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Young Israelis Need Reason for Hope: Progress on Peace Would Help

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A recent poll published by the Times of Israel has found a striking increase in pessimism about the future in Israel, especially among young people.

Around this time last year, just before the Israeli parliamentary elections, voters aged 18 to 24 were about evenly divided, with 48 percent saying the country was moving in the right direction while 44 percent said it was off on the wrong track. But now, 71 percent in this age group thought the country was off track while only 11 percent said it was moving in the right direction.

"Such a dramatic shift, driven heavily by disillusionment among young men, suggests a deep anger and desire for change that might easily lead to another round of public protests against the government, as was seen in 2011 during Prime Minister Netanyahu's previous term," wrote Times of Israel reporter Stephan Miller in analyzing the poll.

The finding is especially significant because this is the age during which most Israelis do their military service, take some time off to contemplate their future and then begin their studies. In other words, this is precisely the cohort of Israelis thinking most about the future.

Among the population as a whole, the survey also picked up a turn toward pessimism, though not as great. Overall, the proportion of Israelis who thought the country was going off track rose by a significantly insignificant percentage point since last year, from 51 to 52 percent. But the number who thought it was headed in the right direction fell from 35 to 27 percent.

This fall was felt almost across the board politically. Last year, 62 percent of Orthodox voters felt good about the direction of the country. Now, only 28 percent do. Ultra-Orthodox voters, whose political parties were left out of the government after the election for the first time in years, went from 46 percent optimist to only nine percent. Only supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud-Beytenu alliance felt good about the direction of the country.

Of course there may be many reasons for this. If asked, most respondents would probably cite the state of the economy as their main reason for feeling gloomy. But complaints about their pocket books may mask a deeper psychological malaise because while Israel has its economic problems, especially the high cost of housing, which makes it difficult for young people to get a start, its economy is performing pretty well compared to many other countries.

Gross Domestic Product grew by 3.3 percent last year, which will beat the United States as well as emerging economies like India and Brazil. Unemployment last November was 5.5 percent, well below the United States and most of Europe.

If there were one single thing that could make Israelis more positive as they looked ahead, surely it would be the prospect of finally ending the conflict with the Palestinians with a two-state agreement.

As the whole world knows, US Secretary of State John Kerry has made this issue his top priority and he is now working to get Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a framework agreement that would set the parameters of a final peace treaty.

Yet both Netanyahu and Abbas have mostly maintained a tone of determined skepticism and mutual distrust in their public pronouncements that have persuaded many Israelis and Palestinians that there is little hope of success. Perhaps keeping expectations low was their aim -- but there comes a time to move beyond negativity and to prepare the public for the tough decisions both will have to make to achieve peace.

Their pessimism may not be justified. Kerry is tremendously determined and there are signs finally that the Israeli and Palestinian publics are stirring. Earlier this month, hundreds of Israeli pro-peace activists demonstrated at major junctions in favor of a two-state solution and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, leader of Israel's second biggest political bloc in the Knesset, threw his weight behind them.

"We cannot leave the streets in the hands of those who want to thwart any chance of a diplomatic horizon," said Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party helped to organize the protests. Lapid has threatened to quit the Israeli government unless Netanyahu is prepared to make dramatic decisions in the negotiations.

Across the Green Line, the head of the Palestine Stock Exchange Index cited a two-fold surge in the Palestinian stock market over recent months as an indication that investors are betting on Kerry to succeed.

A pessimistic population is not a good recipe either for a nation or for a political leader. Nobody knows that better than Netanyahu, who is Israel's canniest political tactician. If he wants to continue in office, now would be a good time to embrace an inspiring vision of hope - by committing himself to peace and doing whatever it takes to get there.