Israeli Public Opinion and the Peace Process

It has become conventional wisdom that despite all the myriad obstacles blocking an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, the Israeli public continues to support a two-state solution as the only realistic resolution to the conflict. But at the same time, a recent poll suggests that support for the current Israeli government is actually increasing despite its refusal to renew a construction freeze within the West Bank settlements. Such obduracy seems incompatible with the pursuit of a land-for-peace deal and so the Israeli public’s ongoing support for the government appears contradictory; Israelis can either be for this obstructionist government or for the two-state solution, but not both.

The resolution of this apparent incongruity lies in the events of 2006. A recent study published by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University shows that in that year, more than 60 percent of Israelis supported the establishment of a Palestinian state, a high point in Israeli public support for the two-state solution. This high tide of support came whilst the country was still flush with the “success” of the disengagement from Gaza and when Ehud Olmert’s plan to repeat the gambit and withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank seemed like it would bring the conflict to an end.

But in 2006, three blows were struck to this flight of fancy which have profoundly influenced the attitude of the Israeli public ever since. The first strike, following the disengagement from Gaza in August 2005, was the electoral victory of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections of January 2006.

The creation by Hamas of a terrorist statelet in Gaza following the Israeli withdrawal; the dramatic increase in rocket fire against Israeli citizens in the south; and the abduction of Gilad Shalit in June of 2006 were the cumulative second blow.

And the knockout punch was the ambush and abduction of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah on the Israel-Lebanon border in July of that year, sparking off the Second Lebanon War and the subsequent bombardment of northern Israel with over 4,000 artillery rockets in one month.

For the Israeli public, the inevitable conclusion of this wave of violence and aggression directed at them was that territorial concessions were fatal. The withdrawal from Gaza led to the subjection of nearly one million Israeli citizens to daily bombardment by Palestinian militias. And the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon carried out in 2000 ultimately exposed Israeli citizens in the north to a similar danger.

Accordingly, public support in Israel for the land-for-peace formula and the establishment of a Palestinian state plummeted. The INSS study shows that from 62 percent in 2006 it has fallen off to barely fifty percent today. For Israelis, no other conclusion could be drawn from these events other than the simple formula that concessions and territorial withdrawals equaled not peace but war.

Support for the notion of “two states for two peoples” remains high, at over 60 percent because Israelis acknowledge that ultimately, continued rule over the Palestinians is untenable. But there is no desire at the moment to rush into an irreversible agreement which could result with the shelling not of Sderot or Haifa but of Tel Aviv.