Are the Arabs ready for peace with Israel? In survey research conducted two years ago, Hilal Khashan of the American University of Beirut showed they were not. More than 90 percent of Muslim Lebanese, Syrians, and diaspora Palestinians, he reported, saw peace as an interim measure, something useful to allow them time to reorganize and strike at Israel later. Worse, he found that not one respondent gave a positive justification for peace with Israel.
Since then, much has changed on the Arab "street." The wall of rejection has collapsed, replaced by a far more nuanced set of attitudes. While complex, even confusing, these changes deserve careful attention by anyone concerned with bringing an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The June 1995 issue of the Middle East Quarterly contains reports on two polls: one an update by Professor Khashan, the other a distillation (by Lauren G. Ross and Nader Izzat Sa'id) of fifteen public opinion surveys carried out monthly by a Palestinian organization on the West Bank and in Gaza. Although asking quite different questions of two distinct populations, the polls send a single message: while many Arabs now accept formal peace negotiations and treaties with Israel, they continue to harbor strong antagonism toward Israelis. Let's look at each of these elements separately.
Accept negotiations and treaties. The reality of Arab leaders' talking peace with Israel is taking hold in the Middle East. Where once Arabs opposed the Declaration of Principles signed on the White House lawn, the barrage of information on peace with Israel since 1993 has induced many of them to accept negotiations. Among Syrians, for example, approval for the peace talks has increased from 28 percent to 45 percent-a striking change in so brief a period. Among Palestinians living in Amman, support has more than doubled, from 26 percent to 63 percent.
Further, over 40 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza support the negotiations. Their number is likely to grow, for nearly 30 percent of the remainder is undecided, including many pragmatists withholding support until they see tangible results.
Maintain strong antagonism. These encouraging shifts do not mean the end of Arab animosity toward Israelis, however. Formal negotiations and agreements remain isolated to the political arena, with no basic shift in attitudes, emotions, or actions. Khashan's survey shows that 87 percent of respondents believe Israel pursues peace with ulterior motives, such as to achieve economic predominance, seize control of water resources, or establish a "Greater Israel." Ross and Sa'id find that 70 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza doubt Israelis are serious about achieving peace. Consistent with these profound suspicions, 65 percent of Levant Arabs say they would abandon the peace were Israel weakened, and 39 percent of Palestinians still support the total destruction of Israel.
The hostility is pervasive. Overwhelming majorities of respondents in the Levant refuse to look at Jewish history from an Israeli perspective (94 percent) or send their children to an Israeli university (93 percent). Palestinians show even stronger antagonism. Fully 46 percent of those questioned support armed attacks against Israeli targets; among Fatah sympathizers-in other words, those who support negotiations with Israel-an astonishing 40 percent support such violence. A plurality of the Palestinian population, in other words, advocates both the peace process and violence against Israelis.
Clearly, this means that support for the peace process does not signal a change of heart in Arab attitudes toward Israel. Many supporters of peace are simply lying low until Israel weakens militarily. Yes, they seem to be saying, we realize there is no choice other than official reconciliation with Israel; we accept that. But no, we will not interact with Israelis-indeed, we continue to see violence against them as legitimate.
This bifurcation of opinion has three direct implications for U.S. diplomacy:
Narrow the chasm in Israeli politics. Israel's Labor Party emphasizes the positive side of relations with the Arabs almost to the exclusion of the negative; Likud does the reverse. The middle ground of ambivalence and uncertainty hardly exists these days, yet it is the most constructive approach. Rather than side with one party (Labor) against the other (Likud), American leaders should use their influence to inject balance and help find a realistic common ground.
Press Arab leaders to push for reconciliation. "Real peace requires more than mutual recognition on the political level," Khashan has written; "it requires a reconciliation of the heart, an acceptance of the need to compromise goals and aspirations even at the level of the individual." Unfortunately, the Arab media does not even debate the issue of peace but condemns it outright, making it difficult for Arabs to form positive impressions about Israeli intentions. Virtually all the Arab regimes, including the Palestinian Authority, control their press, educational materials, and other vehicles of opinion. However regrettable this state of affairs, it does exist, so we might as well push it in a positive direction by urging Arab leaders to use these resources to call for reconciliation with Israel.
Fortify U.S.-Israel ties. Make it clear that Israel is here to stay. Unless Arab populations perceive Israel not just as powerful but as unbeatable, their dream of destroying the Jewish state will live on. Strong ties between the United States and Israel do much to further this impression, so these must steadily be enhanced. In this light, congressional action to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, far from impeding the peace process, gives it an important boost.