by Mitchell Plitnick
On Friday, yet another poll on the Middle East was released. They seem to come in a very steady stream, and once you identify the questions, the results are almost entirely predictable.
But Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, regularly produces polls that are always worth looking at. Unlike most surveys of American views on US policy in the Middle East, Telhami tends to dig deep as opposed to simply establishing general opinions. The poll he released Dec. 5 includes some very interesting developments and reminders as to why things still aren’t changing—in the region or in Washington.
The most stunning development Telhami reported is that support among US citizens for a single-state in Israel and the Occupied Territories—where all would have full and equal rights—increased a whopping ten percentage points in the past year. The 34% who support that outcome now rivals the 39% who support two states, and it represents a jump of ten percentage points from a year ago.
What does this tell us? Most of the leading advocates for a one-state solution have based their advocacy on the idea that a single, secular and democratic state with equal rights for all represents the fairest, most just solution for all parties; that the two-state solution could not possibly fully address the grievances of Palestinian refugees; and that two states would leave most of the best land in the former area of pre-1948 Palestine in Israeli hands. (Two-state advocates have generally argued that partitioning the land was the fairest way to maintain security for Jews, who needed a state, and allow the Palestinians an opportunity to build an independent state of their own.)
Did a whole bunch of two-state advocates suddenly decide that the one-staters were right all along and that the single, democratic state was the more just option? This seems unlikely, especially since the two-state solution has been, and still is seen as the pragmatic choice.
No, that shift is the result of the despair that the collapse of the Oslo process has produced. Those shifting opinions are also coming from a realization that Israel is lurching ever rightward, making a two-state solution less likely in the near term, while settlements expand and make it increasingly difficult to conceive, much less achieve, two states in the longer term.
Of course, a one-state solution was never seen as a viable option among US citizens, much less in Washington. But now it has nearly as much popular support as two states, even while the discourse on Capitol Hill has not changed a bit. One reason for the split between the public and its representatives is included in this poll.
When asked whether the United States should favor one side or the other in the conflict, 64% said the US should favor neither, 31% said the US should favor Israel, and only 4% said it should favor the Palestinians. This is fairly consistent with long-term trends; most US citizens believe their government should be acting as a neutral arbiter in the conflict or not be involved in it at all, and polls have reflected this for a very long time.
But the minuscule figure who believe we should be favoring the Palestinians, as opposed to the significant minority that support favoring Israel, goes a long way toward explaining why policy and the Washington discourse is not following, even in a small way, the national discourse and gradually shifting views among US citizens. The Palestinians are a generally disliked group—essentially seen as “the bad guys.” Even among Democrats, who, for the most part, exclude those who base their support for Israeli policies on the Bible (most of these so-called Christian Zionists are overwhelmingly Republican), only 6% favor siding with the Palestinians, as opposed to 17% who favor siding with Israel.
You’ll be hard pressed to find another issue where public opinion among those who favor some type of intervention is so lopsidedly opposed to helping the downtrodden and dispossessed. For such an entrenched policy, which has the most powerful and active foreign policy special interest lobby pushing to maintain it, this lack of sympathy for the Palestinians is a major obstacle to change, no matter how much the discourse might shift.
That discursive shift has had the effect of seriously diminishing the positive view of Israel in the United States. The Netanyahu government has contributed more than its share to that cause, of course. But so have the efforts of Palestinian activists and other pro-peace groups who have made an issue of Israeli rejectionism and the flaws in US policy.
But none of that has changed the view of the Palestinian cause in the United States. As Telhami’s poll and a long line of polls preceding it imply, most in the US believe that Palestinians’ rights should be respected in the abstract, but Palestinians are still seen as the less sympathetic combatant in this conflict. And Israel’s diminishing image hasn’t changed that.
Nor is there sufficient support for punitive actions against Israel for settlement construction. Sixty-one percent of respondents in this poll said the US should do nothing or just stick to making statements against settlement construction. With a mere 39% supporting more concrete action, Congress will feel very safe in continuing its absolute opposition to any pressure on Israel to desist from this practice.
All of this helps explain why, despite Israel’s reduced appeal in the United States and despite the increasing popularity of a solution that protects democracy rather than Israel’s Jewish character, nothing has changed in Washington. But if the mood among the US public continues in this direction, could that change?
It could, over time, especially considering the profound partisan differences in how Democrats and Republicans view the conflict. That should be a clarion call for those who still want to see a two-state solution emerge. Right now, Israel is pursuing various permutations of a single-state solution, but one where institutionalized discrimination privileging Jews over Arabs is strengthened. The Israeli right can push this agenda in the vacuum created by the apparent death of the two-state solution.
Yet the notion of two states need not die. The Oslo process was flawed from the very beginning. It was born out of documents and agreements that never explicitly stated that a Palestinian state next to Israel was a goal, nor did they offer any sort of human rights guidelines, let alone guarantees. Efforts in Oslo to restrict violence were horribly lopsided, with a laser-like focus on Palestinian violence while virtually ignoring the violence of the occupation itself, as well as that of many of the Jewish settlers. And while the very structure of the occupation provided both Israel and the United States with methods of coercion and pressure against the Palestinians, nothing of the kind was regularly exerted against Israel when it failed to fulfill the letter or spirit of agreements.
Oslo and the two-state solution became synonymous and, as a result, when the process failed, many came to believe that it was the very notion of two states that was fatally flawed. The despair leads more and more to abandon the two-state concept entirely. But that need not be.
It is entirely possible that one state is a better solution, or that Israeli settlement expansion through the West Bank and East Jerusalem already have too much momentum and have gobbled up too much land for a viable two-state solution to be possible. But the failure of Oslo, in and of itself, tells us nothing about whether a two state scenario could work. A two-state model—that includes basic standards of human rights and equal rights (political, civil and national) for all people between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, including Gaza, and includes penalties for both sides for failures of compliance based on a broad but clear, internationally agreed upon vision of the final agreement—could still work.
Undoubtedly, support for a single, secular and democratic state is growing. As people of good will continue to work to resolve this long, bloody and vexing conflict, it is an idea that needs to be considered. It is increasingly popular and based on notions of fairness, and stands against myopic nationalism and ethnocentrism. But it shouldn’t be the only option. A two-state vision, one very different from Oslo, should accompany it. In addition to the conditions I mentioned above, it should also include agreements of cooperation on commerce, economics, resources (especially water) and security. It should not mean Palestine would be de-militarized and eternally vulnerable, enjoying only partial sovereignty. Instead, security for both states would be ensured, and prosperity for both states would be promoted, by interdependency, based on treaties and agreements.
Both two-state and one-state scenarios have weaknesses and inherent flaws that can doom them. Given the hopelessness with which Israelis, Palestinians and all who care about the issue are facing now, we need to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While those who believe in such scenarios work to promote their one-state visions, two-state supporters need to immediately re-align their vision and reset the two-state idea. What’s needed in Israel and Palestine is not stubborn ideology, but a willingness to accept the best idea for moving forward. And the way to start doing that is by opening minds to new possibilities rising out of the inevitable failure of the process that laid exclusive claim to “peace” for twenty years.
Photo: The Shuafat refugee camp can be seen across the separation wall from the Pisgat Ze’ev Israeli settlement. Credit: Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/IPS.