Why are Palestinians so angry at Israel? There are two possible reasons.
- Political: They accept the existence of a Jewish state but are angry with this or that Israeli policy.
- Rejectionist: They abominate the very existence of Israel and want to destroy it.
Which is correct has many implications. If Palestinians only want changes in what Israel is doing (such as building towns on the West Bank), then it is reasonable to ask Israel to alter those actions - and the main burden of resolving the conflict falls on Israel.
But if Israel's existence remains at issue, then it follows that the conflict will end only when the Palestinians finally and irrevocably accept the Jewish state. Seen this way, the main burden falls on the Palestinians.
If it's a routine political dispute, diplomacy and compromise are the way to make progress. But if the Palestinians reject Israel's very existence, diplomacy is useless, even counterproductive, and Israel needs to convince Palestinians to give up on their aggressive intentions. More bluntly, Israel would then need to defeat the Palestinians.
Which interpretation is correct?
In a spring 2002 poll of residents in the West Bank and Gaza conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, a Palestinian organization, 43 percent of respondents called for a Palestinian state only in the West Bank and Gaza and 51 percent insisted on the state in "all of historic Palestine," code words for the destruction of Israel.
Thus, Palestinian rejectionism flourishes. But the outside world averts its collective eyes from this fact. Those institutions and individuals with a megaphone - in both Israel and America, not to speak of the United Nations, the left and those in diplomatic, journalistic, artistic and academic circles worldwide - generally assert that Palestinian acceptance of Israel has occurred and focus instead on Israel's need to "take risks for peace."
In contrast, only a small number of conservatives in Israel and the United States point out the continued power of Palestinian rejectionism.
Given this backdrop of mostly wishful thinking, it is remarkable to see how realistically the Israeli and American electorates view Palestinian intentions. The Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University found in fall 2002 that 18 percent of Israeli Jews believe the Palestinians have accepted Israel's existence and 71 percent think the opposite.
To learn American views on this issue, the Middle East Forum recently sponsored a poll asking a national cross-section of 1,000 likely voters, "Do you believe that the goal of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority is to have a small state living in peace alongside Israel, or is its goal the eventual destruction of Israel?"
The response was clear. Nineteen percent of respondents said Arafat seeks a small state living in peace alongside Israel; 61 percent said he seeks the eventual destruction of Israel.
(Technical aside: The other 20 percent didn't know or refused to reply. This poll, conducted on Feb. 11-12 by the New York polling firm McLaughlin & Associates, has an accuracy of +/- 3.1% at the 95 percent confidence interval.)
Not only are the Israeli and U.S. numbers strikingly similar but even more noteworthy is how the U.S. electorate ignores the overwhelming consensus of authoritative voices and, by a more than 3-to-1 ratio, understands that Palestinian rejectionism lies at the heart of the conflict.
This insight testifies to the wisdom of a free and informed people. It also has great potential significance for U.S. policy, signaling to the Bush administration to heed its own electorate and recognize that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict persists because Israel is, not what it does.
This means abandoning the habit of pressing Israel to make further concessions to the Palestinians and instead aiming to convince the Palestinians that Israel is here to stay. This might entail such steps as:
- Discouraging Palestinian anti-Semitism and other forms of incitement against Israel;
- Reassessing antiquated U.S. policies that help keep the Palestinian "refugees" in limbo;
- Endorsing tough but necessary Israeli actions to end Palestinian violence; and
- Moving the American embassy to Jerusalem.
The sooner Palestinians, leaders and public alike, come to terms with the unalterable reality of Israel's existence, the better it will be for all concerned.