A public opinion poll released two weeks ago offers an excellent lesson in how the media fosters the myth the Palestinians want peace.
Here, for instance, is how DPA and Haaretz reported the poll; here’s The Media Line’s version; here’s AFP. All correctly reported Palestinians prefer incumbent Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to Hamas’ candidate by a two-to-one margin; the first two also noted that 61 percent want the new unity government to follow Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ peace policies, while only 18 percent favor Hamas’s policies. The clear implication is most Palestinians are moderates who want peace with Israel: They prefer Fayyad to Hamas and Abbas’ stated support for a deal to Hamas’ vocal opposition.
But here’s the finding none of these media outlets bothered to report: Asked what the Palestinians’ “most vital” goals were, 40 percent chose securing “the right of return of refugees to their 1948 towns and villages” as the “second most vital Palestinian goal” and another 26 percent deemed it the “first most vital Palestinian goal.” This issue outpolled all the other options in the second-place slot, while only “end the Israeli occupation” outranked it in the first-place slot.
A “return of refugees to their 1948 towns” – i.e. to pre-1967 Israel – is clearly incompatible with a two-state solution: Relocating 4.8 million refugees and their descendants to pre-1967 Israel would, when combined with Israel’s 1.6 million existing Arab citizens, turn Israel into a second Palestinian-majority state, thereby eliminating the world’s only Jewish one. Yet Abbas cannot concede the “right of return” in negotiations when 66 percent of his people deem it one of the two “most vital Palestinian goals”; no leader anywhere could. Thus as long as most Palestinians view the “right of return” as crucial, no peace agreement will be possible.
Public opinion obviously isn’t immutable, but it often requires a concerted effort to change. On the Israeli side, this effort has been made. Both Israeli and international leaders have told Israelis for two decades they must cede the territories for peace, and it worked: Polls now show most Israelis as being willing to cede virtually all the West Bank, whereas 20 years ago, this was a minority opinion.
But no similar effort has been made on the Palestinian side. Not only has no Palestinian leader ever forthrightly told his people they will have to cede the dream of “return” for peace, but few international leaders have. President Barack Obama’s May 19 policy address, for instance, demanded an Israeli return to the 1967 lines but no Palestinian concession on the refugees; he advocated deferring this whole issue until later. The EU similarly demands an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines but only an unspecified “ just, viable and agreed solution” on the refugees. The hope seems to be ignoring the problem of the refugees will make it go away.
But Palestinian opinion can only be changed by confronting this issue openly. By sweeping it under the rug, the media is ultimately distancing the prospect of peace.