JERUSALEM—The importance of public opinion stems from the fact that in democratic regimes it can play a determining role in the shift of power between the different political forces. Political leaders and parties must always bear in mind that, come election day, it is the voters who will be judging their performance and deciding whether they deserve to be reelected, or whether they should be voted out for having disappointed their electorate. Thus the agenda of political parties must always take into account the wider public agenda and concerns.
This principle does not apply in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
On the Palestinian side, this process has been hampered from the outset and, eventually, blocked. For the first time, Palestinian public opinion was instrumental in replacing the Fatah regime with the new Hamas regime that promised transparency, good governance, and the eradication of corruption. The result was political and economic disaster—as a consequence of the boycott of the elected Hamas government by the international community and the embargo it imposed on the occupied territories.
Furthermore, Palestinian public opinion has been fed with illusions throughout the many years of the Palestinian national struggle for liberation and independence. At the same time, it is influenced by the daily atrocities committed by the Israeli army and the Jewish settlers against the Palestinian people. These practices by the occupation are intensifying hatred and distrust among the Palestinians on the one hand, and ratcheting up the rhetoric and causing knee-jerk reactions and extremism on the other. The Palestinians are so blinded by frustration and despair that they cannot contemplate the possibility of any positive development within Israeli society or public opinion.
Another example is the issue of the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands inside Israel. Palestinian organisations have persistently maintained that there would be no compromise or solution without the achievement and implementation of this right. UN General Assembly Resolution 194 was constantly invoked to stress this right. However, no one has clarified the fact that the resolution was drafted not by the Security Council but by the General Assembly, which lacks the power to enforce its implementation — not even if it should revert to the Security Council. The reason is the U.S. position vis-ŕ-vis the conflict and the pressure it places on the member countries not to support the enforcement of Resolution 194, and because Israel will not allow the return of Palestinian refugees, as its main concern is to ensure the Jewish character of the state and to preserve its Jewish majority. As a consequence, although the present Palestinian leadership is ready to reach a compromise on the right of return in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the Palestinian people have not caught up with the leadership and still believe in the attainability of the right of return. When the time comes — if ever — Palestinian public opinion will not have sufficiently matured to agree to a compromise, and the leadership will be faced with the task of having to convince its people to acquiesce to such a compromise. It will most certainly prove a difficult task, but not an impossible one.
As for Israel, although it is a democratic country where a change in government occurs periodically, Israeli public opinion is subjected to systematic intimidation by competing ideological parties or rival political leaders, through which they expect to dictate the national agenda and the voters' priorities. Israeli public opinion is constantly fed with disinformation about the real cause of the conflict and the intentions of the Palestinian people, focusing on the Palestinian call for the right of return. Additionally, Palestinian attacks against civilian targets in Israel are generating fear among the Israeli public and fanning hatred and suspicion. Right-wing groups in Israel present the conflict as the product of a historical Islamic hatred against the Jews, arguing that there is no chance for a real compromise with the Palestinian national movement. The fact is that the lack of a political solution to the conflict has strengthened the religious movements on the Palestinian side, giving credence to the argument of the "historical hatred." Moreover, in the wake of the failure of the Camp David II talks in 2000, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak raised the slogan that there was "no Palestinian partner," and convinced Israeli public opinion that the failure was wholly attributable to the Palestinian attitude or demands. This, of course, was not true because Barak himself contributed considerably to the breakdown of the talks.
Another process is taking place these days. While Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert claims that he is exploring with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas the possibility of resuming political talks to reach a settlement to the conflict, Barak, currently the Israeli defense minister, is warning that the time is not ripe for a political settlement, and is intensifying military operations against the Palestinians to abort any possibility of a political process.
The fact is that Barak is looking ahead to next year's elections in Israel. He is planning to run as the leader of the Labor Party. His advantage is his impressive military background. And to win the elections and become the next prime minister, he must place the issue of security at the top of the Israeli voters' priorities. To do that, he is accelerating the military operations, heightening the tension and, most likely, instigating Palestinian retaliation—this will play into his hands.
To conclude, I believe that both Palestinian and Israeli societies are traumatized societies and are incapable of playing an effective role in changing the attitudes of their respective leadership. Public opinion on both sides is subject to perverse influences and, as such, is unable to contribute positively towards the efforts aimed at ending the conflict. This represents a challenge to peace movements and civil society organisations on both sides to join forces in a search for common ground to promote dialogue, break taboos, and build bridges of confidence and understanding between the two peoples.
* Ziad Abu Zayyad is the co-publisher and editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, and a former Legislator and Minister in the Palestinian National Authority. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Common Ground News Service, 11 October 2007, www.commongroundnews.org
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