By Jim Lobe
via IPS News
Amidst a new U.S. effort to revive the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, healthy pluralities of both peoples want U.S. President Barack Obama to play a stronger role in resolving their conflict, according to a major new poll released here Thursday by the Pew Research Center.
The survey, which also covered attitudes towards Israel and Palestine in 11 other countries, found that Israeli confidence in Obama has increased since his visit to the Jewish state in March, while Palestinians retain little confidence in the U.S. president despite their desire for his greater involvement in peace-making efforts.
And while half of Israelis believe a two-state solution can still be achieved peacefully through negotiations, Palestinians by a large margin believe that is a delusion.
Indeed, a plurality (45 percent) of Palestinian respondents said the best way to achieve statehood was through armed struggle, while only 15 percent said negotiations were the best course. Another 15 percent cited non-violent resistance, while 22 percent more said some combination of these tactics offered the greatest chance for success.
The new Pew survey, which interviewed nearly 15,000 people in 12 countries, as well as the Palestinian Territories (PT), also found strongly unfavourable opinions of Israel, particularly among its predominantly Muslim neighbours.
The United States was the only country where a majority (57 percent) expressed positive views of the Jewish state, although a plurality in Russia also registered more favourable (46 percent) opinions than unfavourable (38 percent).
Nearly two-thirds of respondents in France, Germany, and China, however, said they held unfavourable views of Israel, while in the predominantly Muslim countries covered by the poll – Egypt, Tunisia, PT, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon – negative views were overwhelming, ranging from 86 percent in Tunisia to 99 percent in Lebanon.
“This is consistent with other polling,” noted Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland’s Program of International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), who has designed multinational surveys for BBC and his own worldpublicopinion.org in which Israel has repeatedly placed among the world’s least popular nations, along with North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan.
The new survey as released as Secretary of State John Kerry visited the region, including Israel, this week in hopes of injecting renewed momentum into his efforts to reconvene peace talks between Israel and Palestinians.
In what was widely considered an important step in those efforts, Kerry persuaded Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani and Arab League officials to amend the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API), which offers full recognition of Israel by all League member states in exchange for its withdrawal to the 1967 Green Line, to include the possibility of “comparable and mutually agreed minor swaps of land” that would presumably permit Israel to absorb major Jewish settlement blocs on the West Bank in any final peace agreement.
While the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted the statement as an “important concession” – and has quietly frozen, at Washington’s request, the issuance of new building permits for Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem through next month, most analysts believe the chances for serious progress on the peace front – or even the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks – remain quite low.
They point in particular to the persistent split on the Palestinian side between Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas, which controls Gaza and has reportedly rejected, along with several other Palestinian factions, the Arab League’s amendment to the API.
As for Israel, the same analysts note that Israel’s leadership is unlikely to agree to the kind of far-reaching concessions necessary for a breakthrough, particularly given the continuing political turmoil in its neighbours – including the civil war in Syria, growing political tensions in Jordan, and the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in Egypt.
And the fact that major figures in the settlement movement now head key ministries in Netanyahu’s new government also dims prospects for significant progress on the peace front, according to this view.
Nonetheless, Kerry, who said Thursday he plans to return to the region in less than two weeks reportedly in hopes of nailing down a June summit with Abbas and Netanyahu in Jordan, appears determined to overcome the reigning scepticism.
The new poll suggests that Israelis may be somewhat more open to his efforts than Palestinians, particularly following Obama’s visit, during which he spent far more time wooing Israeli public opinion, to the region in March.
Sixty-one percent of Israeli respondents said they had either “a lot” of “some” confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing in world affairs; that was up from just 49 percent two years ago. On the other hand, 82 percent of Palestinian respondents in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem said they either had “not too much” or “no confidence at all” in Obama.
Similarly, 47 percent of Israelis said U.S. policies in the Middle East were “fair”, while another 35 percent said they favoured Israel “too much”. Palestinian respondents, on the other hand, were virtually unanimous in asserting that Washington favoured Israel too much.
Nonetheless, pluralities of 49 percent of Israeli respondents (including 54 percent of Arab Israelis) and 41 percent of Palestinians said they favoured a “larger” role for Obama in resolving the conflict, according to the survey, which noted that there was considerably more support for a larger U.S. role among Palestinians in the West Bank (47 percent) than in Gaza (30 percent).
Fifty percent of Israeli respondents said they thought a two-state solution could be achieved, while only 14 percent of Palestinians agreed (although an additional 22 percent said “it depends).”
The more positive Israeli results contrasted with a survey taken last year by Shibley Telhami, an expert on Arab public opinion at the Brookings Institution and author of a forthcoming book, “The World Through Arab Eyes.”
In that poll a majority of Israelis said they believed a two-state solution could not be achieved. “This suggests that Israelis are somewhat more optimistic,” he told IPS. On the other hand, he added, the Palestinian results suggested increased pessimism on their part.
The poll found that respondents in France Germany and Britain were significantly more optimistic about a two-state solution than respondents in other countries and that publics in those countries, especially Britain, had become more sympathetic toward the Palestinians in recent years.
That could prompt European leaders to take a more active role in efforts to bring the two parties together, as recently recommended by the European Eminent Persons Group (EEPG).
In a recent letter to the foreign affairs chief of the European Union, Catherine Ashton, the group — consisting of seven former foreign ministers, four former prime ministers, and one former president, among others – called the current U.S. position “unproductive” even if Washington’s role in a peace process remained “indispensable.” Among other steps, it called for exerting more pressure on Israel, especially with regard to settlements and recognising the 1967 border as the basis for any solution.
In a report released Thursday, the European Council on Foreign Relations amplified that message, calling for the EU to pursue “a more independent policy in the region that would include encouraging reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, acquiescing in – rather than opposing – the PA’s recourse to the International Criminal Court, and ensuring that goods produced by Jewish settlements in the PT are denied trade preferences.
“A harder-nosed and more indpendent policy from Europe will strengthen Washington’s hand in Israel and improve the chances for a decisive U.S. peace initiative before Obama leaves office and before the occupation enters its fiftieth year,” according to the report.
Photo: The Shuafat refugee camp can be seen across the separation wall from the Israeli settlement Pisgat Ze’ev. Credit: Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/IPS.