Saturday, January 5, 2013

Perhaps with a lot of luck

Opinion polls without number. Several polls per week, almost one every day. Israel's political system is addicted to opinion polls, perhaps even more so than in other countries. Is it really certain that Binyamin Netanyahu will go on being Prime Miinister of Israel? Or is everything still open? Can things still change drastically during the two and half weeks remaining until Election Day? Can the continuing fall of the Likud Party in the polls plus the increasing tendency of oppositional forces to unite into an impressive large bloc, create a new reality?

Among the flood of polls striving to predict the results which would be published on the morning of January 23, a slightly different survey – testing fundamental, long-term positions. On the initiative of the American Jewish billionaire Danny Abraham, who is for many years active in efforts to promote a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, two major Israeli polling institutes were charged, those of Minna Tzemach and Rafi Smith, to check – each one separately and without knowing of the other - how the citizens of Israel would vote in the case that their government asks them to approve by referendum an agreement designed to put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

Respondents were presented with detailed outlines of the agreement in question:

·    Two states - Israel for the Jewish people and Palestine for the Palestinians;
·    Palestinian refugees having the right to return only to their new country;
·    The Palestinian state would be demilitarized;
·    The boundaries would be based on the 1967 lines with exchanges of equal-sized territory. Those exchanges would take into consideration Israel's security needs and would retain the large settlement blocs in Israeli hands;
·    Jewish Jerusalem would be under Israeli sovereignty and the Arab neighborhoods would be under Palestinian sovereignty;
·    The Old City would be under neither side's sovereignty, but rather would be administered jointly by Israel, the Palestinians and the United States;
·    The agreement would be implemented only after the Palestinians held up all the obligations at their end, especially the war on terror, and the United States approved of the agreement.

The two polling institutes got similar results: if and when a government is established in Israel which will achieve an agreement with the Palestinians (and the Americans) on such a  basis, it will gain the support of no less than two-thirds of the citizens of Israel. Furthermore, such an agreement would also gain support of the majority among the voters of the two main right-wing parties. 57% of the voters of the ruling Likud Party, 47% among those of Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home Party, the  rising star in the ultra-nationalist constellation who is challenging Netanyahu from the right.

It thus seems that somewhere in the misty future, the citizens of Israel might vote overwhelmingly in favor of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But in the here and now, at the general elections due to take place in Israel two and a half weeks from now, the citizens - according to all polls up to today – seem likely to give a clear Knesset majority to the parties which strongly oppose such an agreement.

More than half of the Likud voters are willing in principle to support a peace agreement with the Palestinians based on 1967 borders. But there is no reason to suppose that in practice this would deter them from going to the polls and giving a mandate to Prime Minister Netanyahu, who staunchly opposes the same boundaries and who was willing to enter into a public confrontation over it with the President of the United States. Almost half of the supporters of the Jewish Home Party are ready in principle to support an agreement with a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, but this is no impediment to their empowering Naftali Bennett, who is altogether opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state in whatever boundaries, and whose plan calls for annexing sixty percent of the West Bank and leaving the Palestinians enclosed in a collection of narrow enclaves, with "autonomy under the supervision of the IDF and Shin Bet" (sic). Half of the voters for both these parties are willing in principle to support a peace agreement with the Palestinians,  but in practice they are about to fill Knesset seats with dozens of extreme right Members as well as those from the even more extreme right, who are completely opposed to even the most petty and cosmetic of concessions.

The fact is that most of the Israeli public completely believe what they had been repeatedly told over the past twelve years: there is no partner, the Palestinians do not want peace, there is no chance for peace, and all talk of peace is a pipe dream.

In short: if an Israeli government ever reaches a peace agreement with the Palestinians and presents it as a fait accompli to the approval of the Israeli public, the public will give its blessing to such a government and to such an agreement. But the Israeli public will not lift a finger to bring such a government into being or to get the government to sign such an agreement. The public would not come out en masse into the streets to demand peace, nor provide a parliamentary majority to the parties which support peace. The public would wait for somebody to once upon a time present it to them ready made.

So, how is it ever going to happen? Probably we need help from outside, a great lot of it. You can sometimes hear diplomats - especially American ones – saying things like  "We can't replace the parties themselves, we can't want an agreement more than the parties want it." But otherwise it will just not work. The International Community must get involved, far more than it ever was – if only because assorted religious and nationalist fanatics, playing with fire very near to a very sensitive powder keg, are not a regional problem but a global one.

An international involvement is needed – an involvement far stronger, far more intensive than ever before, of all who can in any way get involved. The President of the United States should get involved and push hard and refuse to be intimidated by powerful Congressional lobbies. The leaders of Europe and Japan, and Russia and China and anyone else holding any kind of leverage should make maximum use of it. And civil society organizations throughout the world should join the effort and work from below wherever they can. And Jews worldwide need to realize that the way to help Israel and ensure  its future is not by following orders and directives emanating from the government offices in Jerusalem. Quite the contrary.

And then, if all of us have a lot of luck, eventually an agreement will be signed, and the citizens of Israel will vote and approve it by a large majority and will accept the need to get out of the Territories which were under Israeli rule for decades and never became part of Israel. There would be no outburst of great enthusiasm, and we will probably witness no dancing in the streets. Rather, it would be a majority united by a sober hope - "Well, the whole world pressured us, and the government probably knows what they are doing. Let's give it a chance and see how it goes, maybe after all we will have some peace and quiet."

The Palestinians, in their own referendum at the same time, will have to accept that their cherished dream, the dream of the Return to hundreds of cities and villages destroyed in 1948, will remain a dream. A harsh and painful concession. There will certainly be no dancing in the streets there, and yet they too  are likely to give the agreement a chance in a spirit of sober hope. "Well, it's probably the maximum we could have gotten, let's give it a chance and see how it works out. Maybe after all the Occupation would really end and we would really and truly have a state." And then? We will certainly not live in Heaven, but maybe we can start to build a normal life on both sides of the border between the state of Israel and the State of Palestine.

All of this, in the best case and assuming all of us have a lot of luck. One can certainly think of much worse possibilities.