security barrier, seeing Israel preserve its character alongside a demilitarized Palestinian state.” Significantly, 78 per cent are concerned that Israel could become a binational state, putting its Jewish and democratic character at risk. The Post also reported a finding by the Israel Democracy Institute that 58 per cent of Israelis don’t believe that a two-state solution will end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

A poll conducted by New Wave Research this month for Israel Hayom, a paper that backs Netanyahu, matches the above-cited results quite closely: 54 per cent favour a two-state solution while 38 per cent oppose the idea. However, 54 per cent say the two-state solution isn’t feasible. According to New Wave, Israelis are evenly divided (43 per cent pro to 43 per cent con) on the question of whether, for the sake of engendering talks with the Palestinians, Israel should halt building homes in the West Bank.

In a nutshell, this captures Israel’s predicament. A clear majority supports a two-state solution, while at the same time (and by the same margin) Israelis fear it cannot be achieved due to the absence of a committed Palestinian partner.

Polling firms often report that a majority of Palestinians also support a two-state solution, despite some erosion in favour of one state. Still, unless the pollsters ask the Palestinians who say they support “two states” whether they’re willing to confine a “right of return” only to a Palestinian state, this finding is misleading. Unfortunately, pollsters rarely, if ever, ask these two questions together – and thus overlook the core rejectionism that plagues Palestinian nationalism.

Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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