US, Israeli, Palestinian leaders more hawkish than their peoples

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Palestinian leadership’s stance is more extreme than that of its public, the Israeli leadership’s stance is more extreme than that of the Israeli public and the Trump administration’s stance is far from the American public's position.

al-monitor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a mass wedding in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, Nov. 29, 2018. A recent poll shows the Palestinian public is less strident than its leaders. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman.

Dec 9, 2018

A survey conducted a few weeks ago by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion at Beit Sahour, among Palestinians from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, which has been since quoted in a publication of the Washington Institute, shows that the positions of the Palestinian public are significantly more moderate than those of its leaders; this is the case in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the Fatah-led West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The survey focused on three main topics: the attitude of those surveyed to the realization of the right of return of 1948 Palestinian refugees to sovereign Israel, their attitude about the definition of Israel as a Jewish state and their position on the Israeli demand that an agreement between the sides be officially determined to be “the end of the conflict.” On most of these topics the position of the East Jerusalemites proved most dovish; generally in the middle were residents of the Gaza Strip, while residents of the West Bank were generally more hawkish than their brethren. But on all questions, it turned out, the Palestinian public is far from insisting on the positions of its leaders, and would back an American plan that would force the two sides to make significant concessions on what have been previously presented as the Palestinians' red lines.

According to the poll, two-thirds of Gaza residents would accept realization of the right of return only to the West Bank and Gaza, and not to sovereign Israel. Meanwhile, 60% of those surveyed in East Jerusalem are prepared to define Israel as a Jewish state under a peace agreement (compared with 55% in Gaza and 35% in the West Bank). As for determining the “end of the conflict,” 73% of those surveyed in East Jerusalem support it, compared with 50% in the West Bank (where 37% oppose it) and 47% backing it in the Gaza Strip (where 49% oppose it).

Surveys conducted in recent years in the United States show that the majority of those surveyed accept President Bill Clinton’s 2000 parameters for the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (two states on the basis of the 1967 border with amendments, a symbolic solution for refugees, the evacuation of settlements east of the new border between the states and the division of East Jerusalem between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods and designation of the Palestinian capital there.

In Israel this has been the situation for many years: The majority opinion has been for a two-state solution by means of the annexation of settlement blocs, territorial compensation for this annexation and concession of the Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

But the stance of the Palestinian leadership has been more extreme than that of the Palestinian public, the stance of the current Israeli leadership is more extreme than that of the Israeli public and the stance of the Trump administration is very far from the position of the public in the United States.

In conversations conducted by Al-Monitor with American sources the following picture comes into view: the Trump team’s plan has been completed. This is not a statement of principles but a detailed plan. While it puts particular emphasis on the economic side, it does not skirt the main diplomatic issues on the agenda. There is no expectation that the two sides would accept it, but rather that they would be prepared to see it as a basis for negotiations. The question is whether this modest request is too much to bear.

The American economic sanctions on the Palestinian side have not changed the position of PLO leadership, and it seems they have even made it harder for the leadership to be flexible amid concerns it might appear to be selling the interests of the Palestinians to end the financial punishment. The financial situation of the Palestinian Authority is terrible. Also, rumors about the shaky health of President Mahmoud Abbas don’t stop and the war of succession is continuing in full force. All this would make it difficult for the Palestinian leadership to even examine the American plan — if it is presented soon — much less accept it.

The central question in Israel is when in 2019 the next election will take place. The High Court decided Dec. 2 to grant an extension for legislation of a law regarding the enlistment of yeshiva students until Jan. 15. With a narrow-majority coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu depends politically on the ultra-Orthodox parties, and thus he must find a compromise bill version that they will accept. If no such compromise is reached, and if on Jan. 15 another extension isn’t granted, the prime minister won’t have a choice but to call an early election for the month of May.

The issue of the draft law aside, the government is a faltering one, struggling to pass laws in the Knesset or to block opposition initiatives. In addition, the interpersonal relationships within the government (especially between Netanyahu and HaBayit HaYehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett) have become nearly untenable. Thus, it’s difficult to see how the government could continue to function until the middle of 2019, with Netanyahu serving as prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister (and even health minister, religion minister and immigration and absorption minister), with a cloud of police recommendations to indict him on three cases of bribery hanging over his head. Even a brilliant juggler couldn’t fulfill his diplomatic and security missions in such a state, and Netanyahu is not a brilliant juggler.

There’s no doubt that Trump wishes Netanyahu well and won’t make a move that could damage him politically, according to his understanding (and Netanyahu’s understanding). If the election is called for May, we can assume that Trump won’t put his plan on the table in order to avoid a situation where pro-settler HaBayit HaYehudi would demand its utter repudiation, and Netanyahu, fighting for their common electoral base, won’t adopt it (even if he doesn’t reject it). If it turns out that the election will take place on schedule in November 2019, Trump could present his plan as soon as possible, in order to coordinate a restrained but not oppositional Israeli response. If the Palestinians then reject it Netanyahu could present himself as a peace seeker once again facing peace refusers, without having to make any concessions. Trump could present himself as someone who offered a new and important plan that wasn’t rejected by Israel and that might be accepted by a different Palestinian regime in the future.

As I wrote, Netanyahu is important to Trump, but Trump’s main motivation is to win re-election in 2020. He won’t want to anger his evangelical voters too close to these elections. It’s hard, therefore, to believe that he would be prepared to wait until a new Israeli government is formed in the first months of 2020, if Israeli elections are held as scheduled.

Thus, it’s likely that the following will occur: The plan will be presented after a new government is formed if the election is held early in May 2019, or it will be presented as soon as possible if the Israeli election appears to be likely only at the end of next year. Palestinian, Israeli and American public opinion would not really impact the political calculations.