Arabs and Israelis Both Want Peace; the Problem is Leadership

By David Pollock, The Daily Star
via The Daily Star (click here for original)
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy highlights public support for the Geneva Initiative's land-swap model, and asks whether current Israeli and Palestinian leaders set preconditions for peace beyond what their publics require.
Around half of Israelis, Palestinians, and some other key Arab publics, according to opinion polls taken in the past decade, support something like the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. Its basic concept is peace and Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel’s full withdrawal from the territories captured in the 1967 war.
Similarly, around half of each one of these publics would also support other analogous proposals focused more narrowly on “land for peace,” such as the unofficial Palestinian-Israeli Geneva initiative of 2003.
Given such statistics, is this glass half empty or half full? These results suggest that political leadership could move these societies toward peace based on mutual compromises. But whether such leadership can be found, whether the details of an agreement can be successfully negotiated, and whether this agreement could withstand shifting public opinion are different questions entirely.
At least a narrow majority of West Bank-Gaza Palestinians supports such compromise proposals – even when the questions are worded to include territorial swaps beyond the 1967 lines and exclude an unlimited “right of return” for Palestinians. And Israelis tend to support such proposals even when they provide for sharing Jerusalem and omit recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state.”
The Geneva initiative has recently garnered narrow-majority or at least plurality Israeli and Palestinian support. In March 2010, the International Peace Institute reported that 56 percent of Israelis supported the initiative, with about half of the Palestinian population supporting it. The IPI poll from December 2008 had shown similar results, with a 51 percent support rating among Israelis, but about 41 percent among Palestinians. Palestinian support, measured in November 2010, increased to 67.6 percent when respondents were asked specifically about the clause concerning Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, with no more than 3 percent land swaps.
The Brookings Institution has surveyed opinions about land-for-peace concept in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. In 2010, 56 percent of those polled said they would be prepared for comprehensive peace with Israel if it pulled out of the 1967 territories, but they did not believe Israel would do so.
According to the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research, as of March 2011 Palestinians still displayed a relatively high level of support for the API: 54 percent supported it, down from 64 percent in August 2009.
What then is the political significance of these numbers? Leadership is at least as important as public opinion. For now, Palestinian and Israeli political leaders are adding conditions to peace, above and beyond the bare minimum that their own publics require. And elsewhere in the region, where public opinion now matters as never before, leaders are struggling just to maintain stability in the face of unprecedented uncertainty. As a result, even if public opinion permits peace, it is not pushing governments in that direction today.