Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Palestinians may be more accommodating than Israelis

Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Palestinians may be more accommodating than Israelis

The survey’s pointers take on added significance as the United States, Europe and Arab states seek to turn the fallout of Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel and the carnage caused by Israel’s assault on the Strip into an opportunity to create an independent Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state.

Views expressed by those surveyed by the Ramallah-based Palestine Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) suggest that much of what is being touted by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on his Middle Eastern tour this week diverges from Palestinian expectations and aspirations or is hampered by a lack of confidence that the United States and Israel will take Palestinians into account.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on March 20, 2024. Credit: Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters
What emerges from the survey is that any permanent ceasefire that fails to take into account not only Israeli concerns, but also Palestinian aspirations is likely to create, at best, a fragile truce that eventually will collapse in a new round of violence.

What is also clear is that reconciling the visions of Palestinians, Israelis, and Arab states requires political change in both Israel and Palestine.

The good news is that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians have little if any confidence in their leaders and want change.

The trick will be getting from A to B in an interim period in which Palestinians and Israelis have an opportunity to elect new leaders.

The problem is that elections in Israel and Palestine could produce dramatically different attitudes towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While Palestinian elections are likely to produce a majority in favour of the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Israeli polls could produce the opposite.

Support for a two-state solution among Gazans jumped from 35 per cent of those surveyed by the Centre in December to 62 per cent in this month’s poll. In the West Bank support held at 34 per cent.

Even though that means that only 45 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank support two states, the silver lining is in the details.

“Support for the two-state solution is usually linked to public assessment of the feasibility of such a solution and the chances for the establishment of a Palestinian state,” the Centre said in its commentary on the survey.

The Centre said perceptions of feasibility were closely linked to Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank and far-right Israeli demands for a resettlement of Gaza from which Israel withdrew in 2005.

The number of Gazans doubting the feasibility of an independent state because of the settlements dropped ten points from 71 per cent in September to 61 per cent in the recent survey, while the percentage that believed a state was still possible increased from 32 to 37 per cent.

To support this trend, the United States and Israel’s allies will have to demonstrate a willingness to do what it takes to halt the continued expansion of settlements and put a stop to settler vigilantism that targets Palestinians with impunity.

Recent US and European sanctioning of settlers accused of anti-Palestinian violence may be a first step but is a far cry from what would convince Palestinians of their sincerity.

Similarly, support for armed struggle dropped 17 points in Gaza from 56 per cent in December to 39 per cent this month and by 15 per cent in the West Bank from 68 per cent late last year to 51 per cent today.

Increasingly, Palestinians are looking neither to Hamas nor Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas for change.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah, West Bank. Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP
Their most preferred candidate appears to be Marwan Barghouti, a member of Mr. Abbas’ Al Fatah movement who has been sentenced by Israel for murder to multiple life sentences, and a leader of the 1987 and 2000 Intifadas, or Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

Mr. Barghouti ranks high on Hamas’ list of imprisoned Palestinians the group wants to see released in a second round of prisoner exchanges that is at the core of Mr. Blinken’s tour and talks between the parties in Doha.

File photo of jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti taken in May 2004. Credit: REUTERS
Asked whom they would vote for in an election, 40 per cent of those surveyed opted for Mr. Barghouti, 23 per cent for Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh, and two per cent for Mr. Abbas.

Mr. Barghouti’s increased popularity was starkest in Gaza, rising from 25 per cent last September to 39 per cent this month.

Mr. Blinken, with Europe and Arab states in toe, has insisted that a reformed Palestine Authority, which under Mr. Abbas has been ineffective and wracked by corruption, should take control of Gaza once the guns fall silent.

Potentially Mr. Barghouti could be the figure that restores a degree of legitimacy to the Authority.

Israel has ruled out a role for the Authority in post-war Gaza and is unlikely to want to negotiate with Mr. Barghouti, who like the Authority, will probably insist that Hamas become part of the Palestinian political mainstream by joining the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

An umbrella organisation dominated by Al Fatah, the PLO is recognised as the Palestinians’ legitimate representative and forms the Palestine Authority’s backbone.

Mohammad Mustafa, the Palestine Authority’s newly appointed prime minister did not mention Hamas by name in an article in The Economist but insisted that the non-partisan, technocratic government” he hoped to form “will foster the engagement of all Palestinian factions and parties in a constructive dialogue at the PLO level.”

Dr. Mohammad Mustafa. Credit: Khaled6680/Wikimedia Commons
Only ten per cent of those surveyed expressed support for Mr. Mustafa as their next prime minister.

The quest to integrate Hamas is backed by a majority of Palestinians, 63 per cent, who in the most recent opinion poll said they wanted Hamas to regain control of Gaza. At the same time, the survey indicated that support for Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank had dropped from 43 per cent in December to 34 per cent.

“The most obvious thing to me, based on this survey and numerous threads I’ve been piecing together for weeks based on conversations with people on the ground, is that Gazans no longer believe Israel will win the war and increasingly think that Hamas will survive, curtailing peoples’ willingness to speak out against the group and challenge its authority,” said Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, a Palestinian American activist who hails from Gaza and identifies himself as anti-Hamas.

Indeed, complicating issues for Israel, the United States, and its Arab partners, who want to see the destruction of Hamas, is the fact that six months into the war, Israel has dealt severe body blows to the group, but has failed to destroy it.

Add to that the fact that, the cost of Gazan lives, and infrastructure, increasingly is too high for the United States, Europe, and Arab nations.

In a sign of the times, Chinese diplomat Kejian Wang, on a Middle East tour, met Mr. Haniyeh this week in Doha in the first public Chinese-Hamas encounter since the start of the Gaza war.

Chinese diplomat Wang Kejian met with Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh in Qatar on March 17. Credit: Hamas Media Office
The meeting followed last month’s defense by Ma Xinmin, the Chinese foreign ministry’s legal adviser, of the Palestinian’s right to resistance under international law “including armed struggle”, which “in this context, is distinguished from acts of terrorism.”

China has opted to reach out to Hamas despite the group’s support for Uyghurs, the Turkic Muslim minority in China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang targeted by Chinese authorities in recent years in what critics have dubbed a ‘cultural genocide.’

The shifts in Gaza in favour of a two-state solution and Mr. Barghouti are significant not just because Gazans have shouldered the brunt of the recent Israeli onslaught, but also because Palestinians and Arabs view the Strip as the ‘Mother of Resistance.’

Gaza’s centrality was evident with the first months-long Palestinian Intifada in 1987 that started in the Strip.

Going back further, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser invited Che Guevara in 1959 and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1960 to visit Gaza to showcase the territory as a symbol of anti-colonial struggle.

Shortly before Che Guevara’s disappearance from public life in 1966, and on his way to Algeria, he stopped in Cairo, where he was warmly received by former president Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the photo, Guevara (left) in Cairo with Nasser (centre) and his prime minister Ali Sabri (right). Credit: Wikimedia Commons
In contrast to the Palestinians, Israeli opinion polls that for months suggested that an overwhelming majority wanted to see the back of Binyamin Netanyahu now indicate that things may be swinging back in the prime minister’s favour.

Moreover, far-right and ultra-conservative parties last month made significant gains in Israel’s municipal elections.

Ironically, there may be a silver lining in a reversal of Mr. Netanyahu’s fortunes despite his alliance with Israel’s most ultra-nationalist and ultra-conservative forces, his current rejection of a Palestinian state, his support for Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and his insistence on Israeli security control in all historic Palestine.

In the ultimate analysis, Mr. Netanyahu, who in the past paid lip service to the notion of a Palestinian state, is about Mr. Netanyahu. He will do what it takes to stay in power.

This is not to say that Mr. Netanyahu would suddenly make an abrupt U-turn but to suggest that he opportunistically can be more flexible when it suits his purpose.

Mr. Netanyahu is “an obsessive, relentless fighter, failure is not a legitimate option for him,” said Ben Caspit, one of the prime minister’s biographers. Nadav Shtrauchler, Mr. Netanyahu’s 2019 turnaround election campaign manager, added that quitting is not part of the prime minister’s DNA.

A divisive figure, denounced by US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer as an obstacle to peace, Mr. Netanyahu’s opportunism could prove, as far-fetched as it sounds, to be an advantage given that anyone who succeeds him may have less sharp edges but will likely be no less opposed to a fully independent and sovereign Palestinian state.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
“Were Netanyahu (to) go tomorrow, Israel would have exactly the same policies toward Gaza, toward the pending incursion into Rafah. I don’t think anything would change, and it could actually be more aggressive,” said Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Some of Mr. Netanyahu’s advisors believe the prime minister’s best chance to hold on to power may be a snap election. Until now Mr. Netanyahu has insisted that elections should be held only once the Gaza war ends.

Ironically, opting for early elections would align Mr. Netanyahu with opposition leader Yair Lapid, who has repeatedly called for a wartime poll charging that the prime minister’s coalition was the “most insane government in the country’s history.”

Israeli Opposition Leader Yair Lapid. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post
Mr. Netanyahu’s problem is that even if he won the next election, he could find that only ultra-nationalists and ultra-conservatives, the partners he needs to shed, would be willing to form a coalition government with him.

Even so, Mr. Lapid suggested earlier this year that he would be willing to replace Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners, who the opposition leader views as the main obstacles to achieving a Gaza ceasefire and prisoner exchange that would free the remaining more than 100 hostages held by Hamas.

“I am not prepared for the hostages to not be released over politics. We will do what is needed. If we need to enter the government in the place of Ben Gvir and Smotrich, we will enter the government,” Mr. Lapid said in January, referring to far-right national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir and finance minister Bezalel Smotrich.

“I am not here to save Netanyahu, but I am here to save the hostages,” Mr. Lapid added.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.