JERUSALEM – As Israel marks its 60th anniversary, Israelis are deeply pessimistic about the prospects of peace with their neighbors, with an overwhelming majority believing they will be at war again within the next five years.
According to the April issue of Tel Aviv University’s monthly War and Peace Index [.pdf], 70 percent of the Jewish public in Israel does not hold out hope for an agreement with the Palestinians, while 66 percent expressed similar sentiments regarding a deal with Syria. Some 75 percent of the Jewish public said they thought Israel would find itself at war with "one or more Arab states" in the next five years. The survey found similar attitudes among Israel’s Arab population.
But the War and Peace Index, which polls 600 people and has been conducted every month for the last 15 years, also reveals that 57 percent of the Jewish public supports negotiations with the Palestinians while only 34 percent oppose talks. An even bigger majority of 70 percent are in favor of the "two states for two peoples" solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with only 25 percent opposing this formula.
The most recent issue of the survey may appear somewhat contradictory, but it reflects both the deep disillusionment among Israelis over the prospects for peace, and an understanding that the long-term survival of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is dependent on unlocking their conflict with the Palestinians.
In the last decade, Israelis have seen the collapse of the Oslo peace accords, the eruption of the second Intifada uprising, and have watched as unilateralism, which they supported overwhelmingly, imploded.
In 2005, a clear majority of Israelis enthusiastically supported then prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to unilaterally pull the army and all the settlers out of the Gaza Strip. Having lost faith in the Left’s assertion that the Palestinians were a viable negotiating partner and in the Right’s contention that Israel could continue to control the occupied territories and its 3.5 million Palestinians, Israelis were enchanted by a plan that would see them start withdrawing from those territories but without having to engage in negotiations with the Palestinians.
Today, unilateralism has been discredited in the eyes of most Israelis. Islamic militants fire rockets from Gaza into Israel on an almost daily basis. Over 4,000 rockets have been fired since Israel left Gaza in August 2005, killing 11 people and terrorizing the residents in the southern town of Sderot, which has been hardest hit.
The takeover of the coastal strip by the Islamic Hamas movement, which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, has further convinced Israelis that a similar move in the West Bank would be folly. The result: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has had to shelve his plan for a unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank.
Pessimism about the prospects of peace with the Palestinians has increased because there appears to have been little tangible progress in talks between the sides, which were re-launched last December after a seven-year hiatus.
But if Israelis are deeply skeptical about the prospects of ending the conflict with the Palestinians, the War and Peace Index nevertheless found that a clear majority of Jews in Israel some 70 percent support the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. This strong support can be explained, in part, by demographic fears harbored by Israel’s Jewish population, who worry that if they don’t relinquish the West Bank, then higher Arab birth rates will ultimately mean that they will be a minority and the Arabs a majority in the geographic area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (including Israel and the occupied territory). At that point, with a Jewish minority ruling over an Arab majority, Israel would cease to be a democratic state.
Olmert has long been one of the most vigorous exponents of the "demographic" argument, telling his countrymen last year that if they don’t leave Palestinian areas, Israel would find itself in an untenable apartheid-like situation. "The day will come when the two-state solution collapses and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights," he said. "As soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished."
Israel has the most powerful and sophisticated army in the Middle East, but 60 years after the state came into existence Israelis still have profound existential concerns. The War and Peace Index found that Iran’s nuclear ambitions were considered by most Israelis to be "the gravest security danger" facing their country.
While Iran insists its nuclear program is civilian in nature, Israel, the U.S., and much of Europe is convinced Tehran is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Just over 60 years after Adolf Hitler tried to wipe out the Jews of Europe, many Israelis believe that if Iran is able to build the bomb then they will again face the threat of annihilation.
Interestingly, the survey found that attitudes among Israel’s Arab population 1.2 million out of a total population of 7.3 million were similar on many issues to those held by the Jewish public. A majority (52 percent) said they did not believe talks between Israel and the Palestinians would lead to a peace agreement, while an even bigger majority (61 percent) said they expected Israel to find itself in a war in the next five years.
The Arab public also ranked Iran’s efforts to attain nuclear capability as the greatest threat facing Israel. And a clear majority said they expected the security situation to worsen in the coming decade.