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Israelis say peace talks should continue

New poll shows, despite violence, most Israelis support peace as answer to crisis.

By Peter Ford and Nicole Gaouette Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / October 23, 2000


Even as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak prepares to take a "timeout" in the Middle East peace process, in the wake of the latest outbreak of Palestinian violence, most of his fellow Israelis still believe those talks should continue.

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Israelis have been shocked by the recent clashes. They are confused, fearful, and preparing for the worst. But even so, 62 percent of the population wants to resume negotiations on a peace settlement with the Palestinians, according to a poll published in last Friday's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. They are still clinging to the hope, nurtured over seven years of peace talks, that they can live at peace with their neighbors.

"We are not optimistic, but we are trying to be," said a young student who would give only her first name, Ifat, as she walked in a Jerusalem park with her boyfriend on Saturday. "I mean, peace is our only option. We have to do this, it's the only way."

Polls show that the number of Israelis wanting to resume talks has not fallen since the violence started. But yesterday, after the Arab League announced its condemnation of Israel, Mr. Barak told his Cabinet that he would declare the timeout in peace talks that he announced to his nation Friday night, after a prolonged gunbattle between Israeli soldiers and armed Palestinians. "We have to take a timeout, which means reevaluation of the diplomatic process," he said.

Israelis were taken by surprise by the explosion of Palestinian frustration and anger that has led to the worst sustained period of unrest for a decade in the Middle East. They have been especially troubled by TV footage of a captured Israeli soldier being beaten to death by an angry crowd of Palestinians, and by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's reluctance or inability to rein in his people.

Some 68 percent of respondents said they had been afraid for their personal safety last week, in a poll conducted for the daily Ma'ariv, as rumors fly of imminent bomb attacks by Islamic fundamentalists. And 75 percent said they had felt fear for the future of their state.

But the violence does not seem to be changing many minds about the peace process. Rather, analysts say, people are finding in the events a new justification for what they believed before.

"It hasn't changed my mind because I knew before that the Arabs can't make peace with the Jews," said a middle-aged Israeli man as he sat on a park bench after synagogue on Saturday. "Unfortunately one answer is force. It's the only thing they understand."

Connie Hackbarth, an American-born peace activist demonstrating near the prime minister's house yesterday, however, takes the opposite tack. Of the violence she says, "It seems so obvious to me we have to get out of the [occupied] territories. When we see daily pictures of [Israeli] soldiers killing civilians, we could not keep quiet."

"There has not been any great change in underlying feelings," says Hanoch Smith, a leading pollster. "People wanting peace are disappointed and angry ... but they are not converting to anything else. The desire to make a treaty is running high."