JERUSALEM — When the Palestinians sought statehood at the United Nations in 2011, it was widely dismissed as a symbolic gambit to skirt negotiations with Israel and Washington’s influence over the long-running conflict. But the Palestinians have begun to translate a series of such symbolic steps, culminating in last week’s move to join the International Criminal Court, into a strategy that has begun to create pressure on Israel.
While many prominent Israelis have called for unilateral action to set the country’s borders, it is Palestinians who have gained political momentum with moves made outside of negotiations. The Palestinians are, in effect, establishing a legal state. International recognition, by 135 countries and counting, is what Palestinians are betting could eventually force changes on the ground — without their leaders having to make the concessions or assurances they have long avoided.
“Those states that have recognized the State of Palestine, that’s not an insignificant number, they’ve reached a kind of critical mark,” said Mark Ellis, director of the London-based International Bar Association. “We’ve added an additional complexity to this very long 66-year-old journey. I think it’s intriguing.”
For more than 20 years since the Oslo process began, those urging Israel to make more and more concessions to the Palestinians have based their views on the belief that both peoples supported a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict. But a new poll of Palestinian public opinion shows that an overwhelming majority opposes any goal other than eliminating the State of Israel.
The poll, conducted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, showed some interesting and, in part, contradictory results. Only 27.3 percent of Palestinians support a two-state solution. By contrast, more than two-thirds see the restoration of all of historic Palestine to Arab control as the only legitimate national goal for their people. Interestingly, of those who back the elimination of Israel, only one out of seven and 10.1 percent overall think it ought to be replaced by a single democratic state in which Jews and Arabs would have equal rights. What the other 60.3 percent who say that “reclaiming” all land from the river to the sea for the Arabs would do with the six million Jews who live there is left unclear.
Just as interesting is the answer to the question as to what Palestinians should do if a two-state solution were somehow to be achieved by their leadership. Only 31.6 percent say that should mean the end of the conflict while 64 percent believe that even after that the struggle against Israel “should continue until all of historic Palestine is liberated.” Asked the same question in a slightly different way, 65.2 percent of the Palestinians think that if their leadership were to negotiate a two-state deal, “that would be part of a ‘program of stages’ to liberate all of historic Palestine later.”
However, just because the Palestinians don’t want to make peace with Israel or live beside it in a separate, independent state doesn’t mean that most of them want to fight it, at least not right now. More than 60 percent think that Hamas should maintain a cease-fire with Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. Although Gaza is home to the Islamist terror movement, not surprisingly more Gazans (70 percent) support the cease-fire than West Bankers (55 percent).
As to whether Hamas should abide by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s statement that it should recognize Israel and abide by past peace agreements (something that his own Fatah hasn’t done), opinion is divided. Overall, a bare majority—50.7 percent—agrees with that position. But there is a clear split between the West Bank and Gaza. Gazans, who clearly want an end to the violence, support the demand by a margin of 57.3 to 37.6 percent. But on the West Bank, where Abbas’s supposedly more moderate Fatah Party dominates, Palestinians are split down the middle with 46.8 percent opposing forcing Hamas to stand down while 45.7 percent support the idea.
Other questions show that while Palestinians are leery of another terrorist war of attrition against Israel, they want “popular resistance” against the Jewish state to continue. While that phrase might be interpreted as support for non-violent means of protest, in the Palestinian lexicon it appears to represent something different. In this context, popular resistance means mass protests conducted by violent means with rock throwing and firebombs rather than peaceful sit-ins or demonstrations.
One question that will get attention is the one the poll asked Palestinians about whom they believe should be leading them. While only 29.8 percent supported the current leader Mahmoud Abbas (who is currently in the tenth year of the four-year term that he was elected to in 2005), Hamas leaders did far worse with none breaking into double digits. But while the pollsters billed this section as having proved that Hamas “is not gaining ground” that may be slightly misleading. Hamas has no single dynamic leader, so comparing the ones they do have doesn’t tell us that much about whether the majority of Palestinians who, if the poll is to be believed, clearly share the Islamist group’s goals, actually want it to exercise power.
The irony here is that despite clinging to these intransigent beliefs, Palestinians not only wish to avoid open conflict with Israel; they want to work there. Over 80 percent want Israel to offer more job opportunities to Palestinians from the territories with a majority saying they would personally consider taking a job inside the same Jewish state most of them want to eliminate.
It isn’t hard to draw the obvious conclusion from this study. While a two-state solution would enable the Palestinians to achieve independence at the cost of being forced to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state next door, Israelis seem to desire such an outcome more than the Arabs. Even if the Palestinian leadership were to find the courage to sign a peace deal, their people would not be satisfied with accepting such a compromise. Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the Palestinians have either turned down or walked away from opportunities to achieve statehood and peace four times in the last 15 years.
While Israel’s critics blame this failure on settlements or Israel’s leadership, the poll makes it clear that these are diversions from the real obstacle to peace: the Palestinian belief that any outcome other than the destruction of the Jewish state would amount to a historic betrayal. From its beginnings in the first half of the 20th century, Palestinian national identity has always been inextricably linked to the war against Zionism. This poll shows that despite the fact that they have little appetite for open war with the Jews, this is as true today as it was in 1947 when the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab and Muslim worlds rejected out of hand the United Nations partition resolution that would have created a Palestinian Arab state.
This poll tells us that Palestinians are torn between pragmatic desires for an end to violence and job opportunities inside Israel (an option that was eliminated by the second intifada’s wave of suicide bombings and other terror attacks) and a belief that nothing short of Israel’s elimination is the only proper national goal for their people. Until they resolve these conflicting trends in favor of a stance that would embrace real peace rather than a temporary cease-fire, all future attempts to negotiate a solution to the conflict will be futile. This is not what those who have made a career out of blaming Israel for every problem in the Middle East, if not the world, want to hear. But if they want to know what’s really going on, they should listen to the Palestinians. If they do, they will understand that there is nothing Israel can do to end this conflict so long as Palestinians are committed to their destruction.