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Israelis Immune to Peace Optimism

There may be no objective reason to believe that the new round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians will succeed and a good chance that they will actually make things worse in the Middle East. But that hasn’t stopped Secretary of State John Kerry’s fans on the op-ed pages of our leading newspapers from continuing to applaud his efforts. Both the Washington Post’s David Ignatius and the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman think Kerry’s efforts are inspired and even clever. But apparently most Israelis don’t agree. That’s the takeaway from a new poll conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University published yesterday.

While a large majority of both Jewish and Arab Israelis favor conducting peace talks, most Israeli Jews think it would be a mistake for their country to follow Kerry’s advice and withdraw almost completely from the West Bank and dismantle many settlements, even if the Jewish state were allowed to retain most of the major settlement blocs:

The poll … found that 63 percent of Jews in Israel oppose a withdrawal to the 1967 lines with land swaps as part of any peace arrangement with the Palestinian Authority, even if it meant Israel would hold onto the Etzion Bloc, directly south of Jerusalem; Ma’aleh Adumim, east of the capital; and Ariel in the central West Bank about 34 kilometers (21 miles) east of Tel Aviv. Assuming Israeli retention of Ariel, Ma’aleh Adumim and other settlement blocs, 58% of Jewish respondents were opposed to the dismantling of other settlements.

The poll was conducted among 602 respondents in late July, after the announcement of new peace talks with the Palestinians, and has a statistical error of 4.5%. According to the survey, 50% of Jewish Israelis also oppose the transfer of Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem to Palestinian Authority control with a special arrangement for Jewish holy sites.

These results, which seemingly contradict other surveys that show that a majority would back a peace deal if it were put to a referendum, will doubtlessly be interpreted in some quarters as evidence that proves Israelis really don’t want peace. But all these numbers tell us is that most Israelis have a better understanding of Palestinian political culture than Kerry, Friedman, or Ignatius. Though the desire for peace in Israel remains high, if most there don’t think territorial withdrawals are a good idea, it’s because they have no faith in the willingness of the Palestinians to make peace or to abstain from violence even if an accord was signed.

Let’s start by noting that most Israelis find it impossible to forget something that the peace processers keep trying to flush down the memory hole: the Palestinians have already rejected Israeli offers of statehood and withdrawal from almost all of the West Bank three times. With Hamas still in control of Gaza, the notion that a weak Mahmoud Abbas would accept a deal that the more powerful Yasir Arafat refused requires a leap of faith that most sensible people are unable to make.

But even if we leave aside that natural skepticism, why wouldn’t most Israelis accept such withdrawals in exchange for a peace agreement? Aren’t they persuaded by demographic arguments that claim that a continuation of the status quo will ultimately compromise Israel’s Jewish majority? And don’t they think the country would be more secure if it had an internationally recognized border that kept most of the Palestinian Arabs outside of the Jewish state?

Most Israelis would probably be happier if there were no demographic threat, even if the predictions of doom might be exaggerated. There’s also no question that they desire peace as ardently as those who think the country must be saved from itself.

But the problem is that, unlike Kerry, Friedman, and Ignatius, they also remember what happened when their country withdrew every settlement, soldier, and individual Jew from Gaza. The result was the creation of a terror state on their doorstep and few in Israel want to risk repeating that mistake in the far more strategic West Bank. Simply put, they don’t trust Abbas and his Fatah Party, which demanded the release of terrorists with blood on their hands as the price for the privilege of negotiating with them and continues to laud murderers of Jews as heroes in their official media, to make peace. If a majority thinks creating a sovereign state largely along the 1967 lines where Israeli forces could not enter is a mistake, it’s because their experience teaches them that doing so would be an invitation to more violence. Similarly, the lack of enthusiasm for dividing Jerusalem must be seen as a vote of no confidence in the willingness of the PA to not use their foothold in the city to unleash a new wave of violence.

That said, I still think that if Abbas were to actually sign a peace deal recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state and giving up the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 Arab refugees, a majority of Israelis might vote to approve such an agreement even if it included the withdrawals that most now think would be foolish. But since few believe Abbas can do that, talk about giving up territory merely for the sake of an accord that seems a pipe dream is inevitably seen as quixotic.

This poll should serve as a reminder that the calls for Israel to take great risks in the name of peace in the absence of any indication the other side means business are bound to fall on deaf ears. Neither Prime Minister Netanyahu nor his people are likely to be scared into making such sacrifices by threats of future Palestinian violence, as Ignatius thinks is Kerry’s plan. In the absence of a genuine sea change in Arab political culture that would enable Abbas to credibly pledge to keep the peace, a majority of Israelis obviously think they are better off not weakening their security. If Israelis are largely immune to peace process enthusiasm, it is because they understand their antagonists a lot better than many Americans do.



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