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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace



Perspectives from the President


July, 2002

The Paradox of Israeli Public Opinion

By Marcia Freedman

A great majority of Israelis support the military actions of the Sharon government to stop suicide attacks, but oppose its policies with regard to the settlements on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. The approval rating for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rises to above 70% only to the extent that there is "quiet"-that is, the absence of suicide attacks within Israel. When the "quiet" is shattered by resumed suicide attacks, his rating slips as a direct consequence.

Despite his current high ratings, survey after survey indicate that most Israelis support positions that are anathema to Mr. Sharon and the most influential ministers in his cabinet. According to polls conducted by Mina Zemach in June (when suicide attacks occurred on a daily basis), 63% of Israelis called for "unilateral withdrawal," and 69% call for the evacuation of "all" or "most of" the settlements, which they recognize are a major obstacle to peace. In another poll, conducted by Tel Aviv University's Steinmetz Center, 65% of Israelis "are prepared to evacuate the settlements under a unilateral separation program." In addition, the Zemach poll revealed that, despite the terrorism, 60% of Israelis still believe that Israel should agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state as part of a peace agreement.

As an American-Israeli who lives half the year in Jerusalem, it is not difficult for me to understand how these seemingly very contradictory statistics hold together in face of random terror. Any response that provides a respite is welcome, even one that is counterproductive to what they perceive to be necessary to achieving a lasting peace. The high approval rating of the Prime Minister indicates that a long-term vision loses ground when people are terrified.

Another way to understand the great disparity between the policies and positions supported by most Israelis and those supported by the Sharon government is to remember that it is the most right-wing government that Israel has ever known. Its philosophy has always held a minority place in the spectrum of Zionist thought. The Revisionist movement, of which Sharon's Likud is a descendent, always rejected mainstream Zionism's willingness to accept the partition of Palestine between Arabs and Jews-what we now call the two-state solution.

Perhaps the most startling indication of just how revisionist the Sharon government's position is are poll results just released by the Israeli peace organization Peace Now, indicating that 68% of the settlers themselves would accept withdrawal if the government decided that this was in the best interests of Israel. The poll also reveals that most of the settlers (77%) were attracted to the settlements by major economic incentives, not by ideological commitment.

What we need to recognize is that most Israelis, even in their terror, know that only a return to the 1967 borders, with some possible territorial adjustments, is going to bring them the peace they long for. Now we understand that even most of the settlers know this as well.

But what Israelis want is not what they are going to get if the Sharon government has its way. It will delay any possibility of negotiated settlement for as long as it can. When it seems that there is a new window of opportunity to return to the path of negotiation, it will sabotage these efforts by actions that will predictably generate a violent response in the form of renewed suicide attacks. If pressured by the international community, it will consent to a Palestinian "state" that is a series of discontinuous population centers on only 40% of the West Bank and surrounded by the army and the settlements, penned in by many small fences and one big fence. For their part, the Palestinians have already lost too much to accept these conditions.

If there is ever to be peace in the Middle East, the international community, especially the United States, must adopt the views of the great majority of Israel's citizens and eschew those of its current government. Just as the Bush Administration is beginning to work toward implementation of its demands of the Palestinian Authority for reorganization of its security forces, democratization of its political process, and new leadership it must also demand that Israel freeze all settlement activity and re-deploy its troops to positions occupied prior to October 2000.

Anything less than this is a signal to the Sharon government that it has a free hand to operate in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in any way it chooses. Government spokespersons as well as Israeli media pundits have said as much. This is a formula for disaster in the region. Both Israelis and Palestinians know this, except for the minority represented by the "revisionists" who now govern Israel.

Marcia Freedman is a former member of the Israeli Knesset and the President of the Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace.
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