Pessimistic on peace

University of Maryland professor Shibley  Telhami presented survey results at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, finding both Israelis and Palestinians are dubious about the prospects for peace. Photo by Larry Luxner
University of Maryland professor Shibley
Telhami presented survey results at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, finding both Israelis and Palestinians are dubious about the prospects for peace.
Photo by Larry Luxner

Politicians in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah talk endlessly about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — but when it comes to attitudes on the ground, the numbers are not very encouraging at all.

Fewer than half of Israelis and Palestinians polled in a recent survey believe the two sides will ever make peace. That’s according to Shibley Telhami, an Arab-Israeli professor at the University of Maryland who presented his findings Friday at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

“This is the most in-depth, detailed look we’ve ever gotten about public opinion and these final-status issues,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center, which on Saturday hosted President Obama as part of its 10th-annual Saban Forum.

The survey — conducted in the last two weeks of November by the University of Maryland’s Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development and co-sponsored by the U.S. Institute for Peace — polled 1,003 adult Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as 1,053 adult Israelis (including ultra-Orthodox Jews, kibbutzniks, Jewish settlers in the West Bank, immigrants and Israeli Arabs). The poll’s margin of error is 3.1 percent.

“The Obama administration has identified the goal of a two-state solution as being in the American national interest. The secretary of state [John Kerry] has said this may be the last chance,” Telhami told his Brookings audience. “We are at a moment when everybody’s focused on the details of a final-status settlement, and not whether or not people support a two-state solution. Our aim was to go beyond that and see the limit of what Israelis and Palestinians can bear.”

What Telhami’s team found was “pervasive pessimism” on both sides.

Among Israelis, only 4 percent said they expected to see a comprehensive peace accord reached sometime in 2014, while 15 percent said it would happen in the next five years. Another 33 percent think it’ll take more than five years but that peace is inevitable. The remaining 48 percent say it’ll never happen.

Among Palestinians, 11 percent expect a peace agreement by the end of next year, 19 percent predict it’ll happen by 2018 and 22 percent think it’ll take longer than that, but that peace with the Israelis is inevitable. The remaining 47 percent say it’s impossible.
“Both Israelis and Palestinians express remarkably low confidence that their negotiators will get the best possible deal,” said Telhami, noting that “Jews are even less confident than Arabs in their own negotiators.”

For purposes of Telhami’s survey, the terms of this hypothetical deal call for a sovereign Palestinian state on pre-1967 borders, but one that allows Israel to annex 3 or 4 percent of the West Bank encompassing major settlement blocks in exchange for a comparable amount of land given to the Palestinian side.

In addition, the West Bank and Gaza would have a “secure, unobstructed link” — either a tunnel, a raised bridge or a highway — and neither Israel nor the Palestinians would have military forces in the new state of Palestine. When it comes to Jerusalem, Israel would get sovereignty over Jewish neighborhoods, and the Palestinians over Arab neighborhoods.

NATO would have forces stationed along the Jordan River, and Palestinian refugees would be compensated for their loss of property and allowed to return to the new state of Palestine, with a limited number permitted to return to Israel. Palestine would recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Israel would establish full diplomatic relations with all its Arab neighbors and Palestinians would relinquish all further claims to Israel.

Yet 63 percent of the Palestinians surveyed by Telhami’s team say any solution that doesn’t allow all Palestinian refugees to return to their original cities and villages in Israel is unacceptable. Another 60 percent would not support any peace plan that prevents the new state of Palestine from having its own military forces. And 57 percent say it’s better to stay with the status quo than to accept living on only 22 percent of what the Arabs claim is rightfully theirs under the historic borders of Palestine.

“Palestinians don’t want to compromise on the right of return issue,” said Telhami.

On the other side, 59 percent of Israelis worry if the Palestinians don’t get their own state, they’ll start a third Intifada, while 54 percent believe the absence of a peace treaty will put pressure on Israel to accept Palestinians as equal citizens.

Only 44 percent of Israelis surveyed are confident peace would result in normal diplomatic relations with the Arab and Muslim world, and just 36 percent of Israelis believe their country has a moral responsibility to seek a solution to the plight of millions of Palestinian refugees.

Three-fourths of Israelis agree that even if the Palestinian Authority cuts a deal with Israel, it’s possible that Hamas will take control of the P.A. and ignore it. Meanwhile, 74 percent of Israeli respondents simply don’t trust the Palestinians, while 58 percent say it’s too late to make peace between the two sides — and 53 percent say that as a matter of principle, Israel should never give up the West Bank.

Among Israelis, the most objectionable elements of a potential peace deal are the division of Jerusalem (59 percent) and the pullback to pre-1967 borders (55 percent). The division of the holy city was also the most bitter pill for Palestinians to swallow (38 percent), followed closely by the idea that they should recognize Israel as a state of the Jewish people (35 percent) — a demand supported by 82 percent of Israeli respondents as a condition of any final peace agreement.

If a two-state solution isn’t possible, according to the survey results, 81 percent of Palestinians believe the status quo will continue indefinitely; 76 percent foresee “more intense conflict” and 54 percent think Israel will eventually annex the West Bank and expel Palestinians to assure a Jewish majority. Likewise, in the absence of a solution, 77 percent of Israelis believe the status quo will continue, while 61 percent fear renewed fighting and 30 percent predict their country will annex the West Bank sooner or later.
Telhami, noting the death of 95-year-old Nelson Mandela earlier that day, called the South African icon “an incredibly bold leader” who got over the bitterness that divided whites and blacks during the long years of apartheid.

“There are few people like Mandela, and we cannot dream of one coming up tomorrow on either the Israeli or the Palestinian side,” he said. “If there is no American plan on the table, it’s impossible for me to imagine that we can move forward.”

On the other hand, Wittes noted wryly, “when expectations are so low, there’s nowhere to go but up.”

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