A new and hopefully more promising phase of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations started in January 2014. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s tenth visit to Israel-Palestine that month aimed at outlining American bridging proposals for resolving the conflict. The hope is that the parties will finalize, with U.S. help, a framework for a peace agreement by the end of April 2014 when the current round of peace talks, which started in July 2013, ends.
Palestinian and Israeli publics, however, are not impressed. They continue to show justifiable skepticism regarding the chances for success. Secretary Kerry should make it his business to change this prevailing perception.
WHAT THE POLLS SHOW
Joint Palestinian-Israeli polls show little optimism regarding Palestinian-Israeli peace. More than two-thirds of both publics do not expect the current round of peace negotiations to lead to a peace agreement. Worse, similar or larger majorities do not believe that a Palestinian state will be established in the next five years. In fact, most Palestinians and Israelis, while supportive of the two-state solution, believe that such a solution is no longer practical.
Despite a mutual lack of trust among Palestinians and Israelis, joint polls show that both sides are willing to accept similar compromises.
There are plenty of reasons for Palestinian and Israeli pessimism. The two publics do not trust each other. This lack of trust is the product, in part, of a mutual collective ignorance: Palestinians and Israelis believe that while their side seeks peace and supports compromise, the other side does not. Joint polls show, however, that both sides are indeed willing to accept similar compromises.
Lack of trust also is driven by mutual misperception: while each side tends to view its side’s long term aspirations as moderate, an overwhelming majority of Palestinians tend to believe that Israel’s ultimate goal is to annex all occupied territory and expel its population or deny them their political rights. At the same time, a majority of Israelis tend to believe that the Palestinians’ ultimate aspiration is to conquer the state of Israel and kill most of its Jewish population.
The mutual distrust is made worse by heightened threat perception about current conditions. A majority of Israelis worry that they or their family members may be harmed by Palestinians in their daily life. Among Palestinians, three quarters are worried that they or a member of their family could be hurt by Israel in their daily life, or that their land would be confiscated or home demolished.
Pessimism also is driven by past experiences. Israelis think Palestinians have repeatedly rejected generous Israeli offers to settle the conflict, whereas Palestinians believe that continued and uninterrupted Israeli settlement construction demonstrates beyond any doubt Israel’s real intentions of colonizing the land that they hope will become their state.
NO INTEREST IN RAISING EXPECTATIONS
In the current negotiations, the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, are not interested in raising expectations. Indeed their messaging strategy is based on denying progress and blaming the other for eventual failure. Both leaders worry that a rise in expectations could limit their room for maneuver and force them to work harder to meet public expectations. Moreover, Netanyahu fears that optimism about the peace talks could undermine the stability of his governing coalition and may in fact threaten his continued leadership of the Israeli right. Abbas worries that unfulfilled expectations could lead Palestinians to despair and ultimately adopt violence.
Optimism forces leaders to work harder to meet expectations, and polls show a strong correlation between optimism and willingness to compromise.
Yet, for the current U.S. effort to succeed, a way must be found to increase Israeli and Palestinian public optimism. Optimism is critical not only because it forces leaders to work harder to meet expectations, but also because poll findings demonstrate a positive correlation between optimism and willingness to compromise: greater public optimism generates greater willingness to compromise. Leaders who sense greater domestic support for compromise are bolder in confronting their opposition and more likely to show greater courage at the negotiating table.
SHOWING DETERMINATION AND USING LEVERAGE
If Palestinian and Israeli leaders resist U.S. pressure to change their public messages, then the U.S. should make it its business to show progress and publicize its own determination to overcome both leaders’ hesitation to embrace American bridging proposals. Publicizing areas of mutual agreement, putting forward fair proposals, and demonstrating determination to use leverage on both sides can go a long way to change public perception in a positive direction.
The current status quo, and the pessimism it generates, is highly resilient. It is driven in part by Israeli comfort with it and by Palestinian belief that the future, with its demographic trends, is on their side. The domestic environments in Israel and Palestine are not conducive to progress toward peace. Leaders are not sufficiently motivated to make tough decisions. So far, the U.S. and the international community have not yet provided the parties with difficult choices. Current U.S. efforts, now shifting toward a more active U.S. role in formulating compromises, need to evolve further. Previous U.S.-driven successes in Arab-Israeli peace talks were possible only when the U.S. showed determination and used leverage.
Khalil Shikaki is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Ramallah, Palestine.