For decades, the Israeli and Palestinian people have both lived under elites who care more about prolonging conflict than solving it. There is a lot to be made from this mess. Re-election, for a right-wing Israeli politician, is a decent enough prize to excuse a new war in Gaza. That same war will also boost the ratings for Hamas. How are Palestinian Authority politicians expected to make a decent living if they can’t leech off the United Nations or the European Union?
What then are we to make of the stereotype that Palestinians are a horde of baying savages crashing against the shores of civilised Israel? What about this “partner for peace” narrative, in which Israel’s supporters claim that the Palestinians are reared to hate Israel and Jews, and will never accept Israel’s existence? Or is it that the Israeli public are really the aggressors, a nation of colonisers no different to the British, French or Ottomans before them? Or is it that both publics are just sick of their owners?
The answer is chilling. Far from the stereotype that it is the Palestinians who are inciting against Israelis, the roles now appear to be reversed. Palestinian society is ready for peace, whereas Israeli society isn’t; it is hardening.
As poll data released by the pro-Israel lobby in the United States last week demonstrates, Palestinians are perfectly reasonable about a solution. In fact, they are curiously reasonable given the utter calamity of their lives under occupation. The recent survey was promoted by the Washington Institute for Near East Relations; the think tank has described its own survey as “surprising” and repeated this claim in the American press. In reality, there is nothing surprising in these results at all.
Attitudes towards Hamas are a good starting point: “Should Hamas stop calling for Israel’s destruction,” the poll asked, “and instead accept a permanent two-state solution based on the 1967 borders?” In the occupied West Bank, three-quarters of Palestinian respondents said yes, Hamas should stop calling for Israel’s destruction. The proportion in Gaza held at sixty-two per cent, still a considerable majority. An extraordinary eighty per cent of Palestinians in the enclave also believe that Hamas should maintain its ceasefire with Israel.
Then respondents were asked, “What is the one thing you’d most like the US to do about the Palestinian issues these days?” Given the claims made by the shrill international narrative about Israel-Palestine, you would expect responses to be along the lines of, “Kill the Jews and rip up the Balfour Declaration.”
Amongst Palestinians in the West Bank, though, most said that their first priority was to “put pressure on the PA and Hamas to be more democratic and less corrupt.” That was more than those who preferred “pressure on Israel to make concessions” or “increase economic aid to the Palestinians.” Among those in Gaza, economic aid came first, followed closely by pressure on Israel; then democracy and anti-corruption. “[This is] probably because [Gazans’] other problems are so pressing and the prospect of reform of Hamas so dim,” suggested the Washington Institute analyst David Pollock.
“None of this means that the Palestinian public endorses Israel’s legitimacy,” the institute concludes, as if this is a surprising or catastrophic outcome. It is a nod to the bafflement that its poll may have created amongst casual observers of the conflict, amongst whom Palestinians are nearly always depicted or perceived as the bad guys.
It doesn’t necessarily matter that Palestinians don’t recognise the state that stole their houses. Let that sink in for a moment. In fact, it doesn’t matter at all; the same poll shows this. Among West Bank Palestinians, sixty per cent agreed that, “Regardless of what’s right, the reality is that most Israeli settlers will probably stay where they are, and most Palestinian refugees will not return to the 1948 lands.” Even among those in Gaza, nearly half (forty-six per cent) accepted that assessment; their houses are gone, it’s time to get along. They display raw pragmatism in the face of humiliation, with just single-figure percentages supporting the idea of a state of Israel at all.
The only surprising thing about these opinions is that they are a surprise. Anyone who has spent time in Palestinian society and then headed into Israel is likely to find hard-line views more commonly held by Israelis than their more reasonable counterparts on the other side of the separation wall. The rise and rise of the right-wing in Israel is testament to that.
Take, for example, opinions about Palestine’s right to exist as an independent state. Palestinians’ failure to recognise “Israel’s right to exist” has long been a bug-bear of the pro-Israel lobby. However, less angst is generated when Israel doesn’t recognise Palestine’s right to exist. In fact, when it comes to the Israeli state, mutual recognition is taken one step further, as Elie Friedman put it so well last year: “The Netanyahu government insists that Palestinians recognise Israel as the Jewish state, as opposed to just recognising that it exists. But the Israeli prime minister refuses to recognise the Palestinian people and their rights to exist as a nation, as opposed to just acknowledging the fact that they live here.” So the Israeli view is much more hard-line. What do the Israeli public think? Sixty-two per cent of Israelis — the same proportion as Palestinians in Gaza who think that Hamas should recognise Israel — do not accept that “holding onto Judaea and Samaria” is “an occupation.” That poll was conducted shortly after Trump’s visit to the region.
Last year, another poll found that half of Israeli Jews “back the transfer or expulsion of Arabs” in a Pew poll dismissed as inaccurate by Sammy Smooha, an apologist professor of sociology at the University of Haifa. His argument was that it only “reflect[ed] alienation and disgust with the Arabs” rather than a desire to conduct ethnic cleansing (as if that made it significantly more acceptable).
Alienation and disgust on one side; a widespread desire for living peacefully on the other. For decades, the Palestinians have been typecast as the aggressors. It’s time for a rethink.