A solid majority of 63 percent of Palestinian Israelis and a plurality of 47 percent of Jewish Israelis say they don’t believe that peace between the two peoples “will ever happen”, according to the surveys, which were conducted separately in October and November.
By contrast, 25 percent of Arab Israelis, who constitute between 20 and 25 percent of Israel’s population, and 43 percent of Jewish Israelis believe peace is “inevitable” but will take more than five years to achieve.
The surveys were conducted before this week’s formal abandonment by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama of his efforts to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to a three-month moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank in order to resume direct talks between his government and the Palestinian Authority (PA) that broke off in September when a previous moratorium expired.
The withdrawal of Obama’s offer to provide advanced warplanes and sweeping security and diplomatic guarantees in exchange for a new moratorium has fuelled considerable speculation here about his “Plan B,” or what he will do next about a conflict whose resolution he described as a top priority when he took office nearly two years ago.
With indirect talks mediated by Washington slated to resume here next week, some analysts believe he has become resigned to an incremental process of confidence building, not so different from that pursued by his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Others, however, believe that his administration, after taking stock of the failures of the past year, is likely to mount a more assertive stance by formulating and rallying its international partners behind plans for a comprehensive settlement of the conflict that the parties will eventually be asked to accept or reject.
“Obama realises – and has been advised – that without continuing involvement, without continuing innovation in approaches, that this situation will blow up and not allow itself to be ignored,” reported Steve Clemons on his widely read blog, thewashingtonnote.com, after speaking with a senior administration official Wednesday.
The first hints of any new approach should come Friday when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to give a major address on Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution.
Ironically, the new survey results were also released Thursday at Brookings, where Shibley Telhami, a veteran expert on Arab public opinion and Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, presented the predominantly gloomy results of his latest polling both in Israel and the United States.
One of the most remarkable findings was “how pessimistic both Jewish and Arab Israelis are about the prospects for peace”, he said, noting that the pessimism in Israel matched the pessimism he found his 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll that was released several months ago.
Asked what they believe will be the likely outcome if prospects for a two-state solution to the conflict collapse – a point at which the process appears to be dangerously close at the moment – 42 percent of Jewish Israelis and 41 percent of Arab Israelis believe “intense conflict” between the two sides is likely to follow “for years to come”.
Only tiny minorities – less than 10 percent – in each community believe the alternative lies in a one-state solution or in the Palestinians giving up on their struggle for a state of their own.
“While they don’t believe that peace will ever happen, they also don’t have a satisfactory alternative if you ask them what if the two-state solution collapses; neither Jews nor Arabs believe the outcome will be good,” Telhami told IPS.
“In essence, they’re stuck, and that’s why, in some ways, they’re in desperate need for some outside intervention,” he said.
With respect to the U.S. survey, which was conducted in October and November, nearly three out of four of the some 1,500 respondents said they supported Obama’s mediation efforts. Two out of three respondents ranked the Arab- Israeli issue among the top five most important U.S. foreign policy interests. Thirty percent criticised the administration for “not trying hard enough” to resolve the conflict.
“You could say there’s pressure from here and from there [Israel] that suggests we can’t walk away from this,” noted Telhami.
Two-thirds of respondents also said Washington should “lean toward neither side” in its mediation efforts, while 25 percent – mostly self-identified Republicans, white and older respondents – said the U.S. should favour Israel, and only two percent said it should lean toward the Palestinians.
In the survey of Palestinian Israeli opinion, one of the most striking results was the growth in pessimism about an eventual solution to the conflict and in confidence about Obama and his approach.
Those Palestinian Israelis who said they don’t believe a lasting peace “will ever happen” grew from 52 percent in 2009 to 63 percent this fall, according to the survey. Pessimism was strongest among Muslim Palestinians, as opposed to Christians or Druze.
Views of Obama himself have also turned much more negative over the past year. In 2009, 16 percent of Palestinian Israelis described their views of the U.S. president as either “somewhat” or “very” negative; in 2010, that grew to 34 percent.
Another worrisome trend, according to Telhami, is an increasing tendency – mirrored elsewhere in the Middle East – on the part of respondents in both communities to identify themselves primarily in ethnic or religious terms, as opposed to their nationality.
Thus, 36 percent of Arab citizens of Israel identify themselves as Arab first, 22 percent as Palestinian first, 19 percent as Muslim first, and 12 percent as Israeli first. Half of Jewish respondents identified themselves as Jewish first, while 39 percent identified as Israeli.
“This identity issue tells you that if you don’t get a solution, the potential of this breaking down into ethnic or religious conflict is very high,” Telhami said.
“It’s really frightening, because, on the Arab side, Palestinian nationalism has always constrained that tendency,” he went on. “But if that boundary collapses, then the conflict will be truly transformed into an ethnic/religious conflict.”
On the more positive side, however, while three out of four Jewish Israelis said they wanted Palestinians to accept Israel as a “Jewish State”, only one-third said that should be a precondition for peace talks, as Netanyahu’s right-wing government has demanded.