No matter who forms the next Israeli government, whether Benjamin Netanyahu or Isaac Herzog, a bet on statehood for the Palestinians is about as good as money in a Ukrainian bond. Netanyahu has said, not on his watch, and Herzog has not said. Palestinian leaders, especially in Hamas, have done nothing to make Israelis feel secure enough to take the gamble. Conditions can always change, of course, but for the foreseeable future, a two-state solution looks dead.
The idea didn’t last long. Thirty years ago, hardly any Israeli Jews supported the creation of a Palestinian state. The only Jewish-led political party to do so was the tiny Communist Party, which garnered only a handful of seats in the Knesset and never joined a governing coalition. Even liberal leaders of Peace Now, the movement that campaigned against Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, would not come out for a Palestinian state back then, for fear that they would be discredited among the rest of the Jewish population.
A sea change in Israelis’ attitudes accompanied the 1993 Oslo Accords, which won the Palestine Liberation Organization’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist and allowed Yasser Arafat and other PLO leaders to come in from exile to set up an interim administration in a patchwork of areas in the West Bank and Gaza. Serious negotiations were launched with the ultimate goal of two states living peacefully side by side.
Public opinion polls showed a sudden jump in the percentage of Israeli Jews supporting Palestinian statehood: to 46.9 percent in 1994, fifteen months after the accords were signed.
These numbers slipped and rose during subsequent years, depending on the mood of the moment and the wording of the question: down to 36.5 percent in early 1995, up to 46.4 percent in 1996, 51.3 percent in March 1997, 55.6 percent that July, down to 42.7 percent in 1998, then up to 55.6 percent in 1999, and to 48.8 percent shortly after the second intifada began in October 2000. Since then, Israeli Jewish support for a Palestinian state has usually hovered above and below 50 percent. In December 2014, even after a spate of attacks on Jews in Jerusalem, Palestinian statehood was endorsed by 43 percent.
But here’s the catch: Support drops off sharply as soon as the actual contours and characteristics of a Palestinian state are defined as Palestinians desire. For example, a strong majority of Israeli Jews oppose making East Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state: Since Oslo, only one-quarter to one-third have agreed to such an arrangement. Most Israeli Jews (56 percent) surveyed in December 2014 opposed placing any Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem under Palestinian control, which would surely have to be done to get an agreement on statehood.
Polls have shown both Israeli Jews and Palestinians seriously dissatisfied with a state defined in ways that the other side would accept. In December 1999, only about one-quarter said they would accept a Palestinian state that meant relinquishing all Jewish settlements or withdrawal to the 1967 lines. By December 2013, the abstract idea of a Palestinian state got support from 63 percent of Israelis and 53 percent of Palestinians, but only 44 percent of Israelis favored the proposal to withdraw from all but 3 percent of the West Bank, although the largest blocks of Jewish settlement would remain in Israeli hands. A year later, 48 percent of Israelis opposed the evacuation of any Jewish settlements.
A Palestine with no army, only police, was favored by 60 percent of Israelis but only 28 percent of Palestinians. And each side wanted all of Jerusalem for itself; division and shared jurisdiction appealed to only 37 percent of Israelis and 32 percent of Palestinians.
Both sides have also rejected compromise on Palestinians’ fantasy that they should have the right of return to pre-1948 Israel. In a 2012 poll, only minorities—46 percent of Palestinians and 39 percent of Israelis—endorsed the concept of allowing only an undefined number of Palestinians to return and providing compensation to families of 1948 refugees.
Polls don’t substitute for enlightened leaders, and it’s conceivable that if such leadership emerged on both sides, and if nasty attacks abated, public attitudes could shift. But the two sides have radicalized each other. Palestinians have rejected or ignored a couple of Israeli offers since Oslo—not everything they wanted but pretty good compromises nonetheless. Israelis have forfeited opportunities to de-escalate hostile conditions for Palestinians on the West Bank, and to leave sufficient territory for a viable state.
Israelis will not forget the suicide bombers sent by Palestinians into Israel during the first intifada, from 2000 to 2004, or the rockets from Hamas since Israel’s unilateral departure from Gaza in 2005. The Palestinians have given Netanyahu his credible argument, on election eve, that a state on the West Bank would become a Hamas-dominated threat. Who can deny that possibility?
For their part, Palestinians will not forget the post-Oslo period, when they watched news of men in suits sitting around the bargaining table, supposedly working toward a two-state solution, but looked out their windows at the Jewish settlements marching through their hills, putting more and more West Bank land off limits to a Palestinian state. Nor will they forget the daily bullying and violence from small contingents of thuggish Jewish settlers whom the government fails to rein in.
Unfortunately for the idea of peaceful coexistence, Palestinians will also not forget Israel’s birth in 1948, which they call al-Nakba, “the Catastrophe.” It seemed, in my conversations last November on the West Bank, that 1948 had replaced 1967 as the pivot point of Palestinian national aspirations. Few people spoke merely of getting Israel out of the lands captured in 1967. Instead, they spoke of getting Israel out of the lands “stolen” in 1948.
At the Ramallah Girls’ School on the West Bank, a Palestinian teenager identified herself as being “from Jaffa, living in Ramallah.” The seaside city of Jaffa, from which her grandparents fled during the 1948, now inside Israel, remained a dream. The girl had visited. “I was very happy to see the home that my grandparents had been living in,” she said. “We hope that, God willing, we will be able to return to Jaffa.”