Jerusalem — Uria Nachmias wishes Israelis and Palestinians could get along as well as his dog, part bulldog, part something else, and the two-week-old kitten he just adopted.
Standing in a Jerusalem pet store as his large dog gently nuzzled the motherless black and white fur ball, Nachmias, a 25-year-old chef, expressed deep pessimism for President Barack Obama’s peace initiative.
“We’ve seen it all before and the result wasn’t peace, and it’s the same now,” Nachmias said. “The two sides don’t know how to talk to each other.”
Obama’s quiet optimism over the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace didn’t play well in the place where it is all supposed to come together. Hardened by war and exhausted by conflict, most Israelis and Palestinians reacted to the president’s speeches with varying shades of skepticism.
“People are pessimistic but still want to pursue the [negotiating] process,” Mina Tzemach, director of the Dahaf polling institute, told The Jewish Week. “If there is an agreement and a referendum, a majority of Israelis will support it. But most don’t think there will be an agreement.”
Dahaf’s latest poll reflects this hope for peace and the belief that peace is unattainable.
In the poll, taken immediately after Obama declared Israel’s pre-1967 borders, with agreed upon land swaps, as the starting point for renewed negotiations, 52 percent of respondents said they would favor the creation of a more flexible national unity government “to end the political stalemate.” Forty-three percent opposed new elections.
On a far less positive note, three-quarters of those polled said the new alliance between Fatah and Hamas has “decreased the hope for peace,” while 70 percent supported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s blunt “confrontation” over the ’67 borders during the White House press conference following Obama’s State Department speech last week.
Netanyahu’s reaction has been severely criticized by the 30 percent who viewed his remarks as grandstanding.
In a scathing op-ed, Aluf Benn, a reporter for the left-leaning Ha’aretz, said Netanyahu came to the White House “to lecture” the U.S president “on 4,000 years of persecution, expulsions, pogroms and the murder of millions.”
Netanyahu “probably imagine[d] himself as a modern-day Moses or Herzl,” Benn said with ridicule.
While right wingers and many moderates were predictably upset by the ’67 borders comment, even some on Israel’s political left were taken aback by the president’s assertions, despite the reference to negotiated land swaps.
In an op-ed that appeared next to Benn’s, Ari Shavit a senior correspondent for Ha’aretz and a member of its editorial board, said Obama’s speech was “bad for Middle East peace.”
“Instead of presenting the 1967 borders as the end of the process, Obama made them the start,” Shavit wrote. “Without intending any harm, Obama presented Israel with a suicidal proposition.”
The proposal, Shavit predicted, “will result in certain conflict in Jerusalem and in the inundation of Israel with refugees. It’s a proposition that spells an end to peace and end to stability and an end to the State of Israel.”
Hagit Ofran, settlement watch project director for Peace Now, couldn’t disagree more.
Obama’s proposition “is the only way for Israel to survive,” Ofran said in an interview. “It’s something that is already a consensus issue in Israel.”
Ofran said Obama’s speeches contained nothing new.
“Israel,” she said, has already used this formula during negotiations with the Palestinians. That the American administration is suddenly taking it seriously isn’t a threat to Israel; it’s an opportunity.”
But not much of one for Shmuel Ben-Hamou, who owns a sporting goods store in a popular Jerusalem mall.
“I’m not optimistic about restarting the peace process,” said Ben-Hamou, 42. “We left Gaza and we were rewarded with Kassams. What would happen if we gave them the West Bank, which is right around the corner from Jerusalem?”
Yet Menashe Assor, a former Brooklynite who now lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, is rooting for peace negotiations to resume.
“I think the occupation has gone on too long, and I’d be among the first to leave the settlements if there was a true and lasting peace,” the 29-year-old law student said, clearly frustrated by the political stalemate.
“At the same time, I don’t discount Israel’s legitimate security needs,” Assor, one of the few settlers willing to criticize “Israel’s occupation,” added as he manned a booth selling items whose proceeds will assist Israeli soldiers.
Like Assor, Ami Cohen, a 50-year-old Tel Avivian, believes the status quo is untenable, and is hoping the American administration can build some momentum.
Obama’s vision “is the best opportunity we have. We have to try,” Cohen said.
On a colorful side street in the Old City of Jerusalem leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Cohen, who sells merchandise to Old City vendors, was having a loud but good-natured conversation with some of his Palestinian clients.
“I’m ready to give away all the settlements,” Cohen told the skeptical Arab merchants.
Adnan, a 66-year-old Palestinian whose family was uprooted from West Jerusalem decades ago, said an end to settlements are not the only Palestinian demand the Israelis will have to fulfill to achieve a lasting peace. He wants the right of return for Palestinians — and one state called Palestine “where all Muslims, Jews and Christians will live.”
Standing outside his Christian souvenir shop, Adnan, who declined to provide his last name, questioned the necessity for two nations.
“Can we divide the U.S. into two states, into north and south?” he asked with sincerity. “I want one state where my sister, who was born in Jerusalem but who moved to Jordan and is being denied her right to return by Israel, will be able to live.”
“If everyone wants the whole cake, no one will get any,” Cohen asserted. “If we had just one state, it would take just 15 to 20 years till the Jews were forced out, like the Christians in Nazareth. And what about the Jewish refugees from Arab countries?” Cohen, a Sephardic Jew, asked Adnan.
Overhearing the noisy conversation from his little Christian gift shop down the alleyway, a 75-year-old Old City resident who gave his name as Ibrahim, said he trusts neither politicians nor the media.
“I’m a refugee. Other people live in my home. Will the American president or [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas or Netanyahu return it to me? What’s new in all this? Tell me. Nothing!”
But he acknowledged that both sides have been unwilling to budge. “This country will never see peace,” he said. “Never.”