Negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis have nearly collapsed. Leaders hurl insults back and forth rather than sit around the table. Policemen who are supposed to cooperate at times train their guns on each other. Relative to that bright September day nearly four years ago when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat stood on the lawn of the White House and shook hands, the Palestinian standard of living has declined and Israelis feel less secure.
Who's to blame for this impasse? What's to be done?
To find out what the American electorate thinks about these issues, the Middle East Quarterly commissioned John McLaughlin & Associates to conduct a poll on June 24-26 that posed three precise questions about the peace process to a representative sample of one thousand registered voters who say they intend to vote in the next election. Their replies show a remarkable degree of agreement; and these almost exactly contradict the emerging consensus of thinkers and politicians in Washington.
The first question we asked deals with the central bargain struck at the White House ceremony in 1993. At that time, Israel granted Palestinians increasing control over their own lives. In return, the Palestine Liberation Organization promised to accept, now and always, the existence of the Jewish state. Both sides stood to profit greatly from this deal. The Palestinians won a measure of autonomy that might eventually lead to a full-fledged state. Israelis were to win an immediate reprieve from terrorism plus the eventual prospect of an end to the Arab hostility that surrounds them.
Of course, these hopes have not been fulfilled. The Israelis did withdraw troops and administrators from nearly all inhabited Palestinian areas. But Arafat has not keep his promises to eliminate violence against Israelis and fully recognize the Jewish state. Or, at least, that's how Americans read the situation. When asked in the poll whether Arafat has kept his many promises, including "fighting terror and preventing violence" (a passage in January's Hebron agreement), the sample replied by a nearly four-to-one margin (62.1 percent vs. 16.0 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent) that the Palestinian leader has not done so.
On being informed that Palestinians have killed five American citizens since the White House ceremony, and that the Palestinian Authority has not prosecuted any suspects for those murders, the sample offered a yet stronger response. By a ratio of over four to one (67.4 percent to 15.5 percent) the respondents held that it is important for the American government to demand the transfer of suspects to the United States, where they should stand trial for their crimes.
Finally, in perhaps the most critical issue facing Americans, whether or not to send funds to the Palestinians, the electorate expresses the most emphatic feelings. Since 1994, Congress has yearly appropriated and President Clinton has signed a bill into law that donates $100 million of American taxpayers' money to Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Should this funding continue, the sample was asked. By a margin of nearly twenty to one (85.8 percent to 4.7 percent) it declared itself against such aid.
These replies send a clear message to the leadership in Washington: you should blame the Palestinians, not Israel, for the breakdown in the peace process; get serious about cracking down on the murderers of American citizens; and stop sending hard-earned taxpayer money to crooks and tyrants.
These views might sound like plain common sense, but in fact all three are diametrically at odds with the conventional wisdom that prevails among the experts. These latter blame Israel for the stalled negotiations and want it to remedy the matter. For example, President Clinton declared last week that the Israelis must "find specific things" to prove their commitment to the Oslo process. Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a well-informed observer, notes that "For the first time since the Bush-Shamir battle over Israel settlements and loan guarantees [in 1991-92], an ever-growing consensus within the foreign policy 'establishment' holds that the most logical way to resolve the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian relations is to convince Israel to change its settlement policy."
Just as the establishment blames Israel for the breakdown in negotiations, it shows no interest in bringing the murderers of Americans to justice (fearing that would get in the way of negotiations) and it wants to funnel money to Yasir Arafat (believing that moves the negotiations along).
Not for the first time, American voters have a clearer idea than do specialists about the proper course of U.S. policy. The challenge now is to get politicians and diplomats to hear them and heed them.