Writing in Mondoweiss, Alex Kane argues that, based on the most recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, Israelis don’t actually want a two-state solution—contrary to a slew of previous surveys—because their version of a Palestinian state is so truncated and unviable that it’s not acceptable to Palestinians. He concludes that “Israeli society is too wedded to the continuing colonization of Palestine for a Palestinian state to come into being.”
Kane raises a fair point—that Israelis aren’t clamoring to leave the entire West Bank in return for a Palestinian state on the entire territory—but his argument rests on several presumptions that I don’t think can be taken as indicative of Israelis’ or Israel’s final position on a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
First, Kane assumes that public opinion polls determine outcomes. The general findings are that, in democracies, public opinion sets parameters rather than makes specific government policies, particularly in foreign affairs. This isn’t to say that governments can’t ever make policy with which the public disagrees; or that public opinion can’t constrain governments. But this general historical pattern, and indeed the specific historical pattern in Israel, indicates that if the Israeli public broadly and consistently supports peace with the Palestinians, which I think even Kane agrees is demonstrated in polling, then the government has the space to move forward on the peace process.
Kane draws a straight line from public opinion surveys to the specifics of a deal. But that’s not what public opinion is used for, nor how it’s properly understood. In some areas, for example, surveys on how people will likely vote, public opinion polls can be fairly accurate. But this is less so on critical foreign policy issues. It’s not the Israeli public that will determine the specifics of a deal. No-one has ever said getting to a final agreement would be simple, but we have plenty of previous official negotiations and track two efforts that show what Kane is concerned about may not be unbreachable obstacles when Israeli and Palestinian negotiators get close to the endgame. There’s nothing to support the conclusion that the Israelis will get everything they want, as expressed in the recent Israel Democracy Institute poll that Kane builds his case on; the negotiators themselves have said that “all issues” are on the table.
Second, Kane specifically mentions Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim as stumbling blocks, because most polls indicate Israelis want to keep them. They will probably prove to be two of the settlements over which negotiators will fight most. But that doesn’t translate into an inevitable inability to resolve the issue. If Israel keeps them, it might well be that Palestinians will be compensated for them through land swaps and a complex arrangement of corridors and alternate routes to Jerusalem and around the West Bank.
Third, Kane mentions the demilitarized nature of a Palestinian state as something likely to block an agreement. I’m not sure why this should be considered more of sticking point than Jerusalem or the right of return, but there isn’t anything to suggest that “demilitarized” can’t be finessed in talks. It might be a temporary Israeli or international military presence in the Jordan Valley; it might mean a defense treaty between Israel and Palestine giving the former the right to send soldiers through the latter’s territory to fend off a threat from the east; it might be a well-armed Palestinian police force but no military. It could mean many things—especially because there is a growing understanding in Israel that the Jordan Valley isn’t as necessary for Israel’s security as it once was. But being demilitarized isn’t something that will make or break a final agreement, nor is it the sin qua non for Palestinian statehood.
Fourth, the details of each poll that Kane references are important. At +972 Dahlia Scheindlin has a sharp and careful analysis of Israeli polls on peace talks. She points out there are real differences in the types of questions asked, and therefore the specific conclusions that commentators can draw from a single poll or question. Given these differences, it’s clear that there is considerable room to maneuver in negotiations, which gets back to my first point above. I highly recommend reading her piece in full.
Finally, Kane switches arguments to contend that Benjamin Netanyahu is not the leader to bring Israel into a final agreement. That’s probably where I agree most closely with him. I’ve argued that I’m skeptical Bibi will be the one to sign a final agreement. Maybe he will, but even if he doesn’t, a genuine process under Bibi will help maintain a positive atmosphere for continued negotiations under his successor. (I’m not suggesting the process continue for its own sake; I’m speaking of a serious set of talks.)
Even more importantly, the historical pattern favors Bibi. All of Israel’s prime ministers who engaged in talks with the Palestinians were hawks, all hardline in their own way. In his first term as prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin refused to consider the PLO a serious negotiating partner; as late as January 1993 he rejected direct talks with the organization. Yet he signed the Declaration of Principles and accepted in private the likelihood of a Palestinian state run by the PLO. Ehud Barak as Chief of Staff expressed considerable reservations about the Oslo Accords and as a politician abstained from the Knesset vote on Oslo II; yet at Camp David and Taba he broke longstanding Israeli taboos on final status issues. Ariel Sharon once said that “the fate of Netzarim [in Gaza] will be the fate of Tel Aviv”; in summer 2005 he withdrew all Israeli civilians and soldiers from the Strip. And Ehud Olmert was once considered a hardline rightist opposed to a Palestinian state; he now regularly talks about the coming division of Jerusalem.
What I’m saying is that the public declaration of leaders are important and need to be accounted for, but they aren’t necessarily the final determinant of their actual policies. The four prime ministers before Netanyahu are proof of this, while Bibi himself has been softening his own position on a Palestinian state. This is not to say that these Israeli leaders suddenly began to read from Mahmoud Abbas’s script; and clearly there were still gaps between their opening positions in negotiations and a fair, just solution for both peoples. But the difference between their previous statements and their later positions also cannot be ignored; it’s for sustained negotiation to bridge that gap.
If we want to look at Israeli public opinion and historical patterns, as Kane does, then they are at worst ambivalent about outcomes and dependent on conditions, and at best give concrete reasons why we can remain optimistic and hopeful for real change.