For the next 113 days leading up to the March 28 elections, a string of opinion surveys will attempt to forecast the Israeli vote. A poll in Wednesday's Yediot Aharonot, for instance, found that if the elections were held now, Ariel Sharon's Kadima Party would capture 34 Knesset seats versus Amir Peretz's Labor Party with 27, and the rump Likud with 10. Assuming the poll is accurate, parties associated with vehement opposition to the Gaza disengagement would capture only 24 mandates in the 120-seat Knesset.
Other newspaper surveys published over the weekend bore out the Yediot poll as well as an earlier Jerusalem Post finding. The precise numbers vary, but the overall trend is undisputed.
There are all sorts of ways to gauge public opinion. Don't confuse bogus or manipulative "polls" - "If falafel is your favorite fast food, click yes now! - with surveys employing statistically valid population samples to project what people think. Methodologically elaborate polls tend to have high predictive value. So long as I know who funded a poll, which pollster conducted it and something about the way it was carried out, I can determine whether the results are trustworthy.
Polls capture something changeable - what people think at a transient moment about a specific question. But if Sharon wins a third term, as predicted, I suspect this would reflect not just the opinion of Israeli voters on March 28, but a deeply-rooted shift in mind-set. Voters would be embracing Sharon's crafty pragmatism toward the road map, settlements, and our relations with the outside world, and jettisoning the dogmatic purity of his opponents from Left and Right.
And the principal explanation of Sharon's anticipated success wouldn't be his avuncular demeanor, the unpalatable alternatives offered by Labor and Likud, a biased media or - as his more alienated critics charge - the essentially corrupt nature of Israeli politics. No, the reason Sharon is expected to win is because our conceptual mind-set - as distinct from our fleeting opinion - has fundamentally changed.
This new mind-set holds that no Palestinian leadership will emerge anytime soon capable of cutting a deal mainstream Israelis can live with. Most of us understand that, despite the Jews' inalienable right to the Land of Israel, we have no choice but to draw battle lines that maximize our security and minimize the number of Palestinian Arabs under Israeli jurisdiction.
And we are ready to leave the details of how to implement this loosely-defined strategy to the machinations of an overweight 78-year-old autocrat. God give him strength, and wisdom.
Perceptual change evolves at a glacial pace. There was a time when the entire Jewish world - Israelis and the Diaspora - were united in understanding that the Arab-Israel conflict was a zero-sum game; that the Arab refugee problem should be solved by the Arab countries; and that when Israel's security was at stake, Diaspora leaders would take their cues from Jerusalem.
In the course of 57 years those perceptions gradually shifted, and this evolutionary swing does not make our earlier insights wrong. But there is no putting the mind-set genie back into the bottle. Even relatively recent events - five years of Palestinian terrorism, the 1993 Oslo Accords, the 1988 Arab uprising - have cumulatively served to transform fleeting opinions about the struggle into solid new mind-sets.
It's even possible to identify landmark events as heralding fundamental perceptual shifts, and I expect our forthcoming elections to portend precisely such an attitudinal transformation.
EVENTS THIS month, 17 years ago, helped set the stage for where we are, perceptually, today. It was on December 14, 1988 that Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, George Schultz, announced that Washington was ready to open face-to-face negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization. "Talking" to the PLO was the outcome of a fundamental, though gradual, change in perceptual orientation about the nature of the Arab-Israel conflict.
That shift demanded a hefty dose of self-delusion and no small amount of cunning political manipulation. Nevertheless, there was no turning the calendar back.
America's PLO policy shift would not have been possible without the support of key Jewish and Israeli personalities. Like Rita Hauser, the Republican lawyer who first came to prominence as a pro-Israel activist with the American Jewish Committee. She was in the vanguard of a small group of well-connected liberal Jews who had been trying to bring the US and PLO together.
The Palestinians realized that Hauser was speaking not only for herself but also for the Reagan administration and an echelon of the American Jewish leadership. They appreciated how helpful it would be to disconnect Israel from its US and American Jewish backers on the issue of the West Bank and Gaza.
Which is why, at a December 6/7 session between Yasser Arafat and the Hauser group, a joint statement was crafted that had the PLO chief denouncing "terrorism." That set the stage for Arafat's December 14 English-language news conference in which he was again understood to have renounced terrorism. With these ostensible repudiations in hand, Shultz moved within hours to establish diplomatic relations with the PLO.
Clearly some perceptual transformations are rooted in reality, while others are the result of manipulation and self-delusion. But whatever their foundation, it's essential to recognize when a tipping point between transient opinion and a new, permanent mind-set has been reached.
What savvy Israelis want today is for Ariel Sharon to steer our policies in a manner that takes into account how profoundly the world misperceives the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, while guiding us to a place where the Jewish state can survive until reality catches up with the mirage.
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