The Middle East Channel

An Israeli public lost in the woods

Responding to the question of "what do Israelis want?", a former Israeli prime minister once relayed to me the following anecdote. The public, he explained, is like a little boy who is lost in the woods. He reaches out for his father’s hand without realizing that his father also has no idea where they are. ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Responding to the question of "what do Israelis want?", a former Israeli prime minister once relayed to me the following anecdote. The public, he explained, is like a little boy who is lost in the woods. He reaches out for his father’s hand without realizing that his father also has no idea where they are. But it nonetheless satisfies the boy when his father starts walking in any direction.

That is indeed what Israelis want — to be led by someone who is ready to offer a way out of the woods (even if that person really has no clue where they’re going). So it is no wonder the Israeli public still feels lost: It doesn’t see a leadership that has a clear destination in mind, nor a realistic way of getting there. From time to time it may receive certain messages (though even those are often contradictory ones), but mostly, there is a deafening silence.

Consider the following: About two-thirds of Israelis support the evacuation of most settlements as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Yet at the same time, only 30 percent believe that this is the opinion held by the majority. (For the full polls mentioned in this article and other relevant surveys, please see www.geneva-accord.org/mainmenu/polls.)

Thus, a majority that supports the evacuation of most settlements as part of a peace agreement sees itself as a minority, while, perversely, a small but vocal minority that is against the evacuation acts as if it represents the general will. The majority’s mistake derives not only from its silence and preoccupation with other things, but from the reluctance of its leaders to offer a convincing sense of urgency to the issue at hand. The minority’s strength is in turn derived from the voluminous way it expresses itself, its focus on one issue only, and of course, from the trepidation displayed by the leaders of the majority.

Yet that doesn’t go far enough in explaining the extent to which the Israeli majority fails to appreciate its potential untapped strength. Fear is the missing ingredient. There is, quite simply, a palatable fear that permeates so much of the Israeli consciousness and the public sphere. Issues of territory and settlements quickly recede into the background when set against the more menacing narrative of existential threats to either their nation or identity.

The security complex of the Jewish people, which is better explained by history than reality, warrants a need for firm guarantees. In terms of a political agreement, these guarantees can be divided into two: that the country will continue to be the national home of the Jewish people — in other words, that there will be a Jewish majority in the state of Israel — and that security arrangements will be sufficient to prevent any imminent external threat.

This is the heart of the matter and where the real Israeli consensus lies. To speak of other issues — such as territory and settlements — creates more confusion than clarity and is thus reflected in the poll results. Most people take no interest, for example, in this or that Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem; many have never been in one. The same applies to the settlements. They can be convinced to abandon such "assets."

How then to explain last year’s election results that brought a Netanyahu government to power? Very simply: The support for rightist parties came from significant sections of that same public who vote right while simultaneously supporting an agreement with the Palestinians on the basis of, for instance, the Clinton parameters or the Geneva Initiative. And there is no contradiction here, since many of these voters have simply given up on the efficacy of voting center-left. They believe either that, like Menachem Begin and Egypt, only the right can deliver a peace agreement, or that in the absence of any realistic chance for peace in the coming years, nothing is lost in voting for the right in the short term. On the latter point, when asked whether a peace deal or another round of war is most likely, a vast majority of Israelis choose the second option. They do not forget that the last center-left government (Olmert-Livni-Barak) launched two wars, in Lebanon and Gaza, and that no peace agreement was achieved. Many reason that if we are thus determined to fight, maybe the right can do it better.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that even among traditional voters for parties like Shas or Likud, there is not necessarily opposition to a genuine two-state solution. As we in the Geneva Initiative have learned in the course of our activities with these two constituencies, many are simply not informed enough to have a clear position on the peace process. Among Shas supporters, the more pressing concerns are issues such as welfare or social and cultural challenges affecting their communities. As for Likud supporters, many do understand that only a two-state solution will ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state — a fact supported by the recent ad sponsored by the Geneva Initiative signed by 10 leading members of the Likud Party.

Recent surveys suggest that as many as two-thirds of the Israeli public understand that the status quo is bad for Israel, while almost three-quarters are concerned that Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza pose a threat to its Jewish and democratic identity.

In other words, Israeli society as a whole is quite aware of what the rational solution is and what the alternatives look like absent a peace agreement. Yet just as the untapped well of majority support exists for a markedly different political reality, so too does the inertia of Israel’s leadership class render any prospect for definitive change unlikely.

All this might logically lead one to conclude that if the spark for change will not come from within, we should hope that it might come from without. Indeed, a clear stance in favor of ending the Israeli occupation has never prevented foreign leaders from being highly regarded here in Israel, provided that they understood and could speak to the deeper narrative in which Israeli worries and concerns reside. If the silent majority in Israel can be politically awoken, that is likely to happen via a message and plan that combines the clear benefits of urgent action to overcome the paralysis with the prohibitive costs of more of the same.

If a foreign leader were to take up the challenge of holding our hands and speaking to our hearts, we might yet find a path that leads out of the woods.

Gadi Baltiansky is director general of the Geneva Initiative-Israel.

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