Stuck in the Status Quo

Cataclysmic events like the Middle East revolutions of 2011 are normally a signal for Israelis to ask the obvious question: How does it affect Israel?

Stuck in the Status Quo (photo credit: Courtesy)
Stuck in the Status Quo
(photo credit: Courtesy)
CATACLYSMIC EVENTS LIKE THE MIDDLE EAST revolutions of 2011 are normally a signal for Israelis to ask the obvious question: How does it affect Israel? All sides of this question can be expected to receive great attention: What do the changes mean for Israel as a democracy in the Middle East? How might they change international attitudes towards regional dynamics? What could the upheavals mean for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
The response from Israel’s leaders, or the press, hasn’t provided much guidance. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaction to the Egyptian revolution, for example, was ambiguous and hesitant at first, then later he expressed tepid support. Beyond close news coverage, clear-thinking commentary has been slow to follow. In late February, Israel Radio newscaster Yaron Dekel noticed this, and, in an opinion piece on “Maariv’s” NRG website, angrily accused the country’s leaders of failing to address the meaning of the Middle East events for Israel. The press, he added, had neglected its duty to demand greater substance from the leaders.
Without strong cues from the leadership or press-driven cues, the Israeli public has been left to watch the regional structure crumbling, and make its own judgment. So what do Israelis think the regional changes will mean for them?
Israelis may indeed be scared by the loss of authoritarian leaders who contained Islamic radicalism and maintained understandings with the West. But beyond this basic trepidation, do the events make Israelis think about changes in policy? With the quieter, but also significant pressure of a looming September deadline, when the Palestinians intend taking their case for statehood to the UN and the potential Western recognition, could the events have implications for Israel regarding the peace process?
The Jerusalem Report survey asked Israelis to consider the implications of the Middle East revolutions for Israel’s policy, beyond just their feelings and concerns. Do the massive changes that have passed and those still to come make it more urgent for Israel to change the status quo, which it seems to prefer, by moving faster towards an agreement? Or perhaps the uncertainty means Israel should hold tight until things become clearer, and make no grandiose changes that could risk still greater unknowns?
THE QUESTION READ: “GIVEN THE MAJOR CHANGES in the Middle East and the possibility that in September the Palestinians will declare statehood and maybe receive recognition, is it more or less urgent for Israel to reach a permanent-status agreement with the Palestinians?”
Knowing the Israeli public’s sullen resignation to the conflict as an immutable fixture of life, we allowed respondents the option that the events do not change the urgency of reaching a final-status accord with the Palestinians at all.
The results show a different perspective than might be expected, given the dominant “fear” narrative. The clear plurality of Israeli Jews, 47%, said that the Middle East changes and the September specter make it more urgent for Israel to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Just under one-third (31%) said the changes make an agreement very urgent, and 16% chose “somewhat.”
Those who feel peace has become more urgent outnumber those who think that in light of the events, peace is less urgent, by three to one. Just 15% chose the latter, divided almost evenly between responses that peace is much or somewhat less urgent. As predicted, a significant percentage – 31% – said that the events do not influence the urgency of reaching an agreement at all. Eight percent said they didn’t know, and perhaps that’s understandable.
The demographic trends show some variation along breakdowns that reflect normal left-right trends. Younger people are less likely to find peace more urgent: Just over one-third of young people feel this way, but over half, an absolute majority, of both 35-55-yearolds and the 55-plus respondents say peace is more urgent now. The more religious the respondent, the less likely he or she is to believe peace is more urgent now, a typical left/right pattern: 59% of seculars view peace as more urgent; 48% of traditional respondents, and 20% of religious/haredi respondents (combined). Women, compared to men, also believe peace is now more urgent (51%, compared to 42% of men).
The trends reflect the variation we’ve seen repeatedly in this column when testing conflict-related concepts or other left/right issues: Young people usually give more right-wing or hard-line responses, older people are more dovish. Religiosity always shows a directly proportionate correlation to left/right attitudes – the more religious, the more right-leaning.
But the overall numbers show that the notion of peace being more urgent is shared by far more than just the left. Nearly half of the population felt peace is now more urgent, and nearly 31% felt this strongly – yet in Israel today, my own surveys repeatedly show that under 20% percent of the population will describe itself as left-wing (with “left” and “moderate left” combined). Apparently, a good swath of the population is putting pragmatics above ideology in its assessment of the uncertain Middle East – and in their mind, the pragmatic approach is to advance the process.
That was the attitude of Nadav, a 23-year old, Jerusalemite who recently completed his army service. Speaking over Friday afternoon drinks at a popular Jerusalem hangout, he said the events definitely make peace more urgent. “This isn’t just about a single terror attack,” he said, although we spoke just days after the traumatic Jerusalem attack at a bus stop not far from our conversation (The Report survey was carried out before the terror attack). “It’s a regional thing, it involves the whole world.” The changes made him scared, he said, real fear showing in his eyes, that Islamic movements will take over. Nadav observed that Israel doesn’t have very many friends left, especially after the alienation of Turkey, one of its most important regional allies, over the last year. Therefore, the leadership needs to forge ahead.
But his friend, Israel – 31 years old and also from Jerusalem – disagreed, arguing that this is precisely the time Israel cannot be made to look weak. “An Arab mentality can’t change in 100 years, it’s a tribal attitude and it’s the tribes who are fighting us.” While volunteering that his observation “may sound a bit racist,” he insisted that especially after the terror attack, he said, Israel will look weak if it makes peace. For that reason, “peace just isn’t relevant now.” However, if there were some incentive, said Israel, maybe an agreement would be worth Israel’s while – “such as European guarantees for the regional actors.”
Both expressed high pragmatism, even though they arrive at different conclusions. Ultimately, both seemed to view a resolution in terms of cost-benefit analysis, rather than emotional or ideological terms.
IN FACT, NADAV WASN’T THE ONLY ONE WHO ARRIVED at the conclusion that the parties must forge ahead to a peace program. Dennis Ross, the veteran American Middle East negotiator currently serving in the American National Security Council, speaking at J Street’s conference in late February, observed that the various changes in the region will only make a peace agreement harder in the future – and repeatedly emphasized the urgency of finalizing a negotiated resolution now.
In fact, at J Street, there was so much talk of the basic outlines of a two-state plan, and such a feeling of support around such a plan, that the mostly American Jewish and Washington policy crowd seemed to view it as a consensus.
But as the weeks go by, in Israel, the general discourse, with a few exceptions, seems to be moving in the other direction. Likud MK and Cabinet Minister Benny Begin, in an interview for the free daily paper “Israel Today” in early March, noted that Middle Eastern democracy does not, in his view, herald good tidings for Israel: “We saw what happened when free elections were held by the Palestinians… In the end, Hamas controls the system. That organization is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. They took over Gaza and after that fired missiles from there at the population of the State of Israel.” All this leads Begin to conclude that “the prime minister’s position has been correct… emphasizing caution and stability.” Given Netanyahu’s vague stance toward the revolutions, and his foot-dragging regarding peace, Begin should probably be interpreted as supporting continued vagueness and foot-dragging.
Similarly, “Haaretz” commentator Ari Shavit, one day after the Jerusalem bombing, wrote that Israelis must “say goodbye to peace” with the Palestinians, with Syria, or goodbye to Egypt as a guarantor. The Palestinian leadership, in his analysis, will never face down the regional revolutionary fervor by asking their people for the compromises a two-state solution will demand.
In sum, two streams of thought seem to be emerging in relation to the Middle East: one, that there is a new and inchoate world ahead. We don’t know what it will bring, but it could herald a sharp break from the past with new opportunities. Maybe freer societies will emerge; maybe pragmatic approaches to Israel will provide new opportunities. And if greater dangers lie ahead, at least Israel would be better protected to face them, with its own conflict stabilized.
The second stream of thought is that forms of government may change, but the deep structure of the Middle East – non-democratic, tribal attitudes, religious fundamentalism fueling eternal hatred toward Israel – will remain. Therefore, there is always a reason why it’s not the time to make peace or give compromises. The terrible murders of a settler family in Itamar in early March and the Jerusalem bus-stop attack will surely symbolize the continuity of this reigning paradigm for many Israelis.
The public, according to our survey, indicated that it is prepared to face its fears with pragmatism, by acknowledging the greater urgency of peace. The political leadership, often mirrored by the press seems to consistently reinforce the other perspective, of continuing old policies as a barricade against changes that might make things worse. It remains to be seen whether the Israeli public raises its voice to its leadership as clearly as many citizens in the Arab world have raised their voice. Otherwise, Israel can expect its leaders to continue holding onto the status quo, as if nothing ever changes in the Middle East.