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.
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."
Not that most Israelis necessarily want Barak to make that treaty. Last week's opinion polls showed Barak losing to right-wing opposition Likud leaders if elections were to be held now - and they might be held in the next few weeks, if Barak's minority government falls.
Nor are most Israelis ready to make the compromises that analysts say would be needed for a real peace. Less than half would be ready to give the Palestinians any sovereignty over East Jerusalem, for example, according to Mr. Smith's polls, and few Israelis trust Mr. Arafat as a peacemaking partner.
In this mood, many see a future in some form of separation between Israelis and Palestinians, simply cutting each side off from the other to minimize friction rather than to keep trying to reach a peace agreement that could serve as a foundation for genuine co-existence.
The recent violence "hasn't reduced [the number of] Israelis who believe in the peace process," says Joseph Alpher, a respected political analyst. But the number of "people who see peace as separation - get out of our hair - as opposed to those who see the peace process as genuine peace has grown."
Government officials have said they are drawing up plans for "separation," though it is not clear just how it might work in practice. "With no negotiations whatsoever, that's no basis for peace," says Ms. Hackbarth. "For co-existence you need two partners."
"Unilateral separation" used to be a slogan of the extreme right, and the idea saddens other peace activists such as Liora Lopian, a Jerusalem student who helped staff a peace tent run by religious Jews here last week.
She is full of sympathy for the Palestinians, and after an initial feeling of betrayal now believes their violence is "a result of Arab frustration that the peace agreements have not been implemented. If we treated them as equals, these symptoms would disappear," she says. "There is still room for optimism."
But the violence has put the peace camp on the defensive, Ms. Lopian acknowledges. Political opponents threw insults and even spat at her colleagues in the peace tent in Jerusalem's city center. "Even some of our leaders were confused, and couldn't appear in public because they needed time to think," she says.
"I didn't really change my mind, but it's a big problem," she says of the wave of violence. "It makes you wonder - the hatred - you are not sure if it is something you can abolish. And I'm not sure that Arafat and Barak are able to do it right now."
Alyan Ahnad, an Israeli-Arab hotel worker, shares that worry. "We have to have peace, there is no other choice," he says. "Everyone wants it, even animals, dogs, cats. Israelis want it, Palestinians want it, Arabs want it. But this is very bad, very difficult, this situation. This makes me sad. Things will get much worse before they get better."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society