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Why popular support isn’t necessary for an Israeli-Palestinian deal

- January 19, 2017
Secretary of State John F. Kerry watches as Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, right, and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat shake hands during a news conference on Middle East peace process talks at the State Department in 2013. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As Donald Trump’s administration takes power, it is appropriate to consider which approach it should take to resolve the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Former Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon argues in a recent Foreign Affairs piece that peace between Israel and the Palestinians can only come about through bottom-up measures that change the Palestinian people’s attitudes toward Israel and Israelis. He claims that the top-down, state-to-state initiatives embodied by the Oslo Accords are destined to fail if the Palestinian people continue to harbor resentment of Israel and hope to eliminate it in the long-term.

Ya’alon is not alone in Israeli leadership circles to think this way. For years Natan Sharansky, a former minister of Jerusalem affairs, argued that it would be impossible to negotiate peace without democratizing the Palestinian Authority’s governmental apparatus and liberalizing the Palestinian people to allow for a true liberal peace. And many on the Israeli right question whether peace is possible with widespread hostility among Palestinians to the existence of a Jewish state, which they commemorate as nakhba (the catastrophe).

Ya’alon’s view, that societal reconciliation is a necessary prerequisite of peacemaking, is incorrect. In my recent book, “Peacemaking From Above, Peace From Below: Ending Conflict Between Regional Rivals,” I investigated every single peace agreement concluded between regional rivals in the 20th century. Every agreement that lasted more than 10 years began as a top-down agreement between states for geostrategic reasons or to preserve their leaderships’ hold on power — often with the public kicking and screaming.

French leaders, for example, negotiated the post-World War II Franco-German settlement when the majority of the French public believed that France should not even have cordial diplomatic relations with the Federal Republic of Germany. Similarly, the Israeli peace settlements with Egypt and Jordan, which have been of great strategic importance to Israel, were concluded despite widespread public opposition in both Arab countries.

This does not mean that public attitudes are irrelevant to peace. Indeed, the book demonstrates that bringing the rival societies on board after a peace treaty is concluded is essential to entrench and stabilize the peace treaty after it is signed. When the rival societies are socialized to accept the settlement afterward through bilateral economic and cultural exchange, participation in cooperative regional institutions — and efforts to redress what Benjamin Miller calls a “state-to-nation” imbalance — peace agreements like those between France and Germany and between Ecuador and Peru become rather stable and are likely to endure changes of government and policy. Efforts to entrench democracy in both countries at this stage are also likely to cement peace, as the former rivals share in the democratic peace.

In this regard, it is noteworthy that although the French population was hostile to Germany and Germans at the time of the peace settlement, within a couple of decades their attitudes were so completely transformed that most of the French public viewed  Germany as France’s best friend in Europe. Similarly, despite considerable hostility between the Ecuadoran and Peruvian publics at the time of their 1998 peace treaty, only three years afterward public opinion polls in Peru indicated that the majority of Peruvians had a good opinion of Ecuador and Ecuadorians, with whom they traded considerably and were joint members of Mercosur.

In contrast, when no serious efforts are made to engage the societies of the former enemies after the settlement, peace can unravel when governments or government priorities change, as happened with the post-World War I Russo-Turkish peace (the 1921 Treaty of Moscow), which was abrogated in the 1940s. Alternatively, if the signatory governments still have incentives to adhere to the agreement, it will endure as a cold peace without underlying stability, like the two Arab-Israeli peace agreements or the 1978 Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship. In these latter cases, although the basic treaty has held to this point, the relationships continue to experience mutual recriminations and high-level crises, and public attitudes remain hostile to each other decades after the treaties.

The lesson is that there is a logical sequence to peacemaking when it works. If third-party states and international institutions want to promote peace, they must engage governments and encourage a top-down, government-to-government agreement. Only afterward are efforts to engage the rival societies and change attitudes useful.

In other words, contra Ya’alon, focusing on societal attitudes before an agreement amounts to putting the cart before the horse. Moreover, since governments can change policy on a dime, whereas changing societal attitudes occurs far more slowly, requiring attitudinal change before a peace settlement, as Ya’alon advocates, means putting off peacemaking for years, if not decades.

This is not to say that efforts at top-down peacemaking will always be successful. In fact, as I indicate in my book, peacemaking requires favorable conditions — including leadership on both sides that prefers a peace treaty to the status quo and more pressing external threats for one or both rivals. The conditions frankly do not seem right at the moment for successful peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but when it is, it must begin with government-to-government negotiations and efforts at a top-down peace agreement that can be sold to the respective societies later.

Norrin M. Ripsman is the Monroe J. Rathbone Distinguished Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University.