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Are Israelis ready for compromise on Jerusalem?

Strategic adviser Moshe Gaon claims that much like in the days of the 2000 Camp David summit, Israelis are ready for significant compromises on the condition that they bring an end to the conflict with the Palestinians.
An Israeli border policeman keeps watch from atop the Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem July 23. Israel's Justice Minister Yossi Beilin said Sunday that he believed Israeli and Palestinian negotiators at Camp David would be able to resolve their disagreements over Jerusalem and sew up a deal. The fate of Jerusalem is thought to be the most formidable obstacle to an agreement at the Camp David peace summit near Washington DC.

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“For the most part, the Israeli public is not extreme. It is smart, and it realizes that if we ever reach an agreement with the Palestinians, it will come at a cost, including in Jerusalem. Everything that [Prime Minister] Ehud Barak put on the table during the 2000 Camp David conference will come back to us at another time, in another place, under different leadership.” These were the conclusions that political strategist Moshe Gaon offered in an interview with Al-Monitor. The conversation took place on the backdrop of Israel commemorating the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and a renewed focus on the negotiations that took place between Israel and the Palestinians following the Oslo process headed by Rabin.

The conventional wisdom in politics and the press is that the Israeli public is, for the most part, increasingly extreme. It no longer believes that there is a partner on the other side. A major turning point that led to this situation was the failure of the summer 2000 Camp David summit between Barak and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, under the patronage of US President Bill Clinton. The summit failed resoundingly. Barak made the Palestinians a generous offer, including the partition of Jerusalem, but it was rejected by Arafat. The second intifada erupted just a few months later.

That event is commonly considered the moment the Israeli peace camp fell apart, and it has not managed to recover since. Gaon, an expert in public opinion, was Barak’s eyes and ears on the Israeli public’s attitudes. During the Camp David days, he conducted daily polls dealing with, among other things, the possibility of compromise over Jerusalem. These polls indicated that Barak would succeed in winning support for such an agreement in a referendum. In his interview with Al-Monitor, Gaon rejected the claim that Israelis now lean more to the right. He continues to believe, as he did then, that in exchange for an end to the conflict, and with the right leader at place, the partition of Israel’s capital could gain widespread support.

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  Why was it important for Ehud Barak to conduct all those polls during the negotiations?

Gaon:  In general, it can be said that the Israeli public has proved that when it comes to a point in which the leadership makes critical decisions, it will always be able to adapt itself to those decisions. It will do so even when the decisions are difficult, as they were with the peace with Egypt, the withdrawal from Lebanon and the disengagement from Gaza. The public knows how to adapt itself to circumstances, even if it was very opposed to the decision at first.

The necessary conclusion to be drawn from this is that when a leader really believes in a decision, he will be able to convince the people that it is the right thing to do. That was the approach when we went to Camp David. Barak believed that under the circumstances at that time — i.e., the end of President Clinton’s term in office and the public mood following the withdrawal from Lebanon — not only was an agreement possible but that he would be able to convince the public of that, too. The polls were intended to provide him with the tools he needed, both when he set off for the conference and during it.

It is important to remember that the people voted Barak into office by an overwhelming majority, even though they knew what he was planning to do. According to all of our investigations, the same is true today. The Israeli public is prepared to pay a steep price for a peace agreement, with the most important phrase being “end of the conflict.” Without this phrase, it will be very difficult to convince people to support an agreement.

Al-Monitor:  This all happened soon after the Oslo Accord and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. The Israeli public was willing to give the agreement a chance. That seems to be light-years away from the current situation. Do you feel that that period was considerably different?

Gaon:  Indeed. Not only is this true, we can take it a step further. Barak did not believe in the incrementalism of Oslo. He preferred a permanent solution. He went to Camp David to settle the essence and principles of that solution. This was preceded by preparatory work by various teams and several meetings between Barak and Arafat, including a meeting at Barak’s home in Kochav Yair, together with his wife, Nava. It was a dinner meeting, and the mood was excellent. In other words, expectations really were sky-high. I remember the headlines in the papers then, which went something like, “On the Verge of a Dramatic Agreement.” When the whole thing blew up, everyone was in shock.

Al-Monitor:  You were in Israel during the conference, and you conducted the polls with American pollster Stanley Greenberg at Barak’s request. What did Barak want to know?

Gaon:  When Barak went to Camp David, the Israeli public believed that it was possible to reach an agreement. Still, there were certain issues that the public had to be prepared to accept, such as compromise over Jerusalem. So we investigated that. Israelis have a somewhat distorted perspective on Jerusalem, because Jewish Greater Jerusalem is bigger than ever before and it is full of Jews. Nevertheless, there are parts of the city that Jews will not enter, so we asked about that. Obviously, there was also the issue of the Old City, which had to be resolved. It is an especially explosive issue, which no one even talked about before Barak. His proposal was dramatic. I remember saying to Barak at the time, “If you do that, I’ll have a hard time going home to my father and the rest of my family. We’re all Jerusalemites. How will I explain it to them?” His proposal was very hard to digest, but it was clear to me that he was serious.

The proposal spoke of entire quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem, three in fact, being handed over to the Palestinians, and a compromise on the Temple Mount that would have effectively allowed the Palestinians to control the site, with partition to allow Jews access to the Western Wall. It was a dramatic proposal, paramount to the redivision of Jerusalem. Obviously, it was the kind of proposal that I felt was saying, “I’m putting all my cards on the table. Now let’s see what the response will be.” Barak reached this point at the very last stage. It was his final proposal before he went home.

Our polls indicated a positive response, and this legitimized Barak’s belief that the proposal has the support of the Israeli public, which was prepared to make painful compromises in order to end the conflict.

Al-Monitor:  Are Israelis ready for this today as well?

Gaon:  Even now, I can say that there has never been a prime minister, including [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, who thinks that we will remain in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as part of a genuine peace agreement. I don’t think that there is anyone in Israel who believes we will, even in the right-wing camp. Nevertheless, people still ask themselves, “I am prepared to accept an agreement, but what do we get in return?” If what we get in exchange is that the conflict is really over, then it is worth doing. If we get a year of quiet in return, then it isn’t worth doing. It’s all a question of reciprocity. The results of the poll would have been dramatically different if we hadn’t included the phrase “end of the conflict.” Israelis would not have been prepared to hear that.

Al-Monitor:  The Camp David conference failed, and Barak returned to Israel saying that there was no partner. Do you think that this assertion has determined the narrative since then? There are those who blame him for being the reason why the Israeli public hasn’t trusted the Palestinians since that time. He offered them everything, and they said no.

Gaon:  Once we returned from Camp David, Barak could have formed a unity government with [then-Likud head] Ariel Sharon, who was politically weak at the time, but he didn’t want to. That is because even after Camp David he still tried to engage in talks, even though it was the early days of the second intifada and the situation was intolerable. I think that he distinguished between the political situation and his personal feeling that he had a mission, and that he had to do everything he could up until the very last minute in order to reach an agreement. He believed that Israel’s situation would change dramatically if he succeeded.

On our way back from the conference, we had to think about how we would explain what happened there. Barak told the public the truth: We have no partner at this time. As it became clear to us, there was a problem of readiness to reach an agreement.

Israel’s center-left is very fragile and emotional. That is why when everything blew up and Barak announced that we didn’t succeed — that we failed — rather than blaming Arafat, they blamed Barak instead, saying that he wasn’t nice enough, that he didn’t spend the night eating baklava with Arafat. If Arafat had believed that this was the best proposal that the Palestinians would ever get, he would have signed the agreement even if Barak didn’t eat baklava with him. I think the reason that it never happened was either because Arafat thought that he would get more in the future, or because he thought that signing the agreement would get him killed. At Oslo, he didn’t have to give up anything. The Palestinians received territory and they didn’t concede anything. It was an interim agreement.

The Israeli public immediately interpreted this as evidence that we should not have come to an agreement. Barak revealed what lay behind the mask, and the intifada erupted. As far as the center-left was concerned, Barak was at fault. The left withdrew its support for Barak from that time onward and didn’t vote for him. It all ended with the entire camp crashing, because when someone believes in a certain hypothesis for so many years, and then the hypothesis fails to prove itself, the sense of crisis is enormous. The Israeli left has yet to recover from that, because the price that was paid later on during the second intifada was too much to digest. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s efforts a few years later, which were not reciprocated by [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas, only intensified the public’s feeling that there is no partner.

Israel’s center-left camp is confused. It lacks hope. It still doesn’t know how to deal with the new situation that has emerged. At the same time, it also doesn’t see anyone on the other side who can really move the process forward.

Al-Monitor:  Do you then think it’s right to say that the Israeli public is moving to the right? After all, it has voted for Netanyahu time after time.

Gaon:  No, it didn’t move anywhere. It remained in the exact same place. The way Israeli electorate is divided into blocs remained the same. On the contrary, if we take a closer look at the last election, the center-left bloc actually grew, just not enough to win. More people voted for center-left parties than voted for right-wing parties.

We need leadership that relays a sense of hope, not fear. You can’t bring the people an agreement when the mood is dominated by fear. You can’t spend years saying, “These people are murderers and we can’t talk to them,” only to reach an agreement with them. It lacks credibility. We have to start creating an environment that relays the message that there is someone out there we can talk to.

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