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Why Making Peace with the Palestinians Isn't Like Making Peace with Egypt and Jordan

Egypt and Jordan had strong leaders committed to peace; the Palestinians don’t. That makes the views of ordinary Palestinians all the more significant, and worrisome.

Mahmoud Abbas at an Arab League summit in Jordan on March 29, 2017. Jordan Pix/ Getty Images.
Mahmoud Abbas at an Arab League summit in Jordan on March 29, 2017. Jordan Pix/ Getty Images.
Last Word
May 3 2017
About the author

Daniel Polisar is executive vice-president and a member of the faculty at Shalem College in Jerusalem. A PhD in political science, he focuses on the challenges of liberalization in the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s constitutional development, and Palestinian and Israeli public opinion.


I greatly welcome and appreciate the thoughts of Daniel Pipes, Ghaith al-Omari, and Elliott Abrams, the three distinguished respondents to my essay in Mosaic, “Do Palestinians Want a Two-State Solution?”. Especially gratifying is that each has challenged, extended, or put into historical and political perspective the main arguments I made about Palestinian public opinion and its impact on the prospects for reaching a durable two-state solution.

I should begin by noting that none of the three, nor any critic I am aware of writing elsewhere, has contested the factual claims I advanced. To recapitulate, these are:

  1. The majority of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have for the past decade been opposed to the most generous package deal they are likely to be offered for a state alongside Israel;
  2. When asked to choose among three options—an Israeli and Palestinian state living side by side, a unitary state with equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis, and a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea—most Palestinians have chosen the last-named; and
  3. When asked what ought to be done if Palestinian leaders strike a two-state deal with Israel, most have declared that the struggle should go on until all of historical Palestine is “liberated.”

Given the gloomy nature of these findings, I had expected to be challenged on their particulars by one or more scholars versed in Palestinian survey research. Indeed, I explicitly invited such challenges. Their absence in the month since my essay was published and widely circulated strengthens my sense that these claims are correct.

 

Ghaith al-Omari, a thoughtful scholar-practitioner, a man of integrity and courage, and a long-time advocate of a two-state solution, challenges not my factual claims but one of my underlying premises—namely, that Palestinian public opinion must necessarily have a substantial impact on Palestinian political behavior. He argues, first, that public opinion need not constrain bold political decisions, and in fact can be made more moderate in the aftermath of such decisions. In this connection he cites “two momentous cases in the arena of Palestinian-Israeli relations—the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO under Yasir Arafat, and the unilateral Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005.” In both, he argues, “the Palestinian public embraced political developments that fell far short of their maximalist views.”

Regarding Oslo, al-Omari is probably right that Palestinians had maximalist aspirations before those accords were signed, which the agreement with Israel failed to meet. I say “probably right,” as systematic polling in the West Bank and Gaza, pioneered by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC), began only in February 1993; and neither of the two JMCC surveys carried out between then and the signing of the accords asked questions that shed light on the extent to which respondents held maximalist views. On the basis of subsequent polling, al-Omari is definitely correct that there was widespread support, after the fact, for the agreement reached by PLO and Israeli negotiators and signed on the White House lawn in September 1993. Hence, the case of Oslo demonstrates that in some circumstances, a widely respected Palestinian leader willing to reach a compromise with Israel has the chance to bring the public behind him.

However, al-Omari’s second example, the Gaza disengagement of 2005, gives rise to less sanguine conclusions. As shown in my essay, nearly half of Palestinians surveyed by JMCC in the three years beginning in June 2001 averred that the goal of their struggle with Israel should be to liberate all of historical Palestine from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. In December 2003, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared that in the absence of progress in negotiations, Israel would act unilaterally to dismantle settlements that were not expected to be included in the state of Israel in the event of a final-status agreement with the Palestinians. It was widely understood that he was speaking principally about the Gaza Strip.

As al-Omari suggests, Palestinians embraced the prospect of Israeli disengagement—at least initially. In a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in March 2004, respondents were asked “Do you welcome or do you not welcome Sharon’s disengagement program, which proposes to evacuate most settlements from the Gaza Strip and a small number of settlements in the West Bank?” Seventy-three percent welcomed the plan, while nearly as many, 66 percent, said they saw it “as a victory for the Palestinian armed resistance against Israel.”

In June 2004, the Israeli government approved Sharon’s plan and fleshed out its details. In a PSR poll that month, disengagement was described as follows:

Israel will evacuate unilaterally, and in stages, all settlements in the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the West Bank. In addition, Israel will remain in control of a border strip on the Rafah-Egypt border and on the border crossing, and will continue to block sea and air access to the Gaza Strip.

Once these limitations were noted, the pendulum swung the other way. Sixty-five percent of all Palestinians were opposed. When asked whether they would “support or oppose armed attacks against Israeli targets from the Gaza Strip after the implementation of this disengagement plan,” 55 percent averred they would support them. A poll by the Bir Zeit Center for Development Studies that month found an even larger majority of Palestinians, 61 percent, favoring the use of Gaza as a launching point for armed attacks.

Belief that the Israeli pullout was a victory for the Palestinian resistance actually became stronger over time. Three-quarters of respondents expressed that view in PSR polls in 2004 and 2005, and this figure reached a peak of 84 percent immediately after the disengagement was completed. A September 2005 poll by the survey research unit of an-Najah National University corroborated this interpretation of events, showing that shortly after the pullout four times as many Palestinians attributed Israel’s actions to “Palestinian armed resistance” as to “political efforts.”

In other words, when disengagement was described in a manner suggesting that Palestinians would achieve their territorial aims in Gaza in full and without having to make any concessions in return, it was viewed positively. When Israel’s action was recast as also limiting the Palestinians’ exercise of sovereignty in Gaza, a majority viewed it negatively. Yet perhaps the major takeaway for most Palestinians was that the use of violence had brought about Israeli withdrawal when negotiations had proven ineffective. Not surprisingly, a majority of Palestinians expressed their willingness to use Gaza as a base for attacking Israel, presumably with the aim of securing further concessions.

Hence, it is hard to use this case to demonstrate Palestinian willingness, after the fact, to accept a compromise that goes against what the majority of Palestinians had been seeking.

Al-Omari makes a second, thought-provoking point to show that political behavior need not be based on public opinion. Citing “the two instances in which actual peace was achieved between Israel and formerly hostile neighbors: Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994,” he writes:

Decades after the conclusion of these two peace treaties, despite turbulent times and episodes of sometimes severe testing, diplomatic relations have survived. Meanwhile, even today one would still be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of individuals in either of the two Arab nations who view Israel favorably. Rather, anti-Israel sentiment and even, in some cases, outright anti-Semitism remain widespread among both the public and the elites. If the public’s readiness for peace were the prerequisite of a successful agreement, neither the Egyptian nor the Jordanian deal would ever have been signed.

There is no doubt al-Omari is accurate as to how Israel is viewed by rank-and-file Jordanians and Egyptians. This came across starkly when, in 2011, the Pew Research Center carried out surveys in these two countries and among the Palestinian public. Respondents were asked their view of various groups along a spectrum from very favorable to very unfavorable. Regarding Jews, 89 percent of Palestinians said their views were “very unfavorable”; the comparable figures for Egyptians were 94 percent and for Jordanians 95 percent. In the same survey, a majority in all three of these publics agreed that certain religions are more prone to violence than others; when asked which religion is the most violent, 88 percent of Palestinians pointed to Judaism, a figure surpassed only by Egyptians at 93 percent and Jordanians at an astounding 96 percent.

Egypt and Jordan also share with the Palestinians a deep unwillingness to accept Israel as a Jewish state. When survey researchers working on behalf of the Arab Barometer project asked in 2012 whether or not “[t]he Arab world should accept the existence of Israel as a Jewish state in the Middle East when Palestinians accept it,” 66 percent of Egyptians, 75 percent of Jordanians, and 76 percent of Palestinians answered in the negative. Tellingly, though, when asked whether their country should maintain its peace agreement with Israel, 67 percent of Egyptians said yes. In Jordan, by contrast, 54 percent wanted to annul their treaty with Israel.

Al-Omari is right, then. The cases of Egypt and Jordan demonstrate that it is possible to bring about and, no less important, to maintain a peace agreement with Israel even if an overwhelming majority of the rank-and-file are hostile to Jews, Judaism, and Israel. Specifically, the Egyptian example shows that a leader can reach an unpopular peace agreement with Israel and that ultimately the citizens will come to favor its maintenance, while Jordan demonstrates that an agreement can be maintained even if a clear majority of citizens are explicitly opposed to doing so. Thus, while public opinion can be a factor in constraining leaders seeking to reach or preserve a peace agreement, it by no means has a veto.

 

Nonetheless, there are many differences between the circumstances, political institutions, and culture of Egyptians and Jordanians and those of the Palestinians. It would therefore be quite difficult for a Palestinian leader to emulate Anwar Sadat and his successors, or King Hussein and his son and successor Abdallah.

On this point, I am inclined to concur with Elliott Abrams, who devotes his response to the importance of political culture and suggests that:

It is not crazy to say that a peace deal should come first, and that this in turn would lead to a change in political culture. Conceivably it might even be true—if there were a strong Palestinian leadership of the sort provided by great leaders like Mandela in South Africa and Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa in Eastern Europe, and if Palestinians and Israelis lived on a shared island in the middle of the ocean. But such leaders are nowhere in sight in the Fatah party, much less in Hamas, and far from living on an island, Israelis and Palestinians live in the Middle East. There, Palestinians are surrounded by Islamist and jihadist groups, and Iran, all of which urge ever more extremism and ever greater violence.

Indeed, precisely because of the absence so far of a strong leadership committed to peace, of the kind that both al-Omari and Abrams quite rightly wish for, Palestinian public opinion is all the more significant.

Daniel Pipes, for his part, is quite clear on the significance of Palestinian public opinion, and discusses it in the context of arguing for what he terms

an Israeli strategy for victory: breaking the Palestinians’ will to fight by convincing them that Jews have historic ties to the land, that Israel has a determined citizenry, a powerful economy and military, and mighty allies, even as it respects its neighbors and will be around into the distant future.

Pipes adds that his own research, confirmed by mine, shows that

about 20 percent of Palestinians are ready to live peaceably with the Jewish state. The challenge is to increase this number to 60 percent and more, so that this group at last can wrest control of the Palestinian national movement from rejectionists.

I accept Pipes’s view that substantially increasing the percentage of Palestinians willing to live permanently in peace alongside Israel is a crucial step toward a stable resolution of the conflict. I believe, however, that he is somewhat more pessimistic than is warranted by the available data regarding the extent of moderation in Palestinian society today.

When asked in a PSR poll in December 2005 about their desired outcome for the long term, 31 percent of Palestinians opted for a two-state solution, explicitly choosing it over a Palestinian Arab state in all of historical Palestine, though the latter was the majority choice. Six years later, in a Stanley Greenberg survey on behalf of The Israel Project, respondents were given a pair of statements: (a) “I can accept permanently a two-state solution, with one a homeland for the Palestinian people living side-by-side with Israel, a homeland for the Jewish people,” and (b) “The real goal should be to start with two states but then move to it all being one Palestinian state.” Though the latter option was chosen by two-thirds of respondents, a solid 30 percent declared themselves in favor of a permanent, two-state solution.

In 2014, the Washington Institute’s David Pollock presented West Bank and Gaza residents with options for the main Palestinian national goal over the next five years. While the first choice, selected by 60 percent of respondents, was “to work toward reclaiming all of historic Palestine from the river to the sea,” 27 percent sought the more modest aim of “End[ing] the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to achieve a two-state solution.”

Pushing further to ascertain the extent to which Palestinians might come around to a more moderate position, Pollock asked:

If the Palestinian leadership is able to negotiate a two-state solution with Israel, do you think that this should be the end of the conflict with Israel, or should resistance continue until all of historic Palestine is liberated?

Again the majority (64 percent) were for liberating all of historical Palestine, but a solid 32 percent saw a two-state solution as the end of the conflict.

Through all of these surveys, then, there appears to be a fairly consistent group, roughly 30 percent of Palestinians, who are prepared to accept, as a permanent resolution of the conflict with Israel, a two-state solution.

One could of course say that the difference between Pipes’s 20 percent and my 30 percent is merely a quibble. But if public opinion really matters—and I continue to believe it does—the prospects of a sustainable, two-state solution strike me as substantially stronger if the group currently eschewing a rejectionist approach represents nearly a third of the Palestinian population rather than only a fifth. This base could, one hopes, expand further, especially if a credible leadership arises that broadcasts a clear message on the need for a durable, two-state solution and acts consistently to bring about that outcome.

There is far more to be said about Palestinian public opinion concerning a two-state solution and the effect of rank-and-file views on the prospects for an enduring resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In seeking to lay out the unvarnished reality of Palestinian rejectionism, I hope my essay has helped advance a discussion on a subject of great significance to Palestinians, Israelis, and those seeking to bring about greater peace and stability in the Middle East.

More about: Israel & Zionism, Palestinian public opinion, Two-State Solution