Last week, Pew Research published a poll with a seemingly encouraging headline: “Despite Their Wide Differences, Many Israelis and Palestinians Want Bigger Role for Obama in Resolving Conflict.” The poll indeed showed pluralities of both groups wanting President Barack Obama to up his involvement, and if you only read the headline, the implication would be clear: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is solvable if America would just push a little harder, and both sides truly want it to do so.
Yet reading the entire poll produces the opposite conclusion: The conflict clearly isn’t solvable right now, because when asked whether there’s “a way for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully,” a whopping 61 percent of Palestinians said “no,” while only 14 percent said “yes.” (Israelis, in a triumph of hope over experience, said “yes” by a 50-38 margin.) In other words, a huge majority of Palestinians said that even if a Palestinian state is established, the conflict will continue as long as Israel continues to exist. So where does that leave the chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace?
Palestinians have actually been telling pollsters this for years. In a 2007 poll, for instance, 77 percent of Palestinian respondents said “the rights and needs of the Palestinian people cannot be taken care of as long as the state of Israel exists.” And in a 2011 poll, 61 percent of Palestinians said they saw a two-state solution only as a stepping-stone to Israel’s ultimate eradication. Thus the problem isn’t that Palestinians are dishonest about their intentions; it’s that Westerners consistently choose to ignore their frank avowals and focus instead on anything that could possibly be interpreted as grounds for optimism–like the desire for greater American involvement voiced in last week’s poll.
Another example of this tendency is Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo’s statement after meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last month: “I felt that he is willing to negotiate a peace process.” On what grounds? “He asked me to convey a message that he would like to see confidence-building measures regarding political prisoners and the problem of the settlements.”
In other words, what Abbas actually said is that he wants Israel to make two major unilateral concessions: freeing Palestinian terrorists and freezing settlement construction. How does a demand for unilateral Israeli concessions in the absence of negotiations translate into a desire for reciprocal concessions agreed on through negotiations, which is what a peace process entails? The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t: The two are antithetical. As another senior PA official, Muhamed Shtayyeh, bluntly explained this month, “We want Israel to give. The Arabs are not required to give.”
This, incidentally, also explains the Pew finding with regard to Obama: When Palestinians say they want more American involvement, what they mean is more pressure on Israel to make unilateral concessions. But like Garcia-Margallo, Pew wanted to see hope where none exists.
This wishful thinking often stems from a genuine desire to see the conflict resolved. Yet there’s no chance of that happening if Westerners keep ignoring the real source of the problem–Palestinian unwillingness to make peace with Israel–rather than addressing it head-on. On the contrary, such behavior actually encourages Palestinian intransigence, because they know the West will whitewash this intransigence rather than penalize it.
And thus, out of a sincere desire to end the conflict, well-meaning Westerners are making it even more intractable.