The Middle East Has Thrown in the Towel on Making Peace with Israel
New polls from across the region show a deep pessimism on the possibility of a non-violent, two-state solution.
Remember the Middle East peace process and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerrey’s ultimately unsuccessful shuttle diplomacy to restart meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations? In the wake of recent developments in Ukraine and Iraq such ambitions seem so much yesterday’s news. The recent creation of a Palestinian "unity" government has made it even less likely that the talks will be resumed anytime soon. And now Martin Indyk, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, has resigned in frustration with the absence of any likelihood of meaningful progress in the foreseeable future.
Such failures have consequences. In the wake of the breakdown in the initiative, people in the region have little faith that a way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully with each other. Majorities or pluralities in countries across the region now voice the view that nonviolent coexistence is not possible, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. And such pessimism is on the rise among many Middle Eastern publics.
The public’s resignation that peace is unobtainable poses new challenges for the Obama administration if and when the White House again tries to revive the diplomatic process. Such public sentiment may undermine the Palestinian government’s interest in a negotiated solution to their long-running confrontation with Israel. It may harden the Israelis’ reluctance to engage in new negotiations. And public pessimism throughout the region may mean that governments may be less likely to pressure the Israelis and Palestinians to come to some settlement.
These are the findings of the Pew Research Center poll in seven nations conducted from mid-April to mid-May 2014.
Cynicism about peaceful Israeli-Palestinian coexistence is certainly not new. But it is particularly strong today in Lebanon, where 79 percent of the public say such an outcome is not possible. This includes 93 percent of Shiite Muslims, 72 percent of Christians, and 69 percent of Sunni Muslims. Just 11 percent of Lebanese hold the view that Israelis and Palestinians can live together in harmony.
But grave doubts about an Israeli-Palestinian modus vivendi are also expressed by a significant majority of Tunisians (71 percent), the Palestinians themselves (63 percent), and Turks (62 percent).
Among Palestinians, 68 percent of those living in Gaza and 60 percent living on the West Bank say peaceful accommodation is impossible. Only 16 percent of Palestinians in the Palestinian territories see Israel and a Palestinian state coexisting peacefully.
Palestinians were already pessimistic about prospects for the peace negotiations. A 2013 Pew Research survey found that just 15 percent of Palestinians thought that a Palestinian state could be achieved through negotiation. Forty-five percent thought statehood could only be achieved through armed struggle. That plurality may just have had its assumptions confirmed.
Pluralities of Egyptians (48 percent) and Jordanians (39 percent) also say that Israelis and Palestinians cannot learn to live together, while only roughly a quarter of both publics think they can.
In Jordan, roughly four-in-ten (42 percent) Palestinians living there, many of whom may be descended from refugees from the Arab-Israeli wars in 1948 and 1967, do not believe Israel and a Palestinian state can exist in harmony. About a third (34 percent) of ethnic Jordanians are similarly pessimistic.
Israelis, overall, are less negative than their neighbors in the region about prospects for accommodation between Israelis and Palestinians. But even they are divided about such a possibility. Forty-five percent of Israelis say their country cannot coexist peacefully with a Palestinian nation, while 40 percent express the view that such mutual accommodation is possible.
But views of the future are sharply divided along ethnic and religious lines within Israel itself. Notably, Israeli Arabs (13 percent) are far less pessimistic about a two-state solution than are Jews (50 percent). In fact, 64 percent of Israeli Arabs say coexistence is possible. It is unclear whether this is a reflection of their life experience living side-by-side with Jews or merely wishful thinking.
However, only 37 percent of Jews in Israel voice the view that it is possible to live peacefully with the Palestinians. And, among Israeli Jews, there are deep divisions along religious lines on this issue. Three-quarters (76 percent) of self-described Orthodox Jews say Israel and an independent Palestinian state cannot coexist. Roughly half (53 percent) of self-identified traditional Jews agree. But secular Jews are more optimistic, with only 38 percent expressing the view that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem is impossible. Nearly half (48 percent) of these secular Jews say the two nations can live in harmony.
Attitudes about prospects for a two-state solution are in flux. In a number of countries in the region there is mounting doubt about the possibility of peaceful coexistence between Israel and a Palestinian state. Such pessimism is up 15 percentage points in Turkey, 14 points in Tunisia, and eight points in Egypt since 2013. Moreover, wariness about a two-state solution has grown among two pivotal publics: Jews in Israel and ethnic Jordanians. In both groups, pessimism is up eight points.
The tide of public opinion in the Middle East is definitely turning against peaceful Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. In a region where Iraq is threatening to break apart, Syria is mired in civil war, and there is growing concern in Lebanon that extremist violence will spread to that country, a stable Palestinian-Israeli relationship is desperately needed. This is not the time for the Middle East peace process to be either dead or on hold.
Bruce Stokes is a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. Twitter: @bruceestokes
More from Foreign Policy
A New Multilateralism
How the United States can rejuvenate the global institutions it created.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
The Endless Frustration of Chinese Diplomacy
Beijing’s representatives are always scared they could be the next to vanish.
The End of America’s Middle East
The region’s four major countries have all forfeited Washington’s trust.