Holiday reading on Middle East peace

Particularly dedicated readers might remember, back in July, the announcement of the re-starting of direct talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. The talks began with extremely low expectations, and have spluttered on since then without attracting much public attention.

An initial deadline for an agreement was set of 29 April 2014, nine months after talks started. All sides now apparently accept, as could easily have been (and was) predicted, that no final deal will be reached by that time. But the United States, which heavily promoted the talks, has been pushing for a reinterpretation of the deadline to require only a “framework agreement” by that point, to be followed by further negotiations on the definite shape of a peace settlement.

Now the Palestinians have conceded that point. Lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said “We are not talking about a peace treaty on the 29th of April. We are talking about a framework agreement.” As the Associated Press report puts it:

He suggested that much ground has already been covered in previous negotiations on a final peace deal, dating back to 2000. “Actually, it’s about decisions,” he told reporters in the town of Beit Jalla adjacent to biblical Bethlehem. “If [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu decides it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.”

But as the report inevitably goes on to point out, “reaching even a framework deal on all core issues is a longshot.” Netanyahu may well be in a position to make it happen if he wants to; the problem is there’s no evidence that he wants to.

This makes it all the more desirable for those who are interested in the issue to familiarise themselves with a recent study commissioned by researchers at the University of Maryland and co-sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace.

The study, released two weeks ago, is titled Israeli and Palestinian Public Opinion on Negotiating a Final Status Peace Agreement. And that’s just what it’s about. But in addition to asking some of the usual multiple choice questions, the pollsters did some fairly in-depth testing on acceptance of a specific scenario for peace.

You can read the full parameters of the scenario, or “proposed final status package deal”, on page seven of the study. It claims, not unreasonably, to embody “what many experts have regarded for some years as a likely basis for an agreement should one take place.” In summary (this is taken from the press release of the Geneva Initiative):

[W]ithdrawal to the 67 lines, while retaining 3-4% including the settlements blocs; a corridor between the West Bank and Gaza; a division of Jerusalem on a demographic basis, with an international, Israeli and Palestinian regime in the Old city; A refugee solution based on compensation and a return to the Palestinian state, with a limited number being allowed to return to Israel; a non-militarized Palestinian state, with an international force like NATO; Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish State and a state of all its citizens; Israel and the Arab and Muslim states would establish full diplomatic relations and open trade; and Israelis and Palestinians would relinquish all claims pertaining to the conflict.

When presented with this package and told to assume the other side had agreed to it, both Israelis and Palestinians said they would accept it, by very similar majorities: 63% of Israelis and 59% of Palestinians.

Majority Palestinian support depended on the assurance that Israel would go along: Palestinians showed a stronger tendency than Israelis to say that the other side would never accept such a package, so there was no point agreeing to it. On the basis of their recent experience, one can hardly blame them.

Clearly, for each side, there were elements of the package that respondents were decidedly unhappy with. (The division of Jerusalem was apparently the most contentious.) But the study confirms what pollsters have generally been saying for a long time – that there is a majority on both sides that wants a genuine peace agreement and is willing to make some quite serious compromises in order to get it.

This realism from the respective populations contrasts with their pessimism about what their leadership will actually deliver. Asked about the prospects of a peace agreement, only 4% of Israelis expected an agreement within the next year; Palestinians were slightly more optimistic at 11%. Disturbingly, 48% of Israelis and 47% of Palestinians thought one would never be reached, while another 33% and 22% respectively thought it would take more than five years.

So the problem is not public opinion, the problem is leadership. And at this particular juncture, the problem is mostly Israeli leadership: no-one really doubts that if something like the above package was on the table, the Palestinians (perhaps with some American prodding) would be willing to sign up to it.

But the 37% or so of Israelis who are not willing to compromise are disproportionately represented in Netanyahu’s constituency. So far, there is no political imperative for him to override his own inclinations and make a stand for peace. Nor is there any immediate likelihood of one arising. Yet he (or someone like him) has to be on board in order to quieten that minority resistance; for a centre-left Israeli government to attempt to implement a compromise peace would invite civil conflict on a massive scale.

Not, I’m afraid, an encouraging Christmas message.

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