Opinion Briefing: Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Quick Summary: Leaders on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often claim that the other side does not want peace — it wants land. But two-thirds of Israelis and Palestinians say they support the peace process, and solid majorities favor nonviolence over military solutions for obtaining their goals of security and self-determination. Mutual dislike for each other’s leaders, doubts about the U.S. as an impartial broker, and skepticism about the possibility of peace are key barriers to the process.
Issue at Hand: The global financial crisis, then the Arab Spring movements, and now the growing threat of armed conflict between Israel and Iran have overshadowed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent years. However, the situation is always a central component of regional dynamics in the Middle East, and cross-border fighting erupted again earlier this month after an Israeli airstrike killed the leader of a Palestinian militant group in Gaza.
Direct negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders have stalled since September 2010, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a partial moratorium on new settlements in the West Bank unless Palestinian leaders recognized Israel as a Jewish state. In September 2011, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made a failed bid for formal U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state with pre-1967 borders.
Obama Administration’s Stance: The Obama administration supports establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza based on the borders in place prior to the 1967 Six-Day War. Obama became the first U.S. president to formally endorse such a two-state solution in May 2011. He simultaneously stressed the need for Israelis to feel confident about their own security under any new arrangement.
However, any signs of progress toward a peaceful two-state solution have faded, as over the past year the Obama administration’s Middle East policy has focused on Egypt, Libya, and more recently, Syria and Iran. Tellingly, during Netanyahu’s visit to Washington in early March, the issue of Palestine-Israeli relations was largely sidelined as talks focused on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
Perceptions of Peace Process: About three-fourths of Israelis and Palestinians say relations with the other are currently “somewhat bad” or “very bad.” Majorities on each side (58% of Israelis and 63% of Palestinians) also say relations with the other are getting worse.
Similar to what Gallup has found in the past, most Israelis and Palestinians say they support the peace process, though that support is somewhat tenuous on both sides. More than one in five Israelis (22%) say they “strongly” support the process, though close to half (46%) “moderately” support it. Palestinians are similarly irresolute — one-third (33%) strongly support the peace process, while 30% moderately support it.
Ambivalence in support for the peace process reflects a deep-seated mistrust among Israelis and Palestinians regarding the leadership of the other side. Eight in 10 Palestinians (81%) have a “very unfavorable” opinion of Netanyahu, while an additional 12% have a “somewhat unfavorable” opinion of him. Israelis are somewhat less unified in their negativity toward Abbas: 39% have a very unfavorable opinion of him, while 32% have a somewhat unfavorable opinion. However, Abbas is not the only Palestinian leader for Israelis to consider. Nearly half of Israelis (48%) have a very unfavorable view of Hamas leader and acting prime minister of the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh. Another 27% of Israelis have a somewhat unfavorable view of him.
At the same time, trust toward the U.S. as an impartial peace broker is almost non-existent among Palestinians, with 8% saying they trust Obama a great deal or fair amount — no higher than it was under President George W. Bush. At 41%, many more Israelis feel they can trust Obama, although this is lower than during the Bush years.
Support for Nonviolence: The majority of both peoples say they prefer nonviolent methods to militaristic or violent ones for achieving self-determination and security. Israelis’ and Palestinians’ support for nonviolence fell to roughly 50% in 2008, but has since rebounded.
Both sides also recognize the value of peace to achieving national security. However, perhaps reflecting the decrease in U.S. pressure for peace and Israel’s strong economy in 2011, significantly fewer Israelis today than in 2007 say peace is very important to Israel receiving international respect (42% vs. 67%) or to Israel’s economic prosperity (57% vs. 78%). Palestinians’ continue to see all three outcomes as highly contingent on peace.
Policy Implications: Palestinians and Israelis want peace and share a strong appreciation for the value of achieving it to their own national security, if not to international respect and prosperity for their people. Therefore, they need to continue to find ways to advance the peace process through the “nonviolent forms of resistance and negotiation” that both sides espouse. An obvious hurdle is the deep mistrust each side feels for the other’s leaders, even as they view their own leaders favorably. Nevertheless, as long as the people in the region consider peace very important to their long-term wellbeing and prosperity, it remains a relevant objective. How effective a diplomatic role the U.S. can play in bringing the two parties together is unclear given the continuing imbalance in Palestinians’ and Israelis’ views toward the U.S. president as evenhanded.