A Debate over Second-best Options

June 12, 1995|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris -- There is a slim beam of light in the dark skies over Israel, affording some optimism about accord between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israel government has suddenly agreed to a quick handover of all civilian powers to an elected Palestinian government on the West Bank.

This is a big change in Israel's policy, and suggests that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his government realize that the slack pace and plodding concessions of recent negotiations jeopardize the great opportunity Israel now possesses to rid itself of the country's destructive and demoralizing struggle with the displaced Palestinians.

The move clearly seems influenced by the explosive split that has just taken place in the opposition Likud party, between its members of North African and Mid-Eastern Sephardic origins and its European membership. The present Labor government is a good deal more likely to survive next year's national elections if this Likud division holds. Now is a moment when Mr. Rabin can move on the Palestinian issue.

What do people in Israel want -- Israelis and Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza? The results of a new opinion poll on the future of Jerusalem have just been published, conducted between May 22 and 28 by Gallup Israel and by the Data Research Center in Bethlehem for the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information.

It shows less intransigence on both sides than often assumed. It shows that both sides overestimate the intransigence of the other side. It also shows that both sides recognize that their own first-choice solutions for Jerusalem are overwhelmingly unacceptable o the other side, hence unrealizable options (effectively, non-options).

This means that while Israelis would much prefer an undivided Jerusalem under their own sovereignty, a sizable part of Jewish opinion is ready to consider alternative solutions. Palestinians recognize that they are not going to get back the parts of Jerusalem they lost in 1967, the solution they naturally would like best.

Their second choice is that Jerusalem be partitioned, with Israeli sovereignty over Jewish neighborhoods in East and West Jerusalem and exclusive Palestinian sovereignty over Palestinian neighborhoods.

They like that solution marginally better than a solution by which Jerusalem would remain undivided, under joint Israel-Palestine sovereignty, as the capital of both states, with its municipal affairs directed by neighborhood councils.

The poll figures show that those Palestinians favorably disposed to partition and separate sovereignties -- preferring it to ''a very large extent,'' ''a large extent,'' or ''moderately'' supporting it -- add up to 46.6 percent of the total polled, with 61.5 percent of West Bank Palestinians expressing some degree of favor for this solution. Only 19.3 percent of the Palestinians in Gaza support it.

Approval for the shared-sovereignty, shared capital, neighborhood-government solution totals 46 percent, with support among Palestinians on the West Bank nearly 58 percent, and 24 percent in Gaza.

Among Israelis, ''very large,'' ''large,'' and ''moderate'' support for undivided Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem totals 76 percent. However only 15 percent believe that the Palestinians would accept this. In fact, only 9.2 percent of the Palestinians say they would do so.

Forty-four percent of the Israelis polled support the idea of split sovereignty over a divided city. Fifty-one percent think Palestinians would accept this (and more than 46 percent say they would). The Palestinians think only 39.4 percent of the Jewish population would accept split sovereignty, a significant underestimation.

Only 13 percent of the Israelis polled like the idea of shared sovereignty, a shared capital, and neighborhood government for the city. They think 54 percent of the Arabs would favor this. Only 46 percent actually do; but 23.8 percent of the Arabs think the Israelis would accept such a solution, a large overestimation.

The most significant finding is that while 67 percent of the Palestinians would like to go back to the pre-1967 borders, only 15.4 percent think there is any chance the Israelis would accept this (only 10 percent of the Israelis would), and while over three-quarters of Israelis would like to keep total sovereignty over all the city, only 15 percent think this acceptable to the Palestinians (the actual figure is 9.2 percent).

Both sides, incidentally, overwhelmingly reject the idea of an internationalized city under the U.N., as the Security Council called for in 1947.

All of this indicates flexibility and realism on both sides. People recognize that they cannot get the solutions they most want, and understand that second-best is all they are going to get. This, for both Israelis and Palestinians, would be a city divided into Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods, under divided sovereignty.

Thus the argument really is over second choices, and among the two apparently available second choices the partition option has support in both camps that approaches 50 percent, with a difference of less than 3 percent separating Israelis from Palestinians.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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