Anyone following the Mideast conflict will notice one strange fact. If you explore public opinion within Israeli and Palestinian societies, there is mutual consensus on what the final settlement will look like. Writing for Common Ground News Service, Daoud Kuttab, Palestinian journalist and the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University outlines such a consensus view and asks why it is not implemented:
The Palestinian Israeli conflict is very strange. It has lasted so long that public opinion has lost its power to affect policy or leaders’ decision making. No matter what the Palestinian or Israeli public wants, what happens on the ground and in decision making circles in Tel Aviv and Ramallah rarely reflects public opinion.
If public opinion counted we would long ago have solved this conflict. It is a scientific fact that the majority of Palestinians and Israelis know exactly what the solution to the conflict will look like: two sovereign states roughly along the 1967 borders, some adjustments for the big settlement blocks, a few refugees returning for symbolic value, and a functional solution for Jerusalem.
But public opinion doesn’t count. Just look at the victims of those who tried to follow public opinion. Quite a few PLO representatives who wanted to reflect Palestinian public opinion by beginning dialogue with Israelis were assassinated [i.e. Issam Sartawi]. A popular Israeli prime minister who was doing what the majority of Israelis wanted was similarly killed. In both instances the killers were not from the other side, but from their own people. Yasser Arafat and his Israeli counter parts had to negotiate in secret to reach the Oslo Accords. And Yasser Arafat told Clinton that he would be killed if he agreed on the ideas that Barak was offering. Ariel Sharon had to have an exaggerated number of body guards to protect him from assassination while he was enforcing what polls showed was a popular decision to withdraw from Gaza. He has not been able to do anything else despite polls showing that any further withdrawals in the West Bank would also gain majority support from Israelis.
The reasons for the lack of effectiveness of public opinion vary. For issues that are of higher national and strategic interests, the public gives those in power much more leeway. The average person in the Middle East feels that those in power have a lot more information at their disposal than they do that will allow them to decide what is best for the nation. The public might argue with authority on almost any issue except subjects dealing with security and of national strategic importance. Leaders are given the benefit of the doubt in these areas and their judgment is rarely questioned.
Unfortunately, leaders take advantage of this public position. They tend to carry out decisions reflecting what they want, assured that the public will rarely question them on issues relating to security.
This issue is more felt in the case of Israel. As a young country that was established against many odds, the Israeli public has an exaggerated sense of faith in their security forces. And since the majority of the Israeli political leaders have come from the army, the public has blind support for whatever their leaders have to say in security related matters. And while the Israeli public will question almost any other decision, they tend to be unanimously silent on strategic issues or security related subjects.
Kuttab notes there are only two ways to effect peace in the Mideast. One is by overwhelming force of public opinion. That is, when 2/3 of society agrees that something should happen, then the political elites will sit up and take notice. Until then, the powers-that-be know that the public will acquiesce in whatever policies they pursue in the areas of national security.
The second means of bringing change is when:
…Outside pressure [is] exerted on leaders. We saw this in the case of the Gaza withdrawals as the international pressure on Sharon to move in the peace process (within the Road Map framework) forced him to come up with a political plan that received the approval of the White House, even though it didn’t have overwhelming support in Israel.
What’s ironic in this statement is that Sharon originally thought of the Gaza withdrawal as a way to satisfy U.S. and international pressure while at the same time circumventing it. He wagered that his unilateral action would satisfy outsiders that he was doing something for peace, while delaying the final status issues (like the creation of a Palestinian state) for at least ten years.
I say ‘ironic’ because his withdrawal has proved far more substantive than Sharon had expected. Its aftermath led to the demoralization of the settler movement and creation of the rump rebel faction in Likud which drove Sharon from the Party. This in turn energized the left-wing of the Labor Party to elect Amir Peretz their leader, which in turn allowed (or perhaps forced) Sharon to quit Likud. The result of all this may be that after the next elections there will be momentum toward serious negotiation with the Palestinians leading to creation of a state. I doubt Sharon in his wildest dreams expected this to happen when he first plotted his Gaza withdrawal.