Israelis and Palestinians want to separate from one another, but the major political solutions to the conflict do not appeal to them, according to an in-depth study by the RAND Corporation released to The Jerusalem Post.
The research found that, overall, “mistrust, broadly defined, is likely the greatest impediment to peace.”
RAND, a leading global policy think tank, conducted the peer-reviewed research via 33 focus groups from 2018 to 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic, collecting detailed views of over 270 individuals. This widely used research approach combines quantitative data and qualitative insights, and is meant to complement the many random-sample polls taken on these topics.
Seeking “to assess whether there were any viable alternatives to the current status quo” between Israel and the Palestinians, the researchers found that Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, West Bank Palestinians and Gazan Palestinians were more likely to be uncertain about any of the five alternative solutions to the conflict offered – two-state solution, confederation, one-state solution, Israeli annexation of area C, or the status quo – than they were to support them.
The questions allowed for uncertainty and support at the same time, yet the only option a majority of Israeli Jews found to be acceptable was the status quo, and none were supported by a majority of any of the other populations.
“There is widespread skepticism that any alternative would be feasible,” the report states. “There was widespread distrust among Israelis and Palestinians of their own leadership, the leadership of the other side, and the people from the other side. As a consequence, there was great skepticism that a deal could be reached and that either side would abide by the terms of the deal.
“In addition, the majority of Israelis and Palestinians in our focus groups indicated that none of the alternatives would end the conflict,” the researchers wrote.
Young Israelis, especially, prefer the status quo because they are focused on other matters.
“They don’t think about Palestinians or the West Bank,” researcher Daniel Egel said on Wednesday. “They don’t know the difference between Area A or B or C. Their concern is the price of food, or their job.”
As for the alternatives, “the overwhelming priority in all discussions with Israeli Jews and with Palestinians was the desire to separate from the other and avoid any governance or living arrangement that brought the two groups closer together,” the report explained.
Israeli Arabs also said total political separation from the Palestinians was a priority.
“They sympathized with the Palestinians and wanted them to get a fair deal, but had the idea that if there was a separation, a lot of domestic issues will be solved” regarding discrimination and being treated as the enemy, Egel said.
In light of the clear preference for separation, a two-state solution was unsurprisingly found to be the most politically viable alternative. It was the preferred alternative for Israeli Arabs and West Bank Palestinians, and came in second place for Israeli Jews and Gazan Palestinians.
Palestinians in the focus groups viewed a two-state solution as something very different from how negotiations were conducted in recent decades.
Researcher Shira Efron pointed out that most negotiations since the Oslo Accords were for the Palestinians to have what former prime minister Ehud Barak called “a state-minus,” or a non-militarized state with Israel having control over borders, and that the Palestinian leadership negotiated on that basis. But the Palestinians in the focus groups were mostly unaware of that.
“They kept talking about an airport and other symbols of sovereignty,” such as an army or full control over borders, Efron said.
Overall, Egel and Efron said that they were struck by how people in all of the focus groups did not fully understand the implications of the different alternatives, and how some of their views evolved when the different concepts were explained thoroughly.
“We saw, particularly among the Israeli Jewish community, that people decided [alternatives] were not worth the risk,” Egel said. “People on the [Israeli] Right may have started out pro-annexation, but at the end, they were saying the status quo is more stable.”
Since the status quo is the preferred option for Israelis even while they still strongly support a two-state solution, the report said it would be critical for policy-makers to find “incentives... both domestically and internationally, to encourage Israelis to be willing to explore the two-state solution.”
Egel said he was surprised to find that “across the [Israeli] political spectrum, there was not really an impetus or a desire to take the risk of a two-state solution. I expected it from more conservative groups, but... we talked to groups on the political Left that said a two-state solution is great but not worth taking the risk.”
The research found all of the groups were skeptical about a two-state solution.
“For Israeli Jews, advocates highlighted the political and security benefits of separation while opponents cited security, settlements, Jerusalem, religion, and feasibility as major concerns,” the report reads. “Israeli Arabs saw separation as a benefit for both Israelis and Palestinians, but stated that the Palestinians were being asked to sacrifice too much for the limited autonomy provided to them. The Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank were skeptical of both the viability and the benefits of the two-state solution.”
Israelis were also skeptical about the viability of evacuating settlements, in light of the 2005 Gaza Disengagement.
A confederation, by which the Palestinians would have a separate state but certain functions would be shared with Israel, was met with even deeper pushback, because “it did not offer the desired separation from Israel.”
Efron said that the groups found the confederation suggestion to be bafflingly unrealistic.
She pointed out that the solution has recently gained popularity among foreign pundits and intellectuals, but that shows a “detachment from Israeli and Palestinian realities. When we presented it to Israelis and the Palestinians, they said, ‘This isn’t the EU, it’s not going to work here’... More contact means more friction. For Palestinians... it was unheard of. They said, ‘They hate us, we hate them; how could we all live together?’”
Gazans were more supportive of a one-state solution than any other group, and in fact were more supportive of all solutions than their West Bank counterparts.
Egel said Gazans support a one-state solution because “they just didn’t believe a two-state solution could work, and that Gaza and the West Bank would be connected – economically, politically and socially.”
The researchers also posited that the “economic peace” strategy is unlikely to be successful, because economics was not a high priority for any of the groups. Security, however, was important to all groups, though security guarantees for Palestinians are rarely part of the discourse around solutions to the conflict.
Efron said that Palestinians in the focus groups were worried about violence from the IDF and settlers.
“We told them they wouldn’t be exposed to those things with a two-state solution, but they said they don’t believe it,” she said.
As such, the report recommended that the international community back security guarantees for the Palestinians.
The researchers concluded that there were few areas of overlap in opinions between Israelis and Palestinians that could offer avenues for negotiations and peace.
“The data highlight the deep distrust and profound animosity of each side for the other,” the report reads. “In light of our findings, it is hard to imagine a departure from present trends and where they lead – unless and until strong, courageous leadership among Israelis, Palestinians, and the international community articulates a desire for a better future for all.”
Egel said the research left him “deeply skeptical of how good polling is on these issues. It helps me understand why peace didn’t break out after Oslo, even though until very recently all the polls said most support a two-state solution. It’s a heck of a lot more complicated.”