The latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that was launched in late July after tremendous efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry, came at a time of great pessimism among Israelis and Palestinians. About 68 percent of Israelis and 69 percent of Palestinians do not believe that a negotiated peace is possible in the near future, according to a June 2013 joint poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) and the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute. For different reasons, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have both committed to subject to a referendum any agreement that might result from the coming nine months of closed-doors negotiations. Abbas, who enjoys little legitimacy among Palestinians, needs a national ‘yes’ vote before going forward with an agreement that will entail Palestinian concessions. Netanyahu, who is quite popular in Israel, agreed to a referendum in order to placate his right wing coalition partners that have insisted on this condition. The referendum condition means that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, and their American mediators, must be attuned to public opinion in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The standing of Netanyahu and Abbas, at least at the moment, vis-à-vis their political rivals presents a unique opportunity for the two leaders to arrive at an agreement and to present it to their people. However, a settlement proposal that does not take into account the positions of the majority of Israelis and Palestinians on core issues is bound to fail in a referendum.
Netanyahu and Abbas were reluctant to launch new negotiations. Even as the two sides were preparing for the resumption of the talks in Israel, they continued to exchange accusations, with Netanyahu complaining about Palestinian incitement against Israel and the Palestinian leadership decrying the expansion of settlements. However, if they were serious about reaching a proposed agreement, the two leaders could in fact do so. Netanyahu has a stable majority in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, which would support an agreement. Though his own Likud party has very vocal right wing members, and one of his coalition partners, the Jewish Home party, represents settlers’ interests, Netanyahu can effectively impose his will on his party and bring in the Labor party to replace the Jewish Home in his governing coalition. Netanyahu is better positioned to reach an agreement than any Israeli leader since the Oslo Accord. Abbas, who has not stood for election since 2005 and therefore is on much shakier ground with his own public, can nevertheless take advantage of the devastating crisis that his political rival movement – Hamas – has been plunged into in recent months. Hamas’ relations with its core backers, Syria and Iran, suffered since the start of the uprising in Syria, and the ouster of the Islamist Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi has intensified the siege on the Gaza Strip, which Hamas controls, and has further isolated and weakened the movement. Abbas could take advantage of his temporary strategic upper-hand over Hamas. A measured degree of optimism about what Netanyahu and Abbas could achieve, then, is not completely uncalled for.
Yet, even in the event that the negotiators could come to an agreement on a proposal to present to their people, the Israeli and Palestinian referenda pose the most critical challenge to a peace deal. While public opinion is malleable, there have been some persistent trends that have endured over the past decade. Taking note of these could help the negotiators and mediators work out a plan that would have a chance in referenda in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Joint surveys conducted since 2000 by the PCPSR the Truman Institute allow us to track strong patterns in Israeli and Palestinian public opinion. Starting with the good news – Over the last decade, a majority of Israelis and Palestinians have shown consistent desire to see a peaceful end to the conflict. Support for a two-state solution has also been a stable consensus issue. In March 2010, 57 percent of Palestinians said they support the two-state paradigm and the numbers have been high in most other years too. The lowest levels of support for the two-state framework among Palestinians, in 2012, still stood at 49 percent. A majority of Israelis also consistently regard the two-state framework favorably, with the highest support rate of 71 percent in 2010 and the lowest rate that is nevertheless relatively high, in 2012 standing at 56 percent.
But when we come to examine the details that make up any two-state settlement, the picture is less encouraging. There have been two major concrete peace plans that, among a variety of other proposals, stood out in the public discourse surrounding Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The first is the Clinton Framework of 2000 and the second is the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, also known as the Saudi Plan. We address the Saudi plan first because public opinion consistently shows that the plan has little chance of providing the underlying framework for an agreement. According to this plan, Israel is to withdraw from all the territories it had occupied in 1967, including the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The Palestinian refugees, the plan stipulates, will be settled through negotiations based on UN resolution 194. In return, Israel will receive full recognition from all Arab states, with peace treaties signed and diplomatic relations established. Since the time it was first presented, Israeli public opinion has repeatedly and resoundingly rejected this plan. While the average support for the plan among Palestinians was 61 percent over the last seven years, Israeli opposition to the plan was 60 percent on average. Even after recent modifications to the plan that were made in preparation for the current round of talks, which allow for land swaps instead of complete Israeli withdrawal from all territories, a solid 67 percent (June 2013) of Israelis continue to reject it.
The Clinton Framework offers more avenues for progress, as the majority of Israelis have been steadfastly supportive of the plan and Palestinians have shown an average of 44 percent support for the plan over the last 10 years. On two occasions, in 2004 and in 2011, over 50 percent of Palestinians were in favor of the framework. But here the devil is in the details. While on some aspects of the framework the gaps between Israeli and Palestinian public opinion are small and at times even disappear, on other elements the differences are immense. The issues that Palestinian and Israeli public opinion have converged on at several points in the past have been borders and territory exchange, and security arrangements as outlined in the Clinton proposal.
However, both sides have opposed the plan’s settlement for Jerusalem, which entails East Jerusalem and the Old City coming under the new Palestinian state while Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and the Jewish quarter and the Wailing Wall in the Old City remaining under Israeli sovereignty. Palestinian and Israeli opposition to the Jerusalem parameters averaged 66 percent over the past 10 years. On the question of Palestinian refugees, the Clinton Framework proposes unlimited resettlement of refugees in the areas of the new Palestinian state, monetary compensation for refugees, and limited settlement of some refugees in Israel and in third countries, under the discretion of the receiving countries. In the last decade, a majority of Israelis, ranging from 56 percent to 65 percent and a majority of Palestinians, ranging between 55 percent and 75 percent have rejected these parameters in annual surveys. Finally, over a period of a decade, Israelis have supported in high numbers the Clinton stipulation that the new Palestinian state will be demilitarised, while on average, 73 percent of Palestinians have been opposed to demilitarisation. These numbers mean that on the questions of Jerusalem, refugees and demilitarization, negotiators would have to think of new solutions, rather than work with the ones that have already been tried in past negotiations and have been repeatedly rejected by the Israeli and Palestinian public.
There are indications that a failure to reach an agreement that is acceptable to Israelis and Palestinians would not mean a return to the status quo, but would very likely lead to another round of violence. Recent polls from the last two years show that mutual mistrust and fear of potential harm inflicted by the other side is on the rise among Israelis and Palestinians. Furthermore, an increasing number of Palestinians believe that violent resistance might be the only way to advance toward an independent Palestinian state. In 2000, when the Camp David and Taba negotiations ended without agreement, the Second Palestinian Intifada was sparked. A repeat scenario seems highly plausible in case of failure in the coming nine months. For this reason, efforts should be directed at crafting a proposal that would take seriously, the longstanding positions and preferences of the Israeli and Palestinian public.