There is a Message: Where’s the Messenger?

by Naomi Chazan
Jerusalem - The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become the prisoner of public opinion polls and their manipulators. Survey results are paraded, alternately, to support inaction, justify questionable policy, defend recalcitrance or uphold paralysis. The mercurial role of popular opinion says more about its users and abusers than about the actual state of mind of most of the people involved.

Few will dispute the fact that the Israeli public is far more progressive than its leadership at this critical post-disengagement crossroads. For the past year, a consistent and growing majority has indicated its preference for a negotiated resolution to the conflict. An average of 60% favour negotiations on a permanent settlement (85% according to the joint Truman Research Institute and Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research poll of March 2005; 66% according to Marketwatch on August 28, 2005; 70% according to a Panorama-Peace Now survey this month; and between 51.7% and 61.6% according to the Tami Steinmetz Centre of Tel-Aviv University's Peace Index).

Despite the exposure of many Israelis since the collapse of the Oslo process five years ago to the relentless mantra that "there is nobody to talk to and nothing to talk about,” almost half (46%) believe there is a credible partner on the other side. The Truman Institute-PCPSR polls show that 70% of Israelis think it is possible to achieve an agreement with the current Palestinian leadership. Tellingly, two-thirds of Israelis recognize that there will be a Palestinian state and the majority approves of the contours of the final status agreement outlined in the Geneva Initiative if it will result in the termination of the conflict. Fifty-nine percent of Israelis (and 60% of Palestinians) polled a few months ago support the Roadmap and its goal of a viable two-state solution. A full 73% of Israelis are convinced that the pullback from Gaza is merely a first step in a series of withdrawals leading to the establishment of an independent Palestine alongside Israel.

Thus, there is a broad and firm consensus in Israel—mirrored to a large extent on the Palestinian side—on the objective of two states, the resurrection of the mechanism of negotiations, and the ultimate aim of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians (reaching over 80% in both communities). If the problem is not a reluctant public, what then can account for the hesitation bordering on immobility which characterizes current Israeli policy?

The most obvious explanation lies in the elusive realm of emotions. Israelis and Palestinians have developed contradictory narratives emanating from mistrust, acrimony, scepticism and mutual suspicion. While they are themselves open to change, they seriously doubt the readiness of their counterparts. They are consequently tired, listless and fatalistic. Only 27% of Israelis believe that the conflict will be resolved within the next few years; 36% don't think this will happen during their lifetime.

Behind this pervasive fatigue lies a national leadership guided more by trepidation than by political resolve. Despite Ariel Sharon's masterful navigation of the Gaza pullback and its aftermath, neither he nor any of his main competitors has evinced any desire to build on existing sentiments to promote a significant move towards a comprehensive resolution of the conflict. Those leaders who can muster widespread electoral backing lack the courage to move forward; those who have a vision of a significant peace process fail the personal popularity test. The upshot is that there is nobody on the political scene today either willing or able to seize the moment to transform the post-disengagement opportunity into a binding peace strategy.

This leadership void is structurally embedded in the gap between popular currents and existing party frameworks. The ruling party—the Likud—is still enmeshed in its own post-disengagement trauma. The Prime Minister continues to depend on an opposition unable to muster the votes to pursue its own policies. And, speculations aside, the likelihood of a major reconfiguration of the party map is very slim indeed.

Israelis are coalescing around a lucid and hopeful message which is desperately crying out for a committed and credible messenger who can give it traction. Any one of the candidates for prime minister in this election year could capitalize on this domestic dynamic, while openly appealing for more U.S. involvement in promoting a workable agreement (with the support of 55% of the Israeli public).

The main lesson of the past months still awaits consolidation. Instead of constantly dissecting what the other side should or should not be doing, Israeli leaders (and for that matter their Palestinian counterparts) must stop manufacturing excuses and follow the extraordinarily healthy instincts of their voters. They have shown that they want and will back further progress towards a just and sustainable peace.

* Naomi Chazan is Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Head of the School of Society and Politics at The Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo.

Source: This article is part of a series of views on “The Dynamics of Public Opinion,” published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), October 27, 2005.

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Does Public Opinion Matter in the Middle East?
The Shifting Sands of Israeli and Palestinian Public Opinion
Work with the public, not against it
Beyond the Looking Glass
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Other articles in this series

Does Public Opinion Matter in the Middle East? by Daoud Kuttab
The Shifting Sands of Israeli and Palestinian Public Opinion by Gershon Baskin and Hanna Siniora
Work with the public, not against it by Shira Herzog
Beyond the Looking Glass by Lucy Nusseibeh