Toronto - Over 40 years ago, British historian E.H. Carr identified two kinds of great leaders - those like Napoleon and Bismarck, who knew how to ride the crest of existing social trends, and those like Lenin and Cromwell, who shaped and coalesced new social forces. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how much does public opinion matter to Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas?
A lot. Actually, in the age of tele-politics, Carr’s distinction seems moot. Today, politics and polls are symbiotic; leaders who run afoul of public opinion are punished at the polls. In fact, Mr. Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan was conceived largely due to public frustration with his inaction and its support for alternatives he opposed (like the Geneva Initiative, a draft agreement informally negotiated by Israelis and Palestinians). Earlier, Israeli public opinion had forced him first to build the West Bank security barrier and then to move it closer to the 1967 borders.
In the West Bank and Gaza, Mr. Abbas’ platform of abstention from violence rests on over 60% of public support, while Hamas’ use of violence has been challenged by a majority’s support for the ceasefire and disbanding of armed militias.
So public opinion matters. Indeed, throughout the last decade, most Israelis and Palestinians have consistently supported a two-state resolution of the conflict -- and still do. But powerful negative forces that reinforce both sides’ worst fears have eroded confidence in any progress that has been made. For Israelis, the key is the threat of random suicide bombs; for Palestinians, it’s the constant pressure of settlements, closures and military action. That’s the source of the paradox in public opinion: While accepting the need to compromise and negotiate, both publics are also angry and want revenge. In their actions, leaders can reinforce either positive or negative elements of public attitudes.
The duality in public opinion stems from what psychologist Daniel Bar-Tal calls the “psychological conflict repertoire” in deep-rooted conflicts -- a sense of absolute justice, self-perception as the victim, and mistrust of the other side. Positive events do chip away at such attitudes, but against the conflict’s violent history, negative events carry far more weight. Bombs and tanks speak louder than handshakes.
Because of this duality, Israelis support Mr. Sharon’s unilateral actions (although unilateralism runs counter to the very negotiating process they claim to want), and Palestinians have supported the claim that violence achieves more than negotiations (although violence triggers the very Israeli reactions they resent). Also because of this duality, efforts to bolster public support for negotiations are often disparaged as naďve and futile. Peace demonstrations and media campaigns can’t possibly counter the bloody impact of terrorism and military attacks or the hostility created by checkpoints as a way of life.
Still, the duality in public opinion also creates an opportunity. Historically, moderate voices, political solidarity programs and joint Israeli-Palestinian initiatives have all helped to sustain public support for the political process. After the Gaza pullout, Israelis’ support for further withdrawals and renewed talks and Palestinians’ support for dissolution of militant groups could have enabled their leaders to take more resolute action.
Some claim that it’s already too late because any potential has dissipated in Israeli foot-dragging on outstanding Gaza issues and renewed Palestinian militancy. Further, both leaders are mired in domestic political battles and the two publics are again locked in a familiar, interdependent dynamic: Mr. Sharon is determined not to budge further as long as Israelis are attacked -- thereby undermining Mr. Abbas’ premise that stopping violence is a better route to Palestinian statehood. Mr. Abbas’ limited measures against militants lead to harsher Israeli measures that in turn diminish Palestinians’ confidence in his approach.
Public opinion could pressure both leaders to do more -- but in the current circumstances, it won’t be easy. The more Israelis believe that Palestinians reject violence, the more prepared they’ll be to demand withdrawal from illegal outposts and more settlements. But can they be convinced that relinquishing more territory might itself encourage Palestinians to act against the militants? The more Palestinians see economic improvement and progress on the ground, the more prepared they’ll be to challenge factions that reject the central authority. But can they be convinced that doing more against armed factions might itself empower more Israelis to question Mr. Sharon?
It’s a risky leap of faith for either side, but all they have right now is a lose-lose proposition. If positive trends in public opinion can be reinforced, leaders may have no choice but to respond.
* Shira Herzog is a columnist with the Canadian daily, The Globe And Mail. This article is part of a series of views on “The Dynamics of Public Opinion,” published in partnership with United Press International (UPI).
Source: Common Ground News Service, November 17, 2005.
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