Israeli Public Opinion On The Summit: The Height Of Pessimism


Jerusalem — The bus and highway billboards are, well, explosive.

In the first signs of life from the settler movement since the disengagement from Gaza two years ago, the notices — which signal the Yesha Council of Jewish settlement’s disgust at next month’s planned summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) — insist that “The Agreement between Olmert and ‘Abu Bluff’ Will Explode in Our Faces.”

Some observers worry that the meeting between Olmert and Abbas will unleash a wave of right-wing Jewish extremism similar to the one that preceded the Yitzchak Rabin/Yasir Arafat summit, and which ultimately led to Rabin’s assassination and a large fissure within Israeli society.

Others say the summit — during which leaders are expected to tackle such thorny issues as the division of Jerusalem, settlements and the Palestinian right of return — is egging on Israel’s extreme left-wing, which insists on handing over the entire West Bank and East Jerusalem to a struggling Palestinian government.

And in between these two axes is the general public, the majority of which thinks peace between Israelis and Palestinians is unattainable, and that a summit is therefore useless.

Daniel Ben Simon, a Haaretz columnist, warned this week that a “new confrontation” with the settler movement “could be closer than ever.” The summit, to be held in Annapolis, Md., “will raise anew the question of the legality of the settlements and the outposts.”

Olmert, Ben Simon theorized, “will have to present evacuation maps, just as he was asked to do before the talks that led to the Wye Agreement in the fall of 1998 and the Camp David summit two years later.”

Ben Simon described the “hilltop youths,” the youngest and most extreme of the settlers, who since the Disengagement “have been thumbing their noses” at Olmert by establishing new outposts in the West Bank and reestablishing evacuated ones again and again.

“Among the thousands of new fanatical youngsters there is no sense of national propriety or fear of the state’s authority,” Ben Simon said.

Whether the Yesha Council, which urged settler moderation during the Gaza pullout, will once again be the voice of reason is “the great mystery,” Ben Simon concluded.

David Wilder, a spokesman for the Jewish settlement of Hebron, insisted that any violence perpetrated by settlers “will be initiated or provoked by the Shabak [security forces] and the Israeli left, as an excuse to prevent any opposition to government plans to dispose of the Land of Israel. We remember the violence used against right-wing demonstrators prior to the Oslo Accords, and the massive violence and destruction at Amona [an outpost] and in Hebron and Gush Katif. If any one is engaging in nose-thumbing, it is the Israeli left collectively thumbing their noses at the people of Israel and the Land of Israel and at God.”

In reality, both the far-left and far-right camps in Israel are notching up some alarming rhetoric.

In an e-mail message to its supporters, Gush Shalom, a far-left-wing organization that calls itself the “Israeli Peace Bloc,” said, “in the government of the two Ehuds, the mouth of Ehud Olmert spews peace clichés in highly publicized meetings with Abu Mazen, but the hands of [Defense Minister] Ehud Barak conduct ceaseless war and oppression.”

The message then described how the government had just “confiscated 1,100 dunams” from several West Bank villages adjacent to the Jewish settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim — a plan called E1 — in order to create continguity between Ma’aleh, which is just a few miles from the Jerusalem city limit, and the city itself.

“With such policies enacted by the government,” Gush Shalom said, “the famous Annapolis Conference is emptied of meaning, long before it convenes.”

Mina Tzemech, the country’s most trusted pollster, said that although her Dahaf polling institute has not yet posed any specific questions about the Annapolis summit, other questions attest to the fact that “people are quite pessimistic” about the prospects for peace.

When, about a month ago, Dahaf conducted a poll of Israeli Jews and Arabs for the Knesset Channel, “we asked whether we can reach some agreement with Abu Mazen, Tzemech said. “Only 40 percent said yes, while 60 percent said no. “This was a very sharp reduction from the last poll on this subject, which we conducted before Hamas came into power. Back then 60 percent felt an agreement could be reached while 40 percent said not. Clearly, Hamas’ entry into the arena changed people’s perceptions.”

On the streets of East and West Jerusalem, Arabs and Jews alike questioned how another summit could improve their lives after so many others have failed.

“This summit won’t help,” said Ashaf Jubeh, who was helping out in his uncle’s aromatic spice shop in the Old City’s bustling Arab shuk. “We’ve had loads of summits and we’ve always come out worse than when we started.”

Jubeh actually waxed a bit nostalgic for the days of the first intifida, “when at least there was no wall cutting off Jerusalem from the West Bank and people were able to move around more freely. Now people live like prisoners,” he said.

Speaking softly so that others in the shuk could not hear, Jubeh asserted that “Abu Mazen is a weak man. You can see this from what happened in Gaza. I wish Yasser Arafat could come back.”

Walking through the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, Chaya Passow, a transplanted New Yorker now living in Jerusalem, agreed that Abu Mazen “doesn’t have the Palestinian people behind him, even if he wanted to make a deal with Israel. People say “You don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies.’ What they forget is that your enemies have to want to make peace!”

Repairing the lining of a suitcase in his luggage shop across from the Jerusalem Municipality, Joseph Bentolina asserted that Olmert instigated the Annapolis summit “because he’s afraid he’s going to lose his job.” Referring to the legal investigation into Olmert’s purchase of a costly home, Bentolina said, the summit is a diversion tactic, a way to keep the prosecutors office away from his door. Peace between Olmert and Abu Mazen is impossible.”

Only Ghazi Abu-Mansour, a photographer in the Old City’s Christian Quarter, had something remotely positive to say about the upcoming summit.

“I have Jewish neighbors in the Old City and we’re friendly towards one another. What we need is to live in peace, just like people in other countries do. We just want to live without out borders, without uprisings, without suffering. Is that too much too ask?” Abu-Mansour said, his smile gradually fading.