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June 01, 2011 Edition 12

The iron wall
Tamar Hermann

Since the Saudi peace initiative (later rebranded the Arab Peace Initiative) was put on the table in 2002, it is repeatedly referred to by Palestinian and Arab speakers, by international leaders and commentators and by Israeli activists and experts (mostly of the political left) as unequivocal and convincing evidence of the fundamental flaw in the Israeli mainstream's current narrative of "no partner, no chance for peace" and as a major shift in Arab regional strategy. Paradoxically, however, the API has not become a major topic in the Israeli public discourse. In fact it has turned into a phantom in the internal debate over the future of Israeli-Palestinian and Israel-Arab relations.

Articles in this edition
American public opinion and the Middle East peace process - John Zogby
The real issue is political leadership - David Pollock
Consistent support - Ghassan Khatib
The iron wall - Tamar Hermann
It is not that the Israeli Jewish public is unaware of the API; in a March 2007 Peace Index Poll (PIP) following the initiative's reaffirmation in Riyadh, 62 percent of Israeli Jewish interviewees said that they had heard about it. In this survey, the public was divided over the API, with a large minority considering it promising: 45 percent of the respondents saw it as a possible basis for an agreed solution while 47 percent were of the opposite opinion.

The question, then, is why the Israeli public is turning a blind eye to this initiative. Like it or not, the API has gotten much attention elsewhere, and there are more than a few indications that Israelis are interested in peace if only for the sake of their own security and wellbeing.

Much has already been written about various Israeli governments persistently ignoring the API, suggesting that this might have had an effect on the general public's attitude. This is too easy an answer, however, because the Israeli public is far from automatic about adopting its leaders' views on peace and security issues. Another explanation has therefore to be sought. I would suggest that this act of willfully ignoring the API has to do with a cognitive "iron wall"--adopting Zeev Jabotinski's famous metaphor--standing between the Israeli-Jewish public and the Middle East as a whole. This wall is penetrated only by specific signals coming from the other side: the threatening and negative ones.

This selective hearing is rooted in the estrangement of most Israelis from life and developments on the other side of the wall. Thus, according to the June 2010 PIP survey, about three quarters of the Jewish population do not read, write or speak Arabic. Two-thirds have never visited an Arab country (Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, etc.) and 66 percent of these say that they are not interested in doing so. A sense of detachment from the region is further manifested by the overwhelming majority (84.1 percent) who state that they never watch Arab TV stations or listen to Arab radio.

These findings are probably influenced by Israel's traditional western orientation, dominant since the pre-state days. Yet it is not seen this way by most Israelis. The conflict is apparently viewed by the Israeli Jewish public as unrelated to this orientation. In the same poll, over two-thirds disagreed with the hypothetical argument that if the Zionist Jewish immigrants who came to Palestine in the first half of the twentieth century had tried to integrate into the Middle East and had maintained less strong relations with the West and with western customs, the Israel-Arab conflict might not have deteriorated to its present state.

Along the same line, the data suggests that most Israelis are not interested today in integrating into the Middle East and do not see the region and the regional players, who are perceived by and large as highly hostile, as a potential source of anything good, peace included. In the February 2007 PIP, 54 percent of the respondents maintained that the API did not imply a basic transformation in the Arabs' hostile attitude towards Israel and did not signal their authentic interest in peace. Fifty two percent responded that the Israeli government should not consider adopting the API.

This negative reading of the Arab side is strongly reflected in the answers to the following question, presented twice--in February 1995 and June 2010: "In each of the following areas--the political, the economic, and the cultural--are you interested in having Israel integrated into the Middle East or into Europe-America?" At both points in time, the Israeli Jewish public preferred by a great majority (over 66 percent) the West over the Middle East with respect to all three spheres of integration. Furthermore, over the years the pro-western bias has increased and interest in the Middle East per se has declined consistently across the political, economic and cultural dimensions.

One may assume that attitudes towards the peace process would be correlated in one way or another with regional integration preferences. We therefore cross-tabulated the Jewish public's responses to the above question with Jewish answers to the following one: "What is your position regarding the peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority?" In all three realms, both the supporters and those in opposition to peace negotiations with the Palestinians were more enthusiastic about integration into the West than into the Middle East.

In light of the above, the API as is, regardless of its concrete contents, is not going to be embraced in the foreseeable future by the Israeli public. Yet conceivably, if it is repackaged and presented to Israeli Jews as someone else's initiative--preferably, of course, as an Israeli peace initiative--the message may eventually come through.-Published 1/6/2011 © bitterlemons-api.org

Tamar Hermann is a professor at the Open University of Israel and a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.
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