A Palestinian Turnaround?

A recent poll shows a change in Palestinian public opinion, with a new interest in compromise with Israel. But this doesn't mean an end to violence

Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar
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Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar

Prof. Khalil Shikaki had a double reason to celebrate the victory of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). First of all, like the new president, the pollster from Ramallah is among those who do not believe that violence advances Palestinian interests. Secondly, the forecast by his modest Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research could make the greatest pollsters - from Washington to Tel Aviv - turn green with envy. Shikaki predicted the results at a level of accuracy of one-tenth of 1 percent. However, he warns that it is too early to start opening the Champagne. Sixty-two percent support for Abu Mazen, says Shikaki, does not in any way reflect 62 percent support for stopping the intifada.

"The public continues to be split in its attitude toward violence. Many of those who voted for Abu Mazen did so even though they do not reject the use of force. They voted for the whole package that the man presented to the public, which includes reforms in the regime, the elimination of corruption and a challenge to [Yasser] Arafat's style," says Shikaki. According to him, to conclude from this that Abu Mazen's victory promises quieter days for Sderot is off the mark.

In Washington and in London, Shikaki's findings and his assessments of the situation have long been a key tool for understanding the mood in the territories. He is frequently invited to present them to senior American and European officials. Somewhat belatedly, the Shin Bet security service and Military Intelligence have also abandoned their skeptical attitude toward his surveys and analyses. Even back when Arafat was still alive and kicking, Shikaki repeatedly said that beneath the harsh manifestations of violence, there is constant movement in the dovish direction. Despite the militarization and the increasing support for the Hamas, contends Shikaki, support for compromise is growing.

"The public has concluded that there is no alternative to life together," he explains. "The support for the organizations that are promising vengeance is emotional support that derives from the suffering and the humiliation."

In a symposium moderated by Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal, co-editor of The Palestine-Israel Journal, with the participation of pollsters/professors Mina Zemach and Yaakov Shamir (it will be published in the forthcoming issue of the journal), Shikaki reported on the turnaround in Palestinian public opinion. There was a decline in support for the Islamic organizations, especially in the Gaza Strip, and an increase in the popularity of Fatah (Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza: from 38 percent in September 2004 to 24 percent in December; during that same period, Fatah surged ahead in all the territories from 29 percent to 40 percent).

For the first time in four years, his surveys have found a readiness for conciliation with Israel, optimism and a more positive approach to issues connected to the peace process. "We are now seeing things that seemed unthinkable six months ago," says the Shikaki, "in terms of how the public perceives issues of negotiations with Israel, the Israeli leadership and the willingness of the Israeli leadership to accept or to be a partner to the Palestinians."

Shikaki attributes this dramatic change, which he calls a "new reality," primarily to Arafat's death and to a lesser extent, Abu Mazen's resurrection.

At the same time, and despite this, Shikaki has found that in the territories there has been no change with respect to the place of violence. According to him, the Palestinians believe that the intifada has played a crucial role in the struggle to achieve their national rights, and that Arafat's death has created an opportunity to translate the achievements of the armed struggle into a peace agreement. Most of the sample said that the intifada has harmed the Palestinians, yet nevertheless two-thirds of the participants in the survey marked "Yes" next to the question "Has the intifada been effective?"

Shikaki explains the contradiction by saying that when people are severely distressed, the definition of "victory" relates to the degree of pain that they succeed in inflicting on the opponent. Shikaki says he assumes that this also applies to the Israeli street.

In his assessment of the situation, which is also accepted by a number of intelligence organizations in Israel, Abu Mazen will be in no hurry to put the new trend to the ultimate test - disarming the militias and arresting resisters. He will not give up on efforts to achieve a cease-fire agreement with the Islamic organizations and will put off the direct confrontation with them until the elections for the Legislative Council take place in July. Until then, he will ride the waves both of international consensus and support and of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's interest in getting safely out of Gaza and staying in power.

Hamas, more disturbed by the rising popularity of democracy than by the curve of support for Abu Mazen - which could prove a transient phenomenon - has found a circuitous way of justifying the contradiction between its opposition to Oslo and its participation in the elections for the Legislative Council. In any case, before Abu Mazen reaches for his pistol, he will extend his hand to Hamas and offer it a slice of the political cake.

In a phone conversation from his office in Ramallah, Shikaki says that Israel's behavior in the coming months will have a crucial influence on the size of the slice that Hamas will get. He expects that the organization will win 20 to 30 percent of the votes. According to him, an improvement in the atmosphere on the street and the extent of the support that Israel gives Abu Mazen will push the Hamas down to the bottom decile. Shikaki warned that if the hopes for Abu Mazen's government give way to disappointment, as happened during his tenure as prime minister, the implications will be devastating.

A hint of the danger can be found in the Palestinian population's suspicious attitude toward the disengagement plan. No more than one-third of them support Israel's unilateral move, while the vast majority prefers an agreed solution. Two-thirds see the disengagement as a victory for the armed struggle, but many fear that the place of Israel Defense Forces units in Gaza will be taken by street gangs.

The survey found that like the Israeli peace camp, when it comes to the morning after the disengagement, the Palestinians too believe Ariel Sharon. They remember the prime minister's declaration that the road map will have to wait, and the promise of his advisor, Dov Weisglass, to put them in formaldehyde. Possibly this is the explanation for the fact that Abu Mazen and his people are keeping secret their contacts with Israeli security elements for the coordination of the disengagement. Abu Mazen keeps promising his associates that he has learned a lesson from the Oslo agreement, and that he will not lend a hand to any more interim agreements.

Abu Mazen is different in style from Arafat, but the last programmatic speech that the late chairman gave before the Legislative Council on May 18 has become a kind of last will and testament. Because of the sense of impotence and the loss of faith in Arafat, his last speeches did not win much attention. Thus it happened that the most moderate speech he gave in recent years has gained attention after his death. After heavy pressure from the Egyptians and the Europeans, Arafat committed himself then to the Legislative Council to carry out the reforms in the regime and especially to unify the security organizations. He did not mention the right of return and stood by the Arab peace initiative of March 2002, which proposes an agreed solution (with Israel) to the refugee problem on the basis of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194.

"Abu Mazen is focusing on Arafat's bright side," says an intelligence analyst who has been closely following the new president's moves. "We have got Arafat in Abu Mazen's clothes." Abu Mazen got what he wanted from the Palestinian public - popular support for another attempt to reach a peace agreement with Israel on a Palestinian state within the June 4, 1967, borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, egalitarian border adjustments and a solution to the refugee problem that will be focused within the borders of the new state. The Palestinian public has given him a mandate to do it his way. In the meantime.

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