Soon after coming to power, Ariel Sharon started to commission public opinion polls. He kept the results to himself. This week, a reporter of Israel's TV Channel 10 succeeded in obtaining some of them.
Among other things, Sharon wanted to know what the public thought about peace. He did not dream of starting on this road himself, but he felt it important to be informed about the trends.
In these polls, the public was presented with a question that came close to the final Clinton Proposal and the Geneva Initiative: Are you for a peace that would include a Palestinian state, withdrawal from almost all occupied territories, giving up the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and dismantling most settlements?
The results were very instructive. In 2002, 73% (seventy three percent!) supported this solution. In the next two years, support declined, but it was still accepted by the majority. In 2005 the percentage of supporters slipped under the 50% line.
What had changed in these years?
The TV presenter painted in the context: in 2002 the second intifada had reached its climax. There were frequent attacks in Israeli cities, people were being killed. The majority in Israel preferred to pay the price of peace than to suffer the bloodshed.
Later, the intifada declined, together with the Israeli public's readiness for compromise. In 2005, Sharon carried out the "unilateral separation". It seemed to many Israelis that they could manage without an agreement with the Palestinians. The readiness for peace dropped below the half mark.
A popular Israeli saying has it that "The Arabs understand only the language of force." This poll may confirm what many Palestinians think: that it is the Israelis themselves who don't understand any other language.
Both versions are true, of course.
I have often said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a clash between an irresistible force and an immovable object. A clash is a matter of force.
The present lamentable state of the Palestinians, with half of them living under occupation and the other half as refugees, is a direct result of the Palestinian defeat in the 1948 war. The first part of that war, from December 1947 to May 1948, was a clash between the Palestinian people and the Hebrew community (the "yishuv"). It resulted in a resounding defeat for the Palestinians. (When the armies of the neighboring Arab states then entered the fray, the Palestinians became irrelevant to the struggle.)
That was a military defeat, of course, but its roots extended far beyond the narrow military field. It followed from the lack of cohesion of Palestinian society at the time, its failure to set up a functioning leadership and a unified military command, to mobilize and concentrate its forces. Every region fought alone, without coordination with the next one. Abd-al-Kader Husseini in the Jerusalem area fought independently of Fawzy al-Kaukji in the North. The yishuv, in contradistinction, was unified and strictly organized, and therefore won - in spite of the fact that in numbers it was hardly equal to half the Palestinian population.
Hamas leaders mock Mahmoud Abbas and his supporters in Ramallah for expecting an Israeli withdrawal without armed struggle.
They point out that even the Oslo agreement (to which they object) was achieved only after six years of the first intifada, which convinced Yitzhak Rabin that no military solution was possible.
They aver that Ehud Barak left South Lebanon in 2000 only after the resounding success of the Shiite guerillas
Their conclusion: even a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders will not come into being unless the "Palestinian resistance" inflicts on the Israelis sufficient casualties and damage to convince them that it is in their interest to withdraw from the occupied territories.
The Israelis, they say, will not give up one square inch without being compelled to do so. Sharon's poll may well reinforce them in that belief.
The people around Abbas respond by mocking Hamas for believing that they can win against Israel by force of arms.
They point to the immense superiority of Israeli forces. According to them, all the violent actions of the Palestinians have only provided Israel with a pretext to reinforce the occupation, steal more land and increase the misery of the occupied population.
And indeed, the personal situation of the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is now incomparably worse that it was on the eve of the first intifada, when they could reach any place in the country, work in all Israeli towns, bathe on the Tel-Aviv sea-shore and fly from Ben-Gurion airport.
Both views contain much truth. Yasser Arafat understood this. That's why he did everything to keep the Palestinians united at any cost, encourage the Israeli peace forces and gather international support, without giving up the deterrence of the "armed struggle". He succeeded in this up to a point, and as a result was removed.
Palestinians who worry about the fate of their people are asking themselves where all this is leading to.
Their situation has reached its lowest point in over 20 years. They are politically almost isolated throughout the world. Israeli public opinion has become indifferent and united around the mendacious mantra: "We have no partner". In the peace camp, many are dispirited. And, most importantly, the Palestinian national movement has split into two factions, and it seems that the hatred between them is growing from day to day.
Splits are not uncommon in national liberation movements. Actually, there has hardly been one liberation movement that did not undergo such a crisis. But a situation where two warring factions control two different territories, both under foreign occupation, is almost unknown.
It may be interesting to compare this situation with that of our own underground organizations before the foundation of the State of Israel.
There is some similarity (not ideological, of course): Fatah is a little bit like the large Haganah organization that was controlled by the official Zionist leadership; Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which reject the PLO leadership, are like the Irgun and Stern group. Fatah's al-Aqsa Battalions can be compared to the Palmach, the regular fighting force of the Haganah.
Between these Hebrew organizations, a burning hatred developed. Haganah members considered the Irgunists as fascists, the Irgun fighters considered the Haganah men as collaborators with the British occupation authorities. The national leadership called the Irgun and Stern group "secessionists", the official Irgun designation for the Haganah was "shits".
Matters reached a climax in the "saison" (hunting season), when the Haganah abducted Irgun members and turned them over to the British police, who interrogated them under torture and then deported them to internment camps in Africa. But there was also a short period when all three organizations coordinated their actions under the umbrella of the "Hebrew Rebellion Movement".
Israeli politicians like to recall the Altalena incident, when Ben-Gurion gave the order to shell an Irgun ship loaded with arms off the shore of Tel-Aviv. (Menachem Begin, who had come on deck, was narrowly saved when his men shoved him into the water). Why doesn't Abbas dare to do the same to Hamas?
This question ignores a salient point: Ben-Gurion used the "sacred cannon" (as he called it) only after the State of Israel had already come into being. That makes all the difference.
The bitter hatred between the Haganah and the Irgun, and to some extent also between the Irgun and the Stern group, simmered down only gradually, during the first years of the State of Israel. Nowadays streets in Tel-Aviv are named after the commanders of all three organizations.
More importantly: historians now tend to view the struggle of all three as a single campaign, as if it had been coordinated. The "terrorist" actions of the Irgun and the Stern group complemented the illegal immigration campaign of the Haganah. The growing popularity of the Irgun and the Stern Group convinced the British that they should reach a modus vivendi with the official Zionist leadership, lest the "extremists" take over the entire Hebrew community.
This analogy has, of course, its limitations. Ben-Gurion was a strong and authoritative leader, like Arafat, while the position of Abbas is much weaker. Menachem Begin was resolved to prevent a fratricidal war at any cost, even when his men where abducted and turned over to the British. I don't believe the Hamas leaders would react like this in a similar situation. Unlike the Irgun and its supporting political party, Hamas has won the majority in democratic elections.
But it is possible that in the future, after the state of Palestine comes into being, historians will say that Fatah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad really complemented each other. President Bush is pressuring Ehud Olmert into making concessions to Mahmoud Abbas, in order to prevent the complete takeover of the West Bank by Hamas. Perhaps it is precisely the turning of Gaza into Hamastan that will enable Abbas to utilize his weakness to achieve things that he could not get any other way.
Anyway, in order to accommodate President Bush's request, Olmert is now ready to cooperate with Abbas in writing something like a "framework agreement" that will lay down the principles of an agreement that may be achieved later on - but without details or a time-table.
According to the leaks, the agreement will repeat more or less Ehud Barak's proposals at Camp David, including some of the bizarre ones, such as Israeli sovereignty "beneath" the Temple Mount. The Palestinian state will have "temporary" borders, with the "permanent" borders to be fixed some time in the future. Olmert demands that the Separation Wall will serve as the "temporary" border. This, by the way, confirms what we have been saying from the very first moment, and what was violently denied even before the Supreme Court: that the path of the Wall does not reflect security considerations, but was designed to annex 8% of the West Bank to Israel. In this area, the "settlement blocs" were set up, those that President Bush has generously promised to attach to Israel.
The whole exercise is very dangerous for the Palestinians. True, if such a document is indeed completed, it will officially fix the minimum that the Israeli government is ready to give, but it can be interpreted as setting down the maximum that the Palestinians will be allowed to demand. In political life, not much is more permanent than the "temporary".
It is also dangerous for the Israelis. It may encourage the illusion that such a "solution" would put an end to the conflict. In fact, no Palestinian will see this as a real solution, and the conflict will go on.
How will public opinion treat this plan? Olmert is certainly commissioning polls to find out. We don't know the results. Like Sharon, he keeps his polls secret.
Uri Avnery, an Israeli writer and peace activist, founded the Gush Shalom movement. He had served three terms as an MP at the Knesset. This article was published by Gush Shalom.