Interesting Israel/palestine Poll

by Jonathan Chait | April 23, 2009

Josh Marshall cites a poll of Palestistinians and Israeli, sussing out their attitudes about and preconditions for peace. Like Josh, I think the poll is highly interesting and worth a complete read. But my conclusion is totally different. Josh, like many people, reads the situation as fundamentally a parallel one. Here's the basic flavor of Josh's take:

In any case, both sides are willing to have a two state solution. But both sides expect it to include things that are entirely unacceptable to the other side, which is to say that they're ready for a two state solution on their own terms. ... Both sides would like everything -- peace and also all the stuff they want. And the whole situation is so terribly stalemated that there's little force on either side or purpose to press down to painful trade offs between what you'd like and what you'd settle for. You just keep saying you insist on having your cake and eating it too. Because there's no cake to have or to eat. So it's all just a notional question. And why not insist on everything as long as you have nothing? And this, in different ways, on both sides.

Josh's read is pretty conventional. Both sides have their crazies, both sides need to make more compromises for peace, and so on. There's certainly some truth to it. But the most important dynamic at work is fundamentally not parallel. 71% of Palestinians say that it's "essential" that their state consist of "Historic Palestine," defined "from the Jordanian River to the sea" -- i.e., all of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The same poll showed that only 17% of Israelis thought a "Greater Israel" -- that is a Jewish state encompassing the same territory -- was essential.

That's the nub of the problem right there. The vast majority of Israelis are willing to live alongside the Palestinians in one form or another, and the vast majority of Palestinians are not willing to do the equivalent.

This is where the whole parallel-ist view of the conflict starts to lose touch with reality. It's true that both sides have elements that deny each other's historical legitimacy, that both sides have taken provocative acts, but the heart of the problem is that Palestinians are not willing to live alongside Israel. This is not the only problem -- the settlements are a major obstacle, the Gaza incursion was a moral and strategic disaster, Israelis are too unwilling to compromise on issues like Jerusalem, etc. But Palestinian rejectionism is the heart of the problem. Palestinians are reluctant to make peace because they don't want Israel to exist. Israelis are reluctant to make peace because Palestinians don't want Israel to exist.

And it's not like Palestinians are crazy to think this. As far as they're concerned, the existence of Israel is more or less analogous to a bunch of Russians showing up in New Jersey and saying it's their homeland and no longer part of America. Now, the reality of the Jewish presence in Israel is stronger and more complicated than that, but there is a basic truth that the Palestinians were unfairly made to pay the price for the postwar Jewish refugee problem. I think the Zionist solution was the best available alternative, but you certainly can understand why most Palestinians would want to pursue a strategy of holding out for however long it takes for the Jewish state to disappear.

I think the point is crucial because it gets to the heart of my disagreement with many liberals over this question. The mistaken equation between Israeli rejectionism and Palestinian rejectionism produces the frequent mistaken conclusion that Palestinian rejectionism results from various Israeli misdeeds. If Palestinians are hijacking planes or embracing suicide attacks or launching rockets in the random direction of Israeli towns, it must be a response to this or that Israeli action. The reality is that Palestinian rejectionism is a authentic expression of Palestinian belief with a long history that has manifested itself in numerous ways, starting from the Palestinian rejection of the 1947 U.N. partition of Palestine into two states, running through the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964 (before Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza), and continuing through various tactics of killing Israeli civilians as an end in and of itself.

So, for instance, you frequently see it stated that Palestinians turned to Hamas in response to Israel's blockade of the occupied territories. Isn't it more likely that Palestinians turned to Hamas because Fatah ceased to be a credible vehicle for total rejectionism of Israel? Likewise, the energies of many liberals are devoted to the problem of getting to a two-state agreement -- a task I wholeheartedly endorse -- but they assume that such an agreement will stop or come close to stopping Palestinian attacks on Israel, something I hope for but sadly doubt.

I'm not arguing that Palestinian rejectionism ought to give Israel a carte blanche to defend its security, nor that Palestinian opinion is totally inelastic in response to Israeli behavior. Moreover, I'll concede that Israel's political culture has taken a disturbing right-wing turn over the last couple of years. Still, the striking fact about Israeli and Palestinian opinion remains not its parallelism but its asymmetrical character. I don't think you can get to a peaceful solution without first recognizing this basic fact.

--Jonathan Chait


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