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This time it must be different

Feb 03,2014 - Last updated at Feb 03,2014

Two decades after Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed an interim peace agreement in Washington, DC, the task of achieving a final resolution to the conflict has become significantly more difficult.

Not only have the physical impediments to peace grown — for example, the number of Israeli settlers living on occupied Palestinian lands has increased three-fold to more than a half-million — but the political ground today is less fertile than it was back then.

In 1993, surprised by their leaders’ bold initiative, Israelis and Palestinians were quite hopeful. Twenty years later, the environment has become toxic, polluted by the ill will generated by the negative behaviour of both parties.

This reality must be factored into the calculus of peace making.

What will be important to consider is not just the terms of the “deal” reached by the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, but their ability to “sell it” to their wary publics — many of whom are distrustful of the “other side”, no longer believing that peace is possible.

In my recently published book, “20 years after Oslo”, I review Israeli and Palestinian attitudes in the two decades that have elapsed since their leaders signed the Oslo Accords.

The book lays out a 20-year timeline and then traces how events that occurred during this period and the actions of both sides contributed to the erosion of both publics’ support for peace.

Following up on that study, this week I released the results of the latest Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling of Israeli and Palestinian attitudes. What this newest poll demonstrates is the degree to which negative attitudes now prevail in both communities — establishing how significant the loss of hope and trust has become.

Commissioned by the Sir Bani Yas Forum in the UAE, ZRS polled 1,000 Israelis and 1,000 Palestinians in late 2013. While we found areas where the sides disagreed, we also observed substantial areas of agreement — almost always in their shared negative assessment of the prospects for peace.

For example, while majorities on both sides say they were hopeful when the accords were signed, today less than one in five Israelis and Palestinians say they view Oslo as a “positive development”.

Similarly, while a majority of Israelis and a plurality of Palestinians agree that a two-state solution is a desirable outcome, only one-third on each side believes that such an outcome is still feasible.

When asked what has accounted for this loss of hope, both Israelis and Palestinians demonstrated a remarkable shared understanding of the negative role played by their own and the “other side’s” violence and the use of force in poisoning the environment.

This may be one of the most positive signs emerging from the results of this poll.

Both parties, for example, agreed that the following events or behaviour contributed to eroding their confidence in the prospects for peace: suicide bombings, rocket fire from Gaza, the second Intifada, the election of Hamas, continued settlement construction, Israel’s reoccupation of the West Bank, the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Palestinians in Hebron.

Israelis and Palestinians also agreed that Israel and the United States did not do enough and should have done more to make the Oslo process work.

From the results of this poll, it is clear that the past 20 years have taken a toll on both Palestinians and Israelis.

The leaders engaged in the current round of peace talks, therefore, must not only wrestle with the issues of maps, rights and each other’s security concerns. They also face an additional challenge.

They must produce an agreement that will be accepted by their publics, and they must be able to convince their constituents that this effort will be different from what both sides now view as the failed Oslo process.

What is clear from both this ZRS poll and the review of “the last 20 years”, regarding Israeli and Palestinian opinion, is that neither side can do this alone.

If peace is to have a chance, external players (involving more than the United States) have a critical role to play — as guarantors, as “incentivisors” and as arbiters.

The time to begin that intervention is now — to help prepare the ground. Waiting until the negotiations run their course or a US framework agreement is announced will be too late.

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