Views of Palestinians give reason for hope in Mideast peace talks

Skeptics see Palestinians as committed to violent resistance and unwilling to recognize the state of Israel. In fact, more than 20 years of polling data strongly refute these perceptions, and give leaders in Ramallah substantial room to maneuver in the ongoing peace talks.

Majdi Mohammed/AP/File
A protester waves a Palestinian flag in front of Israeli troops during a protest against Israel's separation barrier near Ramallah in the West Bank Feb. 17, 2012. Op-ed contributors Khalil Shikaki and Steven M. Cohen write: 'Even under what they perceive as harsh conditions of military occupation, very few Palestinians demonize Israelis.'

Secretary of State John Kerry has succeeded in bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiations. Now his mission must focus on helping the two sides reach an agreement. Many Israelis and Palestinians and their supporters in the United States and around the world believe the gaps are so wide that an agreement is mission impossible. Instead, they say, the goal should be to manage the conflict. We disagree.

Skeptics among Israelis and their American supporters, with counterparts on the Palestinian side as well, see Palestinians as committed to violent resistance, as seeking to destroy the state of Israel, and as being uniform, unwavering, and unjustified in their seeming hostility to Israel. Israelis have a succinct saying to reflect this perception: “There is no one to talk to and nothing to talk about.”

But in fact, more than 20 years of repeated scientific polling of tens of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza strongly refute these perceptions, and give leaders in Ramallah substantial room to maneuver in the ongoing negotiations.

Palestinians’ attitudes toward Israel and the peace process are diverse and complex.

Polls show that Palestinians worry that Israeli authorities can demolish their homes. Since 1967, 28,000 Palestinian homes, livestock facilities, and other structures have been displaced, and more than 676 in 2012 alone. They are distressed that Israel’s building of new roads, settlements, and the 430 mile-long “separation barrier” will further deprive them of access to what they regard as their lands.

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that more than 6,000 acres on the West Bank were transferred to Israeli control in 2012, and 36,000 new housing units in Israeli settlements were approved. Palestinians live in constant fear that Israeli soldiers can arrest and imprison them for long periods, or cause bodily harm to them or their family members. In a June 2013 survey, 74 percent said they worried that they or family members would be hurt by Israelis or have their land confiscated or homes demolished.

And yet, a majority of Palestinians reject using violence against Israelis. In a recent poll, 59 percent opposed returning to armed intifada, and 61 percent endorsed non-violent resistance and international adjudication. The West Bank population has – at least for the time being – widely adopted a non-violent approach to resisting the Israeli occupation, even as significant minorities continue to justify the use of violent measures.

Perhaps most encouragingly, most Palestinians support the two-state solution – Israel and its Jewish majority living side-by-side in peace with the yet-to-be founded Palestine. Asked about the two-state solution, 53 percent of Palestinians are in favor and 46 percent opposed.

Under conditions of permanent peace, an overwhelming majority of Palestinians endorses genuine and full reconciliation between the two peoples. Even during the worst days of the second intifada, findings consistently showed about three quarters (73 percent) supporting reconciliation between the two peoples once the conflict ended and a Palestinian state established alongside Israel.

Even under what they perceive as harsh conditions of military occupation, very few Palestinians demonize Israelis. For example, when Palestinians were asked, in a 2006 Arab Barometer survey conducted by Khalil Shikaki to assess and compare world democracies they ranked Israel ahead of governments in the Palestinian territories, the US, and Europe.

Amid these trends, Palestinians vary in their readiness to negotiate and to compromise, as well as in their optimism regarding the peace process. Continued Israeli settlement construction reinforces Palestinians’ bleak reading of Israel’s long-term aspirations – leading them to view Israel as determined to hold onto the entire West Bank and prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state.

Those Palestinians with higher threat perception (from arrests, physical danger, house demolitions, settlement expansion, etc.) provide greater support for violence. Palestinians – like Israelis – see the other side as unwilling to compromise, and – like Israelis – the very perception of the other side’s implacability fuels pessimism and hardline positions. Accordingly, over the years, Palestinians willingness to compromise rises dramatically when the political horizon looks promising, and plummets when things seem stuck and desperate.

Overall, Palestinians widely endorse non-violent resistance to the occupation and a negotiated settlement leading to statehood. These tendencies intensify with diminished threat and enhanced prospects for resolution. The Israeli people – and negotiators – can be assured: There is someone to talk to on the Palestinian side, and there is something to talk about.

Dr. Khalil Shikaki is director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah and senior fellow at the Crown Center at Brandeis University. Steven M. Cohen is a sociologist of American Jews and a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. They are currently working on an Israel Policy Forum project, "Palestinians, American Jews and the Peace Process.”

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