Disillusioned with diplomacy |

Poll Highlights Palestinians' Mistrust of Kerry, Netanyahu and Even Abbas

Palestinians appear to be more interested in Egypt's revolution and Arab Idol than efforts to kick-start peace talks with Israel.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

They’re opposed, but don’t really care − that, in essence, is the Palestinian stance on resuming negotiations with Israel along the lines proposed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But it seems Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cares more about upsetting America than he does about the public’s views. Thus, according to PLO sources, he is leaning toward restarting talks on different terms than he originally demanded.

The Egyptian revolution − and before that, “Arab Idol” winner Mohammed Assaf − interests the Palestinian public much more than Kerry’s trips. But when asked if they favor restarting talks with Israel, they say no. Both the lack of interest and the opposition stem from the same sources. One is the conviction that Israel’s government is seeking a Palestinian capitulation, so the talks are bound to fail. The other is lack of faith in the Palestinian leadership, which is viewed as weaker and more hapless than ever.

The general impression of widespread opposition to negotiations was bolstered by a poll conducted in mid-June by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and published this week. It found that 56 percent of Palestinians oppose the presumed Kerry plan − talks without preconditions focusing on borders and security and a “Marshall Plan” for the PA economy − while only 38 percent support it.

The center’s director, Dr. Khalil Shikaki, said that 54 percent of Palestinians still support Fatah’s program − a state in the 1967 lines alongside Israel. But most think the chances of realizing it are infinitesimal. Yet this lack of hope hasn’t made the one-state solution more attractive: Only 30 percent support that, while 69 percent oppose it.

‘Talks on Israeli terms’

A feminist activist in a women’s organization affiliated to the PLO said her opposition to Kerry’s efforts, like that of most people she knows, stems in part from the fact that the proposal to resume talks “is based on the Israeli discourse and stems from Israel’s hegemony. The definitions of ‘security,’ ‘violence,’ ‘state’ and ‘terror’ are from the Israeli standpoint. The ‘security’ is always for Israelis and Israel, the violence and terror are by Palestinians against Israelis, and Israel is the state we are required to recognize, even thoughit hasn’t set its borders. Yet even as they pressure us to resume talks with Israel, attacks by settlers and the army on West Bank residents are only growing.

“These developments, from which the PA’s [security] services don’t protect us, have weakened the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas even further in our eyes. What kind of serious negotiations can he conduct in such a weakened condition?”

The PA’s inability to protect its citizens from settler attacks comes up frequently in conversations. Maybe that’s why the group most opposed to restarting talks is Palestinian farmers: 74 percent object.

Hani Masri, head of the Ramallah-based think tank Masarat, also stressed the Palestinians’ weakness. This doesn’t stem only from the Hamas-Fatah rift, but also from disagreements within the PA and Abbas’ Fatah party, he said. Combined with the socioeconomic distress, this has destroyed the Palestinian public’s faith in its leaders and their ability to improve the situation. “The Palestinian leadership has no national leaders of stature like it once did,” said Masri.

Moreover, he said, “Our leadership is giving conflicting information: On one hand, it says there have been no negotiations, on the other, it admits that over the last two years, there were dozens of secret meetings between the sides, in which no progress was made. Different spokesmen say contradictory things about the [PA’s] intention to waive its conditions and resume talks. That adds to the lack of confidence.”

Options for strengthening the Palestinian position − popular struggle, joining more UN agencies or Fatah-Hamas reconciliation − were adopted by the PA only as temporary tactics to bring about new talks and extend its time in power, not as serious strategies, Masri charged.

A young activist in a group that is seeking to change the Palestinian strategy added, “We’re against any process that’s called a peace process, not just against resuming negotiations. Negotiations give Israel a fig leaf to continue its process of colonization. Because of the talk of negotiations, Palestinian moves in the UN and the reconciliation with Hamas were halted ... Talk of negotiations also halted European steps against the settlements.”

Yet Shikaki’s poll found that young people don’t oppose talks in greater numbers than others. In fact, 43 percent of those age 18-28 support resuming talks, while 51 percent are opposed; that compares to only 30 percent in favor and 64 opposed among people 50 and over.

PLO leadership opposes talks

A senior PLO official said that if the proposal were brought to the PLO executive committee, only six of the 18 members would support resuming talks. The implication is that only Fatah members would support it, out of loyalty to Abbas. The young activist was more blunt: Resuming talks would serve Abbas’ political survival.

Masri suggested talks are supported mainly by the upper middle class and the nouveau riche, people whose wealth depends on the PA and its international donors. But the survey shows that 66 percent of merchants and people earning more than NIS 4,800 a month oppose talks, while among laborers and people with lower incomes, just over 50 percent are opposed. It seems they can less afford instability and uncertainty, and hope Kerry’s economic package will improve their lot.

Looking at the slaughter in Syria and the poverty and instability in Egypt, some Palestinians “have already started saying our situation is better,” Masri admitted.

A PLO source said that if Abbas wants to explain why he favors restarting negotiations, he should say that talk of a popular struggle is all very well, but the public has thus far shown no willingness for mass demonstrations and confrontations with the army. Moreover, even countries supportive of the Palestinians don’t dare demand that America pressure Israel, while the Arab states are busy with their own problems.

But this source also noted that anyone who thinks the two-state option is dead would prefer not to rock the boat now, to allow time for other options to gain acceptance, and for a new leadership with a new agenda to arise.

That may be why young Palestinians opposed to the PA aren’t demonstrating against the resumption of talks. “Why demonstrate against something predestined to fail?” said the young activist. “We have other priorities.”

Palestinians ride a motorcycle past a mural depicting the Dome of the Rock on a street in Gaza City, June 23, 2013. Credit: Reuters