More and more Israelis and their supporters in the US are making a major issue of the fact that the peace process is dead in its tracks because of the absence of public support for it in Israel support for it in Israel. They cite negative public opinion and the absence of a credible peace movement as proof that Palestinians have squandered the last remaining hope for getting their lands back once they lost Israeli public opinion
Naturally most elementary students of local politics can understand this opinion. In a democracy, which Israel is for its majority Jewish population, public opinion decides what governments are supposed to do, because they are the ones who ultimately control the keys to the rise and fall of governments because of their ballot power.
But does this simple and basic formula really apply to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Does public opinion influence governments or do governments influence public opinion, especially when the issue is of existential proportion?
To begin with, one has to ask the basic question of the relationship in international legal terms between carrying out the mandate of the world community and responding to narrow local opinions. Which takes precedent: international law or public opinion? Can governments go against their own public for matters that are of utmost national and international importance? That question has been positively answered many times and in many circumstances.
I accept the fact that Israeli public opinion is important, but unless it is overwhelming, I suggest that it is less important than we are being told it is. The best way to understand that is to look at the opposite. Does the presence of a vibrant public opinion guarantee that this opinion is translated in to government policy?
For seven years, since the start of the Oslo process, Palestinians felt that Israeli public support was wider and the peace camp was also vibrantly in support of the peace process. But both Israeli peace camp support and the requests by former US secretary of state for a time out in settlement activity didn’t produce the needed freeze on the illegal Jewish settlement activity.
As people of a young country, the Israelis feel a strong level of appreciation of and trust in their highest government leaders when it comes to issues of national security. If an Israeli leader addresses his people and says that they must undertake an action for the national good, by and large most Israelis will follow. This means that senior Israeli leaders, and not the Israeli public, are the ultimate decision makers in an issue of national importance, as the Palestinian Israeli conflict.
For the time being, the Sharon government has taken a staunch anti-Arafat stand, placing all the blame on the Palestinian leader. This will certainly guarantee continued Israeli public’s opposition to any genuine progress in the peace process. But short of Sharon being able to crush the Palestinians and force Arafat and the Palestinian leadership into submission, a day will come when he will have to deal seriously with the Palestinian leader. Such dealings have nothing to do with whether he or the Israeli public like or dislike Arafat. It will become a matter of political and national expediency. The sooner we can get to this position in which Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, rather than fighters, grab the headlines, the faster will we be able to move out of the hole we all find ourselves in today.
Palestinians have an obligation to try and work harder to change the Israeli understanding of their position. While this effort is important, its effect will be minimal. Nothing that the Palestinians do will matter until and unless it is supported and confirmed by the leaders of the Israeli people. The key is to work all these issues simultaneously.
Violence needs to stop on both sides, negotiations must begin irrespective of the situation on the ground. Then and only then will public opinion change and it can change rather dramatically if leaders on both sides want it to
Daoud Kuttab is a journalist who covered both intifadas and Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.