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Israelis Dare to Hope for Peace

Times Staff Writer

As this predominantly Jewish nation celebrates its Independence Day today, hope along with a large dose of skepticism permeates the air here.

A week after the unveiling of the U.S.-backed “road map” for a final peace between Israelis and Palestinians, there is a fragile sense that this time, just maybe, events have aligned to create circumstances conducive to a resolution of the conflict.

Most dramatic is the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, which removed one of Israel’s staunchest enemies and has given the Israeli government more flexibility in its security strategy. Also, a new Palestinian leader has arrived on the scene, Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, a man many believe is willing to jettison armed struggle in favor of a political settlement.

Not so sudden but no less important, experts say, is the entrenched support among Israelis for a separate Palestinian state -- not necessarily out of a sense of moral obligation or charity but from a hard-eyed judgment that it offers the only way out of the fighting, which has claimed more than 2,000 Palestinian and 700 Israeli lives in the last 31 months.

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A decade ago, the idea of carving out a separate Palestinian state was the mantra of Israeli leftists but anathema to most other Israeli Jews. Now, it is firmly part of the political mainstream, according to analysts and pollsters.

“Ten years ago, I’d have said, ‘Who are they that we give them a state?’ Now I say, ‘This is the reality,’ ” declared Eran Levy, a restaurateur in downtown Jerusalem. Levy, 34, puts himself on the right of the political spectrum, but if a two-state solution will “stop the mess here,” he said, then so be it.

Palestinian statehood is the final destination on the road map, an initiative sponsored by the U.S. and other international parties. The document envisions an immediate end to violence, an Israeli pullback from parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and a state as early as 2005.

“The reason why you see today much greater support from the center of the political map for the concept of separation is really due to the fact that, for better or worse, the last 2 1/2 years have created deep pessimism here about the ability to coexist peacefully,” said Shai Feldman, who heads the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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A popular analogy here for the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is one of marriage and divorce. The time is ripe for the latter, many Israelis say.

“Some Israelis hoped that instead of making war, we would be making love with the Arabs,” said Akiva Eldar, a columnist with the newspaper Haaretz. “Now they see that even with Egypt and Jordan,” two Arab nations with which Israel has signed peace agreements, “it’s not a love relationship.”

“Now it’s live and let live” with the Palestinians, Eldar said, “not love and let love.”

Indeed, many average Israelis, like 68-year-old Ruth Schor, say they now believe Israel will have to make territorial concessions to achieve a lasting peace.

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Not long ago, Schor said, she would never have countenanced the idea of Palestinian independence, not after everything Israel had been through to stay alive among neighbors that would destroy the country. But the strife and bloodshed of two intifadas have changed her mind.

“There should be a Palestinian state,” said Schor, a longtime voter for the hawkish Likud Party, which has steadfastly opposed the idea. “They need their own state, and I don’t think we should have to live together with so many Arabs.”

Analysts trace the shift in public opinion in support of Palestinian statehood back to the Oslo peace process of the 1990s, when a resolution to the crisis seemed tantalizingly within reach. Talks between Israel and the Palestinians led to agreement that there ought to be a separate Palestinian homeland, carved largely out of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Ultimately, the 1993 Oslo accord fell apart, leaving both sides embittered and disillusioned. But the concept of a separate Palestinian state had crept from the political fringe toward the center and stayed lodged there.

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“If we go back before the beginning of Oslo, let’s say ’91 or so, there was not a majority in favor” of giving Palestinians their own state, said Ephraim Yaar of the Tami Steinmetz Institute for Peace at Tel Aviv University. “In this respect, you can say the Israeli public has shifted toward the left.”

Yaar co-directs a monthly poll examining peace issues. In his most recent survey, which was conducted last week and is to be published Thursday, 60% of respondents said they favored the creation of a Palestinian state, while 36% were opposed. (The rest did not answer.)

Yet the resounding reelection of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in January reflected a curious dichotomy in the public psyche, Yaar said. Although a majority of Israelis have now adopted one of the key elements of the leftist agenda, they apparently want a strong right-wing government to bring it about.

Yaar’s poll found that 64% of Israelis back the new road map. The Israeli government has expressed reservations about the plan -- Sharon is likely to discuss his misgivings with President Bush in a meeting this month -- while Palestinian officials have welcomed it.

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The challenge for negotiators will lie in the details. The road map leaves undecided some of the thorniest issues dividing the two sides, such as whether to turn over East Jerusalem to Palestinians to serve as their capital and whether to allow Palestinian refugees to return to lands they fled or were ejected from at the time of Israel’s creation. Those issues would be decided in the last phase of the plan, in 2005.

Eldar said the Israeli public would probably be prepared to accept some sort of compromise.

“They just need to be convinced that it’s a good deal,” he said. “What Israelis hate most is to find out that they were suckers.”

As she was out enjoying the hot sun earlier this week, Aviva Amit, a Tel Aviv resident in her 30s, stopped to reflect on the conflict, which Israelis euphemistically call the matzav, or “situation.”

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“Something has to give,” said Amit. “Of course, there should be two states. Everybody knows that. And if the road map doesn’t succeed, something else will, because human beings cannot keep on living this way. Not us and not them.”


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