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Despite 20 years of the most relentless political violence since Israeli independence in 1948, proponents of the two-state solution still believe it’s the best way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that a majority of people on both sides support it.
This resilient optimism seems admirably, if bewilderingly, out of pace with the deepening conservatism of the Israeli governments elected over the same period. But in reality, while many Israelis say they support a peace accord, they are far less comfortable with the specific terms of any agreement and more pessimistic the closer a settlement appears to be.
In a poll released last month by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, just as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were poised to meet for the first direct talks since 2010, 55.7 percent of Israelis said they favored negotiations. The talks are the latest attempt to complete a peace process set in motion by the Oslo Accords, which turn 20 years old this month.
But in the same poll, 55.5 percent of Israelis said they would oppose withdrawal to the borders that were recognized before the 1967 war, even if only some remote settlements were evacuated and if the larger settlements along the border were retained in exchange for other, similarly sized tracts of land offered to Palestinians. Approximately 51 percent said they opposed the evacuation of settlements, even if the largest settlement blocs were to remain in Israeli hands. In addition, 66 percent opposed even a symbolic recognition of the Palestinian right of return, with only a small number of refugees allowed to physically to return to their homes in Israel proper.
Ze'ev, a 27-year-old who sells drinks and snacks at a kiosk in Tel Aviv, says he supports the two-state solution. "We need quiet, and we need to achieve equality," he said. "We can’t treat the guys sitting on other side with contempt and them having contempt for us."
But when asked about evacuating settlements — a key condition for creating two separate nation states for Israelis and Palestinians — he becomes less certain. "It's very difficult for me to decide on that, because I don’t live there, in the settlements," he said. "And unless you put yourself in their shoes, you can't really decide for certain."
"This is the regular paradox of the Israeli public opinion," said Tamar Hermann, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and director of the Peace Index project, a monthly survey of Israeli public opinion. "They’re in love with the concept, but once we get down to detail, support sharply drops."
Still, she believes that if Israelis were presented with a clear and comprehensive agreement, then that ambivalence might decrease. "If the decision makers — especially people like [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu who are not perceived as peaceniks — say that this deal, and especially the security aspects of the deal, are OK, then we might well see some support," she said.
But far from taking responsibility and presenting the Israeli electorate with a clear choice, Netanyahu's government seems to be deferring to voters in the most direct way: by making withdrawal from any territory under Israeli control subject to a referendum. Netanyahu’s second most important coalition partner, nationalist religious leader Naftali Bennett, who initiated the referendum law and rammed it through the legislature early last month, said a referendum was meant to ensure that any agreement had the blessing of the majority of Israelis.
"I’d like to ask this of the opponents of the referendum: If you say the people are with you, what are you afraid of?" he said to fellow Knesset members during the vote on the referendum law. "Why not let the people decide?"
One referendum opponent is Zehava Galon, leader of Meretz, the leftist Zionist party. "I don’t think we should be shifting responsibility onto the people," she says. "There were elections just a short while ago. If you endow the government with the responsibility to make decisions, including difficult diplomatic ones, there is no justification to once again seek the confirmation of the people."
But although there is some disenchantment with Netanyahu's coalition, and opposition parties like Meretz have been gaining support in the polls, the prospect of Israelis approving a two-state solution in a popular vote is relatively bleak. In the Israel Democracy Institute survey, 54 percent of respondents said they didn’t think a proposal to create two states would pass a referendum.
Even Israeli enthusiasm for negotiations as an idea appears to diminish as the time for talks draws nearer. Particularly since the collapse of the peace process in the Second Intifada, which began in 2000, Israelis have tended to be more positive about talks when prospects for negotiations seem the most remote.
"Those who oppose the two-states solution usually also make the argument (that) it's not going to happen anyway," says Hermann. "Those who support it are not consistently sure if it can still happen. They might feel differently about it — opponents of the two states are probably quite happy to say it’s not going to happen — but overall, most people in Israel think the chances for a two-states solution are very small."
Of course, there are many reasons for Israelis to be skeptical about the two-state process. In fact, nearly every event of the last two decades, since Oslo, has served to erode support for it. The catastrophic mishandling of the peace talks in the 1990s — with their failure to bring the majority of Palestinian armed factions to the table or, indeed, give them any reason to even grudgingly support negotiations — resulted in a devastating wave of political violence that overwhelmingly targeted Israeli civilians and made the very words "peace process" synonymous with fear, fire and blood. This political violence was often directed at the poorest Israelis — those who would use public transport and shop in outdoor markets — thus further cementing nationalist sentiments among groups already alienated by the Left, such as the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) and new immigrants (most prominently, those from the former Soviet Union).
The outbreak of the Second Intifada — the Palestinians' reaction to even greater hardship visited upon them by the peace talks — strengthened the belief among Israelis that Palestinians weren’t actually committed to peace. But the halt to violence in 2006, after the decimation of most Palestinian armed resistance and the shift to nonviolence by many Palestinian activists, seems to have only served to convince Israelis they can obtain security and peace of mind without giving an inch.
The only front that still remains volatile is Gaza. But Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip, followed by the split between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, helped reframe Gaza in the minds of Israelis as almost a separate conflict. That helps to explain why few people in Israel notice the conspicuous absence of Hamas from the negotiating table or questions about Gaza from the discussions.
Still, referendums and public opinion are not the enemies of peace talks and reconciliation. Progress toward resolving violent ethnic nationalist conflicts, such as Northern Ireland, has hinged on consensus-building and public opinion. But they need to be won, and the public needs to be ready.
To judge from the Israel Democracy Institute polling, Israelis are far from ready. They've been burned badly by peace talks in the past — though nowhere near as badly as Palestinians — and so far have lost little by maintaining the status quo of occupation. While recent history suggests that a return to political violence would reinforce rather than weaken the occupation, it also suggests that Israelis are unlikely to take the risks involved in a viable peace agreement unless the status quo becomes less convenient for them.
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