It’s good to start the year with encouraging news, so allow me to share what I think is a rare piece of encouraging and practical information for those who hope one day there will be peace in the Middle East.
News reports about Israel and about its conflict with Palestinians often come fraught with emotion and controversy. The headlines come filled with accusations, condemnations, charges and counter-charges that one side or the other is not serious about peace.
Is it possible to know the truth about where the people stand? Does it matter? The answer is yes, and yes.
Israelis have been poked and prodded by pollsters, and the result is a consistent — and occasionally stunning —picture of the country.
The most recent batch of opinion surveys brought an amazing result.
Pollsters asked right-wing Israelis — the fierce nationalists, religious and hawkish — how they feel about the creation of a Palestinian state. Incredibly, a majority in two separate polls said they would support a peace deal with Palestinians, even one dividing Jerusalem, if Israel could have peace and security.
The poll asked members of Likud and the even more rightist Habait Hayeudi (Israel is our Home) if they would stand behind a peace agreement in which Israel withdrew to the 1967 lines, keeping some settlement blocs in exchange for equal sizes of territory to create a demilitarized Palestinian state, and dividing Jerusalem with Jewish neighborhoods under Israeli sovereignty, Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian rule, and holy sites under joint Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. control.
Among right-wing party backers, majorities of about 57 percent said they would be OK with such a deal. Among the population at large, more than two-thirds of Israelis said they would support the plan. Only 25 percent of rightist Israelis said they would oppose that deal in one poll, while 34 percent said they would oppose it in the other poll. These, again, are right-wing Israelis, the ones who are most skeptical of peace offers and most reluctant to make compromises.
Most interesting is what happened when pollsters added a few more details to their question. What if the peace agreement, they asked, included additional security guarantees for Israel, such as a defense alliance with the U.S., full diplomatic relations with other Arab countries, and the disarmament of Hamas?
Under those conditions, support for a peace deal and the creation of a Palestinian state rose to an incredible 80 percent.
These results show that, despite the frequent condemnation of Israel’s actions, the population remains as committed as ever to compromising for peace. The rightist government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has remained defiant in the face of criticism and has engaged in maneuvers to please his base ahead of the Jan. 22 election. But, contrary to the prevailing image, even his supporters would favor withdrawing from a Palestinian state — as long as they believed territorial withdrawals would not be followed by more attacks and continued efforts to destroy the country.
This is particularly encouraging because it shows that Israel’s drift to the right does not represent a movement away from the fundamental desire for peace and its willingness to trade land.
Have a look at almost a decade of polling commissioned by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. The survey results, confirmed by other organizations, show that a strong majority of Israelis supports a peace deal and the creation of a Palestinian state, and they have maintained their support steadily through periods of intensified rocket attacks, wars and all manner of regional turmoil.
As President Obama prepares to begin a second term and Israelis prepare to go to the polls to elect a new government which, barring the most dramatic of developments, will keep Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, public opinion is a useful guide, especially in a democracy.
It shows where one of the problems lies in finding peace. While a narrow majority of Palestinians have also held their support for a two-state solution, recent polls show 88 percent of them support using violence to achieve it.
If most Israelis require security and most Palestinians favor violence, the common psychological ground is hard to find. But as long as both sides still wish for peace and favor a two-state solution, it is too soon to give up hope.