February 21, 2014
Author: Daoud Kuttab
Posted February 19, 2014
Palestinian and Israeli negotiators might have stumbled across two powerful weapons that could help them convince their publics to support a compromise peace agreement — political exhaustion and apathy.
While the issues surrounding the peace talks, such as refugees and Jerusalem, are emotional triggers that easily move public opinion, the parties to the decades-old conflict appear to be slogging through a period of political fatigue. Hot button items that would usually bring crowds into the streets and force politicians to backtrack are not producing these effects.
On the Israeli side, the public is enjoying an unprecedented calm in terms of security, and an economic boom has made many Israelis seeming apathetic to the comings and goings of politicians and negotiators. On the Palestinian side, the continued occupation and colonization of Palestinian lands, coupled with the implosion of major Arab countries, seem to have had a discouraging effect on the public mood.
The reaction to the conciliatory speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to a group of 300 Israeli students on Feb. 16 is a perfect example of how this exhaustion is playing out. A review of media reactions and interviews with opinion makers illustrates this point.
Ari Soffer, the managing editor of the settler mouthpiece Arutz 7, was at the Muqata when Abbas gave his speech and took questions, yet his paper’s coverage included a relatively mild headline. Israeli media generally gave positive coverage to the gathering, but it is clear that the Israeli public today will not be rapidly moved in any direction, indicating that politicians have ample room to maneuver toward peace if they so choose.
The political exhaustion on the Palestinian side is perhaps more apparent. A number of Palestinian journalists and columnists interviewed by Al-Monitor confirm that today’s public is indeed exhausted and willing to accept almost anything resembling a relatively fair deal. If the statements Abbas made on Sunday had been made 10 or 20 years ago, there would have been street demonstrations, negative editorials, fiery statements by political groups and possibly an emergency meeting of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization to explain itself. None of this happened.
The only criticism of Abbas’ meeting and statement came from the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, which complained about its ‘normalizing’ effect and his concessions on the right of return of Palestinian refugees. The besieged Gaza Strip, where the majority of the population is refugees, did not experience public demonstrations, petition signings or discernible opposition although anti-Abbas protests are usually allowed.
In Jerusalem, where Israeli right-wing activists are regularly infiltrating the al-Aqsa Mosque compound and demanding full Israeli sovereignty over Islam’s third holiest site, there was no reaction to Abbas’ statements on Jerusalem or the generally conciliatory tone he used with the Israeli students. Khalil Asali, a Palestinian journalist covering Jerusalem, told Al-Monitor that Palestinian Jerusalemites have lost faith in the Palestinian leadership, the Palestinian opposition as well as the broader Arab and Islamic world.
“Palestinians in Jerusalem are witnessing a moral, social and economic breakdown that makes them totally oblivious to the politics around them, as they are in a survival mode that has little to do with principles and ethics.”
The reaction of Palestinian refugees in the diaspora is perhaps even more telling. Palestinians in Jordan, which hosts 2 million registered refugees, did not react directly to Abbas’ statement that the Palestinian leadership has no plans to “drown” Israel with refugees. In an interview with Al-Monitor, a veteran Palestinian Jordanian editor used the word exhaustion numerous times in discussing Palestinian refugees in Jordan.
“People are tired of waiting for a solution, they would accept almost any fair deal,” asserted Mohammad Ersan, editor in chief of Radio al-Balad, a community radio station based in Amman. Ersan, who was born in the Irbid refugee camp, said that the focus of his own family and those around them is on financial compensation rather than the dream of return.
In 2003, a survey of Palestinian refugees by the Palestinian pollster Khalil Shiqaqi revealed that less than 6% of the refugees living in Jordan would go and live in Israel if their right of return were honored. Ersan said that rumors are flying in the refugee community about possible compensation and that the value of the refugee card issued by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has suddenly risen. The card is sometimes used to receive humanitarian aid, but a change in its ownership will not make a difference as all relevant information on refugees was digitized a few years ago.
The lackluster reaction to the unprecedented concessions and tone of appeasement in Abbas’ speech is a reflection of years of frustration and lost faith in the local and regional leaderships. The situation on the ground in Palestine and for Palestinian refugees abroad monopolizes thinking, leaving the field wide open for almost any relatively fair compromise that might be presented to them.