The dust is beginning to settle in the Middle East following the five tumultuous years unleashed in the spring of 2011. Although a far cry from the democratic aspirations of the popular uprisings that brought about the downfall of the autocrats of yesteryear, the contours of a regional reordering are beginning to take shape. Today, key actors are staking out their claims, aggressively juggling for position and forging alliances in what may very well be the final steps in the latest remolding of the geopolitics of the area.
In this context, renewed attention is being given to grappling with the last — and most intractable — vestige of the old order: the Arab-Israeli conflict. The resolution of this ongoing confrontation — and especially its most essential component, the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire — is particularly pressing: it is broadly perceived as an imperative for the construction of a modicum of regional stability. Success in confronting this challenge has eluded generations of global and regional actors. Another round of efforts is now in the making, guided by principles that may diverge from the conventional wisdom of the past.
The latest results of the Palestinian-Israeli Pulse, a poll conducted jointly by the Israel Democracy Institute and Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, while highlighting ongoing differences and underlining dimming hopes, nevertheless points to some new and intriguing directions already being pursued at both the informal and the official levels. Whether these will coalesce into a broader initiative in the coming months depends to no mean extent both on the political will of those in office and on the prevalence of majority popular voices on both sides that still yearn for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Indeed, after almost 50 years of occupation, at least three waves of Palestinian uprisings, several wars in Gaza, political upheavals on both sides of the Green Line, the collapse of the Oslo process and the failure of subsequent attempts to revive negotiations, continuous Israeli settlement and periods of sustained violence, the latest survey shows that a majority of Israelis (58.5%) and Palestinians (51%) still favor the two-state solution. With all the mutual suspicion and acrimony, 43% of Palestinians state that most Israelis want peace and an identical percentage of Israelis feel the same about Palestinians. But the details of the content of such an accommodation and the way it can be attained are undergoing change.
The first shift in thinking is substantive. Although both Israelis and Palestinians underestimate the extent of support for the establishment of a Palestinian state within their own communities and among their neighbors, they each disagree — to varying degrees — with the details of the conventional view of the permanent settlement. On every single major item—ranging from borders, military arrangements, land swaps, Jerusalem, refugees and mutual recognition of Palestine and Israel as the sovereign expressions of their respective people — a majority on one side or another (and sometimes on both) opposes the proposal.
Only 39% of Palestinians (more secular than religious, more Gazans than residents of the West Bank, and more Fatah than Hamas supporters) actually support the combined package. The exact same percentage of Israeli Jews (more secular than religious, substantially more who identify with the center and the left than with the right, and obviously many more non-settlers than settlers) does so as well.
Intriguingly, however, this minority turns quickly into a majority when at least one of two qualitatively distinct incentives is inserted. The first relates to the regionalization of the solution to the conflict. The achievement of an Israeli-Palestinian accord within the context of a broader regional peace would move 25% of opponents over into proponents of the package, creating a majority in its favor. The pursuit of what has come to be known as the Arab Peace Initiative is clearly a game-changer.
Many of the current Israeli government’s diplomatic moves in the region are being conducted with this framework in mind. The Palestinian Authority has signaled that it, too, is willing to give favorable consideration to such a venture. To make this happen, however, Prime Minister Netanyahu will have to backpedal on his demand to change the sequence outlined in the Arab Peace Initiative: the creation of an independent Palestine is the precursor for regional normalization and not the other way around. The Palestinian leadership, in turn, will have to forego its hope that Israel will yield to all of its demands under international pressure. Neither of these options is beyond the realm of the possible.
The second set of incentives revolves around historical narratives and their differential consequences. Almost one-third of Palestinians opposed to the detailed permanent settlement proposal would change their position if Israel would acknowledge responsibility for the refugee problem. A similar percentage of Israelis would shift their attitude should the demand for the repatriation of 100,000 refugees within Israel be withdrawn. It is, indeed, far more difficult to revise one’s interpretation of history than to go beyond it. But acknowledgment of the concerns and the needs of the other can pave the way to establishing a climate for negotiations and even for reconciliation. Consistently, on both sides, those who have the greatest amount of knowledge about their neighbors and are aware of their sensitivities are also those most willing to support a just and lasting agreement.
Another major change in thinking focuses on process. Israelis evince a marked preference for reviving negotiations bilaterally. Palestinians favor an international initiative (led either by the UN or the European Union). Neither Israelis nor Palestinians support unilateralism (a mere 18%). And backing for an Arab forum spearheaded by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan is now growing on both sides.
The prospects for constituting a regional basis for jumpstarting talks have improved since Egyptian president Al-Sisi floated his initiative in May. The Palestinian leadership understands that opting for a regional method is preferable to bilateral discussions. The Israeli government concedes that this form of multilateralism is more workable that an international umbrella. The ground seems to be set for a shift in the setting for negotiations and in the identity of its key actors, thus linking substance and process directly for the first time since Israeli-Palestinian negotiations commenced some 25 years ago.
The last potential shift lies in the sphere of perceptions. Ostensibly, the latest Palestine-Israel poll confirms what is well known: mutual fear and antagonism guide each side’s views of the other. There is no trust between the two peoples: 89% of Palestinians believe that Israelis cannot be trusted (68% of Israelis feel the same); over 70% percent of Israelis and Palestinians are worried that they or their families will be hurt by the actions of the other side; 73% of Israelis and 58% of Palestinians expect violence to continue. Too many on both sides insist that the conflict is a zero-sum game. Layers upon layers of mutual dislike are deeply embedded in the collective memories of Israelis and Palestinians, leaving them with very few expectations for progress in the quest for peace in the foreseeable future (23% of Israelis; 27% of Palestinians).
This is not a mindset conducive either to flexibility or tolerance. On the contrary, the emotions it sustains encourage a hopelessness that fuels rigidity and extremism. But the predominance of these feelings also wreaks havoc within each society, exacerbating internal schisms and sowing despair amongst the younger generation now prone to act out their frustrations at home or seek greener pastures elsewhere.
It is this common culture of despair that may contain the seeds of change. In a critical reality check, each side admits that only a small minority in its midst upholds the worst fears of the other: just 12% of Israelis say that they wish to annex the West Bank; only 10% of Palestinians claim that their goal is to conquer Israel and destroy its Jewish population. Beneath the gloomy climate nurtured by prolonged conflict, Israelis and Palestinians have one significant aspiration in common: a desire to construct a better future for themselves and their children.
As the Middle East is redrawing its parameters, it may be possible to build on this shifting set of substantive, procedural and normative directions and give them concrete expression. This is the main challenge facing Palestinian and Israeli leaders; this is the ultimate wish of their peoples; this is the key to a new order in the region.