David Harris
April 1, 2010 - 12:00am

The mood of Jewish settlers in the West Bank is becoming increasingly uncompromising, according to a new poll published by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The survey looked at the views of Israelis as the Americans try to reboot the peace process with the Palestinians. It compared opinions today with those of Israelis some five years ago immediately prior to the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

In those days, emotions were running high in the country with the political and grassroots rightists attempting to block the withdrawal and the removal of some 7,000 settlers from the Palestinian coastal enclave.

There were repeated clashes in the spring and summer of 2005 between settlers and their supporters and the Israeli security forces.

Yet today, when there is no certainty about the peace process and no imminent hand-over of territory, the poll suggested that sentiment is even stronger among settlers than it was five years ago.


Backed by the Ford Foundation, the questionnaire was put to some 1,000 Israelis, half of whom live in the West Bank.

There is a distinct increase in the number of settlers who believe a comprehensive withdrawal from the West Bank should be resisted by all means available. In 2005 that figure stood at 15 percent, now it is 20 percent.

Asked whether the resistance should be by legal means only, 52 percent agreed this week, compared to 61 percent five years ago.

The belief that the majority of settlers will resist any evacuation by all means has increased sharply from 26 percent to 40 percent.

The hardening in the views of settlers did not come as a surprise to Nabil Kukali, who heads the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion. He believed the hawkish government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plays a role in forming the opinions of settlers.

"The position of Netanyahu makes them more negative towards the peace process because Netanyahu is really encouraging them and supporting them," said Kukali after the poll was published on Wednesday.


While only 40 percent of settlers back the idea of a two-state solution, the poll indicated that 71 percent of non-settler Israelis would like to see a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

In recent years, surveys have shown a trend increasingly in favor of a peace deal with the Palestinians more or less along the lines of the proposals of the international peace Quartet.

There is a realization that major parts of the West Bank will have to be ceded in the event of an agreement. The one area that remains highly controversial for Israelis is the fate of Jerusalem.

Here polls suggested more of a reluctance to head towards territorial compromise. Israelis take great pride in the fact that they wrestled control of Jerusalem's Old City from Jordan during the 1967 War. It meant that for the first time in 2,000 years Jews were in charge of the holiest site in Judaism, the Temple Mount.

However, the compound, known as Noble Sanctuary, is also holy to Muslims and the area is deemed by the international community as occupied territory. The Palestinians see East Jerusalem as being the basis of the capital of their future state.

Netanyahu was elected prime minister the first time around in 1996 on the basis of the Jerusalem issue, according to Mitchell Barak, the founder and chief executive of the Israeli political communications company KEEVOON Research Strategy & Communications.

The slogan that won the general election was "Peres will sell Jerusalem," recalled Barak. Now the country's President Shimon Peres was then the head of the Labor Party, which was then in government in the run-up to the national vote.

Barak felt that the current policies of U.S. President Barack Obama could work against the peace process because of his stance on Jerusalem. Obama is insisting that Israel cease all construction work in East Jerusalem, including in Jewish neighborhoods. That is making Israelis more skeptical about pushing forwards.

"Obama is basically crossing a red line. He has gone too far to the left," said Barak.


Meanwhile, just over the green line in the West Bank, the Palestinians are watching the political developments between Israel and the United States with considerable interest and relish, said Palestinian pollster Kukali.

The very fact that the Americans are exerting tremendous pressure on the Israelis is being perceived in Palestinian homes as part of the increased lack of international support for the Israeli stance.

"The United States and the European countries are placing a lot of pressure on Israel, and maybe this is just the start," he said.

That is giving Palestinians hope that a settlement may be in sight. In recent years, polls in the West Bank have shown a desire to cut a peace deal with the Israelis but a feeling that the Israelis are not in the mood for an agreement.

Likewise, public opinion in Israel shows a willingness to compromise but a mistrust of the Palestinians.

Barak believed that the findings of surveys are to a large extent irrelevant. The governments in Israel tend to ignore them, he said. They decide on a course of action and move in that direction.

"One of the problems today is that our politicians don't care so much about public opinion," he said.

The polls are more of interest to foreign governments and institutions as they lobby the parties to reach a compromise.

On the Palestinian side, Kukali maintains that public opinion is very important and he thinks it is too for Israel.

Without opinion polls, the vocal minority can have swayed over policy. The polls represent the views of the normally silent majority "and the large majority of the people support the peace process," he said.


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