Can the Center Hold?

Understanding Israel’s Pragmatic Majority

A majority of Israelis -- around 70 percent, according to a recent poll by the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, in Jerusalem -- support a two-state solution. Yet that same majority is deeply skeptical of Palestinian intentions. To understand this seeming contradiction and the psyche of the Israeli mainstream, one should read the two articles that recently appeared in these pages on the Palestinian question -- "The Problem Is Palestinian Rejectionism," by Yosef Kuperwasser and Shalom Lipner, and "Israel's Bunker Mentality," by Ronald Krebs (November/December 2011) -- not as a debate but as complementary arguments. Centrist Israelis endorse Krebs' argument that the occupation is an existential threat to the Jewish state. They understand that ending it would ease the demographic challenge to Israel's Jewish majority and allow Israel to retain both its Jewish and its democratic identities. A two-state solution would also deflate the growing international movement to delegitimize not only the occupation but also the existence of Israel itself.

Yet centrist Israelis also embrace the contention made by Kuperwasser and Lipner: that the Palestinian national movement, from Hamas to the Palestinian Authority, rejects Jewish sovereignty over any part of the land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Centrist Israelis see PA President Mahmoud Abbas as merely a tactical moderate who opposes terrorism only because it has harmed the Palestinian cause. They base their suspicions on speeches such as his address to the UN General Assembly last September, when Abbas condemned "63 years" of Israeli occupation -- implicating the founding of Israel in 1948, not just the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, which began in 1967. For centrists, the greatest obstacle to peace is the demand of Palestinian leaders, including Abbas, for the right of return of descendants of Palestinian refugees not just to a Palestinian state but also to Israel proper. These Israelis see Abbas' insistence on this right as proof that the Palestinian leader seeks to destabilize Israel from within and does not accept the right of the Jewish people to their own sovereign nation.

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