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Time for U.S. Middle East Peace Plan?

Interviewee: Khalil Shikaki, Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Ramallah
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 10, 2010

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Wednesday in the wake of the deaths of nine people during Israel's response to a Turkish-led aid flotilla attempting to break the Gaza blockade. While Palestinians were heartened by the international uproar against Israel, they have largely felt disillusioned by the lack of progress toward a peace agreement, says Khalil Shikaki, a leading pollster in the region. Shikaki says polls show both Palestinians and Israelis would favor "a greater American intervention in the peace process" than has occurred since Obama took office. "If the United States is to show strong and effective leadership," he says, it would have support from both Palestinians and Israelis, who are looking for a plan "such as proposed at the end of the Clinton administration in 2000 and 2001."

It's been a year since President Obama gave his speech at Cairo University in which he vowed that "America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for . . . a state of their own." Since then, the U.S.-sponsored peace initiative does not seem to have made much progress. Is there great disappointment in the Palestinian world? What do your polls show about attitudes toward the United States these days?

There has been a change. In the aftermath of the Cairo speech, we were able to document that there were "great expectations." Now we have seen some disillusion. The initial expectations were that the administration was serious about a freeze on Israeli settlements, which the president had called for in his Cairo speech. This is the first major disappointment. Once it was clear by the beginning of the year that the president had abandoned that demand, the public was disappointed.

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But there were also other disappointments. We are now years later and there has been absolutely no progress whatsoever in the process of ending the occupation or building a Palestinian state. And some Islamists and traditionalists in Palestinian society also had some expectations that the administration would find a way to begin to talk to Hamas [which controls Gaza Strip and is viewed as a terrorist group by the United States] and to ease the siege and blockade of Gaza. There has been a tremendous disappointment among Hamas supporters, who really wanted to give the president of the United States the benefit of the doubt after his speech in Cairo. They have been disappointed that there haven't really been serious attempts on the part of the administration to engage with Hamas, despite the stated desire by the administration early on to engage with those countries and players in the region with whom the Bush administration was not willing to engage.

There's no love lost between the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank and is led by President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas. The two Palestinian entities cannot get together. Do they even have a dialogue going?

Despite the disappointment and disillusionment among Palestinians, and despite the criticism of Obama and his administration among the Israeli public, both sides realize fully that only a serious engagement on the part of the United States can bring this conflict to an end.

There is some dialogue, but it is going nowhere. Of course, it is mostly Hamas supporters who wanted engagement. A number of supporters of Yasser Arafat [the late head of the Palestine Liberation Organization], including Fatah and Abbas, hoped that U.S. engagement with Hamas would positively affect the chances for Palestinian unification and reconciliation, and that the administration might as a result of such engagement agree to the formation of a national unity government. For most Palestinians, the failure to unite and to reconcile is greatly affected by the positions taken by the United States [which has refused to deal with Hamas].

There are local elections scheduled in the West Bank next month. What can you tell us about them?

Hamas has announced that it will boycott these elections. It is, however, significant that all other factions will participate in the election process. If indeed the Palestinian Authority is able to hold these elections--and there is no reason why it shouldn't--this will be a significant success for Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and President Abbas.

Fayyad has talked about the formation of a Palestinian state if negotiations go nowhere. Is this taken seriously by most Palestinians?

Most Palestinians support the institution-building process that the Fayyad government is undertaking. They support it because it means better performance, particularly in areas like the enforcement of law and order and, hopefully, it can also lead to a better justice system. In Fayyad's view, success in building the institutions would be facts on the ground that would make it more and more difficult for the Israelis to deny that the Palestinians have their own state.

Most Palestinians, however, have doubts that the Fayyad plan can lead to such a development. People distinguish between institution-building on the one hand and rolling back occupation. Most people do not believe that a state can be established merely by building state institutions. For them, there has to be a process that goes along with that, and that process they know as "rolling back occupation."

Palestinians want to see the occupation ending in a parallel process with state-building. And of course, on that front they see zilch, nothing. The public does not see the Palestinians extending their jurisdiction, security and otherwise, to new areas, or even asserting their control in areas that, according to the Oslo agreements, are supposed to be under their control--so-called area A and B. Without Palestinians having more territorial control and more jurisdictional control, particularly in security, the public will have a great deal of doubt about the viability of the Fayyad plan.

What is the reaction in the West Bank to the violence that occurred last week on the Turkish ship? Is this regarded as a major setback to peace efforts?

If the administration would simply compile a list of these positions that the parties have taken, and then outline the remaining gaps and make proposals, that would certainly produce a major input into the process and would make it a lot easier to resolve.

The most important development in terms of how it affected Palestinians in the West Bank is the tremendous respect and admiration for the Turks that we see now in the West Bank and Gaza. The Turks came out the winner in all of this. The public also I believe came to see this as a major failure for Israel at the international level. The international reaction in the eyes of the Palestinians has demonstrated that Israel's siege and blockade of Gaza is no longer serving Israel's interests. And that, if anything, is helping Hamas, and bringing Israel greater international condemnation. This is also significantly helping Hamas because of Hamas' steadfastness in Gaza--the fact that it managed to survive despite four years of blockade and siege. The incident with the Free Gaza flotilla is seen as the beginning of the end of the siege. And the fact that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has been totally absent and out of the picture is an indication that they are becoming more and more irrelevant when it comes to issues related to Gaza. Certainly this is not good news for Fatah, Fayyad, or Abbas.

If there was a universal election among Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, who would come out ahead according to your polling?

The last time we did a survey on that was three months ago. Thursday we actually start a new survey, but three months ago the balance was in favor of Fatah--40 percent or so voting for Fatah, and 30 percent or so voting for Hamas. This was the overall West Bank, Gaza, and included East Jerusalem. I imagine today, Hamas would do better. How much better? We'll see in our next poll.

President Abbas has backed a boycott of goods produced by Israeli settlements. What is the purpose of this boycott?

What I believe the Palestinian Authority hopes to accomplish is to take a stand against settlements, a moral-political stand, but, most importantly, to convince the international community to do the same, particularly Europeans, and prevent the sale of settlements' products in European markets. If that is to happen, this will have a significant effect of the viability of the settlements' economy in the West Bank.

There have been some U.S. critics of the Obama administration who say it's really important for him to make a trip to Israel to reassert his hopes for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Do you think a trip like this, which would have to also include the West Bank, would be helpful?

I don't think trips alone are going to make a difference for Israelis or Palestinians. What Israelis and Palestinians want is a clear policy change. The Israelis of course want it to be pro-Israeli, and the Palestinians want it to be pro-Palestinian. Nonetheless, in surveys we've conducted among both Israelis and Palestinians, we clearly see a trend (PDF) among both publics supporting a greater American intervention in the peace process.

If the United States is to show strong and effective leadership, and propose plans and ideas to resolve the conflict, we will see support for this from both Israelis and Palestinians. Despite the disappointment and disillusionment among Palestinians, and despite the criticism of Obama and his administration among the Israeli public, both sides realize fully that only a serious engagement on the part of the United States can bring this conflict to an end. If the United States is to project effective leadership, then I think we will see both publics supporting it. Our surveys indicate that if the administration says, "These are our ideas and we intend to pursue them vigorously," the two sides will not only support such an American intervention, but some who are opposed to these same ideas might actually change their mind and support them because they would expect that the administration would make sure that both sides fall in line.

So you're in favor a U.S. peace plan? That's what your polling shows?

Among Israelis and Palestinians, it indeed shows that.

What would be the elements of such a peace plan? Clearly, ending settlements would cause a lot of problems for Israelis. There's been talk of trading land, right? In fact, the Palestinians have talked about that for some time now.

What Israelis want, first and foremost, is to end the conflict. What Palestinians want, first and foremost, is to end the occupation. Therefore, in order to be able to meet the requirements of both sides, what that peace plan should be about is a comprehensive package that addresses all issues, including territorial, settlements, refugees, Muslim holy places. A plan that resolves all these issues and thereby brings an end to occupation and end to the conflict, such as proposed at the end of the Clinton administration in 2000 and 2001, would be supported by a majority of Israelis and Palestinians. While such a plan would be along the lines of the Clinton parameters, it doesn't have to be identical.

Did Arafat make a big mistake in not accepting the Clinton plan?

Officially, Arafat never said no to the Clinton parameters, despite the interpretation by some of my American friends who were part of the Clinton administration. Arafat told Clinton that he accepted the parameters, but he had reservations. When then-prime minister Ehud Barak accepted the parameters, he said he too had reservations.

In his book, Dennis Ross, who was Clinton's top Middle East negotiator and now works for Obama, blamed Arafat for the collapse.

I disagree with Dennis' conclusions about what Arafat did or did not do. And I believe that Arafat would have been willing to accept a permanent settlement had the administration been willing to put ideas on the table much earlier than it did.

So here we are again. What do you think is the reason the administration is reluctant to come forth with its own plan?

I think we know the answer: They are afraid of failure. Everyone has seen failure before. They just don't want to get to the point where they put ideas forward that both sides then reject. Or at least one side would reject. Therefore the administration, instead of saying, "We're not going to do it," should begin a process of consultation where this peace plan would emerge from that process, rather than being seen as an attempt to impose American ideas. The administration should start by outlining what Israeli and Palestinian governments and leaderships have said they would accept. The administration has received very advanced positions from both sides. If the administration would simply compile a list of these positions, and then outline the remaining gaps and make proposals, that would certainly produce a major input into the process and would make it a lot easier to resolve.

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