Beyond the Looking Glass

by Lucy Nusseibeh
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Jerusalem - The failure of the Oslo process to address public opinion sufficiently was one of the major causes of the lack of trust that eventually led to the failure of the Camp David talks and to the renewed violence in September 2000. At present, Israeli public opinion is held in thrall over the issue of security, but real security will only come with real peace, which will necessitate a viable (i.e. territorially integral) sovereign Palestinian state. When public opinion on both sides sees that they both need security and both need a state, peace will be possible. For a peace process to be successful, public opinion has to be encouraged to perceive the reality of what is happening in both societies, and to relate again to the others as human beings. Currently, the misperceptions each side has of the other are what seem to dominate, and thereby perpetuate the polarization and the feelings of victimhood and insecurity.

Negative public opinion on either side that exacerbates fears and hatred feeds into the conflict and perpetuates the cycle of violence, both at the grassroots and at the leadership level. But conversely, in this small and volatile region, a public opinion that favours a just solution to the conflict can help pull the leadership towards a peace agreement. Given the balance of power that so strongly favours Israel, Israeli public opinion is one of the keys to peace, and one of the major keys to Israeli public opinion is its perception of Palestinian public opinion. For the Israeli public opinion to tilt towards peace, it needs to be convinced that there is a genuine and overwhelming desire for peace among the Palestinian public.

As the restrictions of movement in the West Bank and Gaza effectively prevent any contact between all but the most determined Israelis and Palestinians, the media have a crucial role in both the broadcasting and the manipulation of perceptions and of public opinion in this conflict. When all one side reads is the angry statements by the other, or even when innocuous statements are portrayed in an angry or threatening way – the fear and the polarization are increased. The statements of the Palestinians in Gaza about “next year in the West Bank”, were portrayed as threatening, but they could equally have been portrayed as hopeful signs for a real peace settlement – after all they were not saying “next year in Tel Aviv”, they were very much within the confines of the Road Map.

The Israeli press can seize on issues with Hamas, or they can remind their public that the Palestinian president was elected on a ticket of peace, and that for the past two years he has consistently spoken and acted against violence. The Palestinian elections showed Palestinian public opinion strongly in favour of a renewal of the peace process. Surely this is an opportunity to work for a long-term comprehensive peace and not just a disengagement from Gaza. If Israeli public opinion can be encouraged to see, not the pain of uprooting the Gaza settlements, but the potential for a more open, more peaceful, and less fearful life for themselves via the disengagement as very much a first step, the Palestinian public opinion, as well as the Palestinian leadership, could feel again engaged in a peace process, rather than feeling victims of a unilateral disengagement.

It is a part of the vicious cycle of conflict that negative characteristics such as aggression are easily projected onto the other and thereby increase the polarization and demonisation (we are all good, the others are all evil...) as both sides retreat into group fortress mentalities. This polarization is reflected and magnified in public opinion, making it much harder for the people of either side to see each other as humans, and therefore as potential partners for peace. One of the prerequisites for peace therefore is to go beyond the looking glass and pull public opinion back to reality and away from projections and reflections. The reality is that since 2003, public opinion on both sides (over 72%) has been shown to favour peace on roughly the same terms – along the 67 borders with a shared Jerusalem, etc.– but the main obstacle is the perception of the other side’s public opinion.

Palestinian society has been undergoing a transformation over the past few years; there is a groundswell of interest in nonviolence, but how many people, in particular, how many Israelis, know about this? The influence of the negative stereotype of all Palestinians as violent is one of the major influences on both Israeli and international public opinion (which favours Israel on average 4 to 1). Yet the statement in the wake of the assassination of Sheikh Yassin in March 2004, calling for an end to bloodshed and a new nonviolent intifada, which was signed by over 150 leading mainstream Palestinians, is a call from the heart of Palestinian society for an end to violence, including specifically an end to the suicide bombings. Significantly, the bombings stopped completely for six months after this statement. This appeal could have been used to convince Israeli public opinion that they do in fact have a partner, even many partners, for peace. With this new and positive perception of the Palestinian public opinion, there could have been a resonating call for peace from the Israelis, giving the green light from public opinion on both sides for the leadership to make real progress towards peace.

The media can and should correct the misperceptions of public opinion by reporting on the common desires for peace and by assuaging rather than stirring up the level of fear; by giving credibility to the voices that speak out against violence and exploitation of the conflict, by above all, humanizing each side to the other in ways that they both can hear.

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* Lucy Nusseibeh is founder and director of Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy (MEND). 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) and United Press International (UPI).

Source: Common Ground News Service, December 15, 2005.

Visit the Common Ground News Service Online: www.commongroundnews.org

Distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

Copyright permission is granted for publication.
 
 
 
 
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The Shifting Sands of Israeli and Palestinian Public Opinion
Work with the public, not against it
There is a Message: Where’s the Messenger?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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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
There is a Message: Where’s the Messenger? by Naomi Chazan