Hope and Fear in the Holy Land

07.03.13 4:00 PM ET

At +972 Magazine Noam Sheizaf reports on a new poll conducted by the Truman Institute at Hebrew University and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (a joint project that began surveying Israeli and Palestinian public opinion in 2000). This poll told pretty much the same story as previous ones: Israeli and Palestinians would like peace, they prefer two states, they are pessimistic, and they mistrust each other. But it does help us track emotional trends among both sides, which in turn can tell us something about their expected behavior.

The good news is that the survey does tell us that Israelis and Palestinians are still very much interested in a peaceful outcome of the conflict. 62 percent of Israelis and 53 percent of Palestinians support a two-state solution (33 percent and 46 percent oppose it). In addition, 63% of Israelis and, even more surprising, 69 percent of Palestinians oppose a one state solution “in which Arabs and Jews enjoy equality” (32 pecent and 30 percent support a single state). (I firmly believe that peace means the establishment of two separate, viable states.)

That support for two states and opposition to one state are so high despite ongoing anger and bitterness at the consistent failure of leaders to make real progress in peace talks is encouraging. This is especially the case among Palestinians, who continue to suffer under a heavy Israeli occupation in which settlements are almost never being disbanded but rather are being expanded.

The poll also found that 57 percent of Israelis and 42 percent of Palestinians are ready “for a mutual recognition of national identity as part of a permanent status agreement and after all issues in the conflict are resolved and a Palestinian State is established.” It’s not clear what this means in specific terms regarding the Jewish character of Israel, but its still further proof of both peoples’ understanding of mutual national self-determination. (The Israeli percentage is a little higher from last year, while the Palestinian figure was statistically the same.)

The bad news is that fear and mistrust is persistent, and probably deeply embedded by this point. Majorities on both sides are pessimistic: 68 percent of Israelis and 69 percent of Palestinians see the chance of an independent Palestinian state alongside “in the next five years as low or non-existent.”

Worse, 51 percent of Israelis “think that the two-state solution is bound to fail because of settlements,” while 58 percent of Palestinians believe the two-state solution “is no longer viable” (presumably because of the settlements and the ongoing occupation).

More worrisome is that only 31 percent of Palestinians and 34 percent of Israelis think negotiations will resume (despite John Kerry’s efforts) while armed attacks will continue. And 15 percent of Palestinians and 44 percent of Israelis think negotiations won’t resume at all, while violence continues.

At the same time, in a similar process to what took place between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Israel and Palestine have fallen into the trap of “mirror images.” That is, they both believe the other side is committed to the same goal—in this case, the end of their national dream and the annihilation of the very people. 57 percent of Palestinians believe Israel’s goal is to absorb the entire region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and expel all the Arabs; 25 percent think Israel’s goal is to absorb the entire area and deny political rights to Arabs. For their part, 37 percent of Israelis think Palestinians’ ultimate goal is to capture all of Israel, not just the West Bank, and “destroy much of the Jewish population”; 17 percent think it’s just the former. (It should be noted that individuals and groups on both sides have said and done things that give good reason for such fears.)

Sheizaf notes that this indicates Palestinians feel more threatened than Israelis. That makes sense: Israel is strong and secure, and maintains settlements, the security barrier, checkpoints, and a military presence throughout the West Bank, while Palestinian terrorism hasn’t been a major concern in several years. What threat there has been has come primarily from Gaza, and perhaps Israelis don’t associate Hamas and the Strip’s jihadist groups with Palestinian threats in general. (Though the fact that 44 percent of Israelis believe armed attacks will continue indicates they, too, may be afraid but perhaps on personal-security level only rather than a national level.)

These disparities between fear, hope, and preferred outcomes are what’s most alarming. The disconnect between all three cannot last forever; at some point, assuming conditions remain more or less the same, the fear will overcome the hope, leading to more intense and widespread violence.

That’s why these polls are important to track: not just to see how many on either side continue to believe in peace and support two states, but to see whether that fear is growing while hope is shrinking. Those are the figures that will tell us whether the bell really has tolled for peace.