Shibley Telhami — Understanding Attitudes on Middle East Peace

Shibley Telhami photo[By Shibley Telhami. Part of the series “Global Challenges in 2030”  (Goldstein & Pevehouse), January 2010.]

One of the striking observations in the Middle East throughout the turbulent first decade of the 21st century is that people in the region, both Arabs and Israelis, continued to support a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that envisions two states, Israel and Palestine, roughly separated by the border that preceded the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Certainly, there remained important differences on details, but most embraced the principle of two states.

What is equally striking is that, behaviorally, there has been little indication of these attitudes: Israelis dumped the center-left from power and elected rightwing-led governments, and  Palestinians elected the militant Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, to lead their government. Across the Arab world, public opinion polls continued to show that militant leaders like Hassan Nassrallah of the Lebanese Hezbollah party were far more popular than conciliatory leaders like King Abdullah of Jordan.

In looking closely at public attitudes, one can get a better sense of what has been driving people’spositions. In six Arab countries in which I poll annually (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates),1 people’s openness toward a political solution has been matched by deep pessimism about the prospects for peace. Half of those polled in 2009 said peace will never come, and only 6 percent believed it will come within five years. While only about a quarter of the Arab public were in principle opposed to Israel, a majority of those who accepted a two-state solution did not believe the Israelis would ever accept it. This is a pattern that other polls found among Israelis and Palestinians as well, and one I found in a summer-2009 poll among Arab citizens of Israel.

The assessment of the prospects of failure to reach an agreement based on the two-state solution is another measure that sheds light on the public’s outlook. The vast majority of those polled believed that, if such a solution was not reached, the Middle East would face years of violence and instability. The net result of this deep pessimism was that many on each side assumed that the other will understand only the language of toughness and violence—and each felt a need to better position itself in case of failure.

These attitudes can be contrasted with the prevailing mood in the 1990s, when seemingly promising, if sometimes troubled, peace negotiations were seen by most as likely to lead to a peace settlement. Even those who were not especially happy with the kind of settlement that appeared likely had to prepare themselves to accommodate it. Preparing oneself for failure and preparing oneself for success entail dramatically different attitudes and strategies.

Prevailing public attitudes present extraordinary challenges to mediation diplomacy. At one level, the impact of public opinion is obvious: In places where free elections are held, such as Israel and the Palestinian territories, public attitudes affect the election outcomes and thus the governing coalitions. Following the collapse of the Clinton administration’s mediation efforts in July 2000, bloody confrontations ensued and Israelis elected a tough right-wing government headed by General Ariel Sharon. Among Palestinians, the failure of diplomacy to end Israeli occupation partly led to Hamas’s victory in the 2006 legislative elections, with subsequent conflict and territorial divide among the Palestinians.

Even beyond elections, public anger can be consequential. At the extreme end, it can be used by militant groups to spoil a possible deal they oppose. It can also sometimes lead to policy change. One such episode took place in the Fall of 2009 when the Palestinian Authority decided to ask the United Nations’ Human Rights Council to postpone a vote on the “Goldstone Report” prepared by a commission headed by South African Judge Richard Goldstone to assess human rights violations in the 2008–2009 Gaza war between Israel and Hamas. The report accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes. Mindful of Israeli and American positions, and with an eye on reviving peace negotiations, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, asked the UNHRC to postpone considering the report. The public reaction was so vociferous that Abbas reversed his position quickly and asked for an emergency session of the UNHRC to vote on the report.

One of the challenges to governments in the region is that their ability to shape public attitudes is diminishing by the day. Polls indicate that most people in the region get their news from media outlets, especially satellite television, outside their own countries, so that their government’s narrative is an increasingly small part of the information they get. And Internet use is rapidly expanding, making public attitudes harder to control or even predict.

The net result of prevailing public attitudes is that incremental approaches to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are unlikely to succeed. In theory, if a grand deal is put on the table that meets the basic needs of both sides, it could be embraced by majorities of Arabs and Israelis. The challenge is how to get to that point. Even in the 1990s when a sense of the inevitability of peace was common, incrementalism turned out to be problematic. Postponing key issues worked only to create opportunities for spoilers who helped undermine confidence instead. Leaders on both sides were less inclined to make short-term gestures as they feared giving up the leverage they needed to tackle the toughest issues down the road.

Public attitudes, even hardened ones, can of course change. But the sort of dramatic events that can lead to profound change are hard to anticipate. And given the moods of the Israeli and Palestinian publics and the complexity of their domestic politics, drama is unlikely to come from their leaders. That’s why the focus has been on international mediation, especially American—and aimed at the toughest issues from the outset, while striving for a comprehensive deal.


SHIBLEY TELHAMI is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, and nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of The Stakes: America and the Middle East (Westview Press, 2004).

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