On Saturday night, speaking at the memorial for Yitzhak Rabin twenty years after his murder, Bill Clinton challenged Israelis by telling them “it is up to you” to decide whether there would be peace with the Palestinians. As I noted yesterday,this was a remarkably obtuse statement from the former president. He has spent the last 15 years complaining that it was Yasir Arafat that robbed him of a Nobel Peace Prize by refusing an Israeli offer of statehood and peace. Nowhere in his speech or in the remarks delivered by President Obama via a video was there a mention of the fact that it had been the decisions of the Palestinians that blocked each attempt to broker a compromise over the course of the last century. Indeed, most of those who speak about the conflict never even consider what it is that the Palestinians are thinking as they focus solely on attempts to try and force Israel to make concessions that might enable peace.
The dynamic of the process has always been like this as, in effect, Israel has tried with a predictable lack of success to make peace by itself. An answer to the sort of tunnel vision that Clinton exhibited would be if someone sought to clarify exactly what it is that the Palestinians think about peace, terrorism, or Israel and the Jews in order to see whether the concessions demanded of Israel would solve the problem
But now someone has done just that. Shalem College’s Daniel Polisar has written an analysis of Palestinian public opinion for Mosaic Magazine. He studied over 330 surveys taken of Palestinians by the four major Palestinian research institutes over the course of the last two decades. As he notes, the four bodies have different points of view and are independent of the Palestinian Authority or Hamas as well as that of Israel. Taken as a whole, their results provide a statistically significant sample of Palestinian beliefs on key issues about the peace process. As such, his findings published today ought to be must-reading for anyone who cares about the future of the Middle East. More to the point, the results should inform the policy decisions being made by the United States as the Obama administration prepares for what may be a final drive for a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Some elements of this study are, to a certain extent, understandable. After a century of conflict, nobody should expect the Palestinians to love Jews or Israel. Nor is it particularly surprising that they tend to blame Israel for all their problems, even those that are the function of internal politics and disputes, such as those between the Fatah that runs the PA in the West Bank and the Hamas rulers of Gaza. Though it is disconcerting, it should also not shock anyone that Palestinians tend to think of Israel as always being in the wrong or that it starts wars and deliberately targets civilians, even if the demonstrable truth is just the opposite. The willingness to see the enemy in a war as always in the wrong is not an exclusively Palestinian trait.
But when it comes to specifics and general attitudes toward Jews and Israel, Palestinian opinion goes further than that. Indeed, among the most puzzling of Polisar’s findings are those that require the Palestinians to ignore obvious political facts about Israel that they are in a position to know are not true.
For example, survey after survey shows that Palestinians think most Israelis oppose a two-state solution when, if they are paying any attention to Israeli TV, to which many, if not most of them have access, they would know that just the opposite is true. The same goes for the dispute about Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, the issue that has been the focus of recent violence. Only a tiny minority of Palestinians thinks Israel will preserve the status quo there that discriminates against Jews visiting Judaism’s holiest spot even though Israel has not changed it and has preserved it for 48 years.
Even crazier is the finding that shows that at least three out of five Palestinians actually think Israelis plan to annex all of the territories of the West Bank and Gaza and then expel their Arab inhabitants as well as the nearly 20 percent of the Israeli population that is Arab. Were they paying the least attention to the Israelis, they would know that such views are the preserve of a tiny minority of Israeli Jews and that those who advocate it are not allowed in the Knesset.
Basic attitudes about Jews that come through in polls of Palestinians are sobering. Large majorities think Jews are violent, clever, and untrustworthy; a compilation of nasty beliefs that match up with traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes.
That is unfortunate, but Palestinians might be able to compromise with Jews even if they didn’t like them. The surveys also show how their beliefs serve, however, as the foundations of a conflict that may not be solved by a rational deal.
As Polisar writes, more than 70 percent of Palestinians deny any historic ties between the Jews and any part of the country, let alone Jerusalem. No survey ever taken of Palestinian opinion has ever shown that a majority of respondents accepted a division of Jerusalem that would allow them to claim a part of it as their capital. Since that is the concessions that most of the world believes must be forced on the Israelis, it’s not hard to see why Israelis who see these results would think such a move wouldn’t bring peace.
Indeed, taken in aggregate, the polls show that 80 percent of Palestinians believe Jews have no right to any part of the country, inside or outside the 1967 lines. A two-state solution seems like the rational response to this situation. But once we understand that Palestinians would view even the most generous partition as an injustice, there is no reason to believe such a deal would end the conflict.
Faith in the efficacy of a two-state solution is also undermined when you read that three-quarters of Palestinians think Israel will disappear in the next 30 to 40 years. That is a belief that is inextricably tied to the notion that they will continue the war for its destruction even after a theoretical peace deal is signed.
Nor can peace advocates take any comfort from the fact that overwhelming majorities of Palestinians believe that violence against Israelis is not only necessary but praiseworthy in virtually every circumstance. Indeed, not even the most despicable of crimes aimed deliberately at innocent civilians — such as the suicide bombing at the Dolphinarium disco in Tel Aviv in 2002 that killed 21 young Israelis out dancing — can even be called terrorism. Just as bad is the fact that Palestinians don’t just avoid condemning such acts but find them praiseworthy. Huge majorities think terrorists who kill Jews are heroes worthy of great honor, a stance that is validated by the actions of the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority.
And lest Americans think this bloodthirsty attitude is restricted to Israeli Jews, they should also note that Polisar finds that a majority of Palestinians also think the 9/11 attacks were not terrorism. A solid 60 percent also thinks attacks on Americans are justified anywhere.
What conclusions can we draw from Polisar’s work?
The fact that Palestinians feel this way doesn’t mean that peace is not a laudable goal. Moreover, even when advocates of Israeli concessions admit that the Palestinians have turned down peace and continue to support hate, they still think Israel can change their minds with sufficient kindness.
But the numbers pour cold water on the nonsensical optimism of the peace processers who keep telling us compromise is possible. As much as it would be nice to think it was so, Palestinians attitudes toward peace, terrorism, and the existence of Israel have not changed for the better in the last generation. More importantly, nothing Israel has done, whether it was signing Oslo and granting the PA control of much of the territories or even the complete withdrawal from Gaza, convinced them that Israel wanted peace.
As Polisar points out, the Temple Mount dispute is a case in point. For 48 years, the Israelis have tried appeasement of Muslim sensibilities there, even to the point of enforcing rules against Jewish prayer on the Mount. But Palestinians, whipped up by hate speech and incitement from their leaders who have played the same cynical game for generations, still believe the worst of the Jews.
To the contrary, such actions seem to have only solidified Palestinian belief in Israel’s eventual destruction. That majorities of Israelis have always supported compromise only seems to convince them that the Jews lack conviction and will eventually be defeated.
Polisar’s study shows that those who think Israel can decide on peace are not paying attention to the Palestinians. Only when their attitudes shift will peace be possible. Though I doubt President Obama will take Mosaic’s findings to heart, anyone who thinks seriously about the peace process should read them.