Khalil Shikaki, director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, says recent developments have left the Palestinian public optimistic about peace and opposed to terror.
The negotiation of a Palestinian-Israeli cease-fire and the election of a new Palestinian leadership receive high marks. Palestinians are “optimistic about the cease-fire. They’re optimistic about the ability to reach agreements with Israel. They’re optimistic about domestic conditions in the Palestinian Authority with regard to building a more democratic political system,” he says. Palestinians, however, remain unhappy with the perceived corruption in public life, a carryover from the long rule of Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat, who died in November. They are also firmly opposed to new acts of terrorism that might threaten the cease-fire.
Shikaki was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of cfr.org, on March 14, 2005.
What is the mood in the Palestinian areas? Are people optimistic about the future?
Yes. In general, the public is more optimistic today than it has been in the last four or five years. People are optimistic about a return to the peace process. They’re optimistic about the cease-fire. They’re optimistic about the ability to reach agreements with Israel. They’re optimistic about domestic conditions in the Palestinian Authority with regard to building a more democratic political system.
What troubles them?
They are not optimistic about other things, such as corruption. People are still not convinced that the situation in the post-Arafat period has eliminated corruption from public life. They feel that the successors to Arafat, drawn from among the old guard and seen as corrupt by the majority of the public, will not be able to deal effectively with corruption.
Our latest survey indicates that the public believes [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as] Abu Mazen is serious about combating corruption, But so far the overwhelming majority believes that corruption exists. The question about corruption is one that’s very important, because it comes at a time when Palestinians are going to hold elections: local elections in May and parliamentary elections in July. This issue is the most important factor in the local elections and could be important in the parliamentary elections as well.
What do you mean by corruption?
It is difficult, of course, to speculate on what the public sees as corruption. Some of the surveys we’ve done recently dealt with different types of corruption. One [kind] is to use nepotism or friendship to get the good jobs in the public sector. Another type is security services using force to get shares in companies or forcing businessmen to pay them money or taking things without paying for them. Using one’s public office to enrich oneself is also perceived as corruption. Using public money and resources to build a constituency for oneself within the Palestinian society is also perceived as a form of corruption.
Is Hamas viewed as a clean party? Do Palestinians think that, if they vote for Hamas, they will be electing people who will end corruption?
Yes. In the exit polls we did after the first phase of the local elections last December, we found that the overwhelming majority of voters believed the existing local councils, which were appointed by Fatah [the veteran Palestinian group headed by Arafat], were corrupt, and more than 90 percent believed the council they were voting to elect would fight corruption. As we know, Hamas won most of the local councils. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas won about 70 percent of the councils; Fatah won only about 20 percent.
What are people voting for in May?
This is the second phase of local elections. Some 86 local councils will be contested in May. The last phase of local elections will take place in August, after the parliamentary elections in July.
Are the councils elected in December perceived to be clean?
We still don’t have data on the public’s evaluation of the councils that were elected in December and January. [But we do have] data on these councils from exit polls, which indicated that the most important driver in electoral behavior was the perception of corruption. Questions of political affiliation, whether you are Fatah or Hamas, for instance, came in No. 5. In terms of issues related to the candidates, the three most important considerations were their being uncorrupt, educated, and religious.
Political affiliation was not important. For example, when we asked voters whom they voted for [by name], 60 percent of the names they gave us were affiliated to or came in [electoral] lists sponsored by Hamas. But when we asked [the same voters] to tell us the affiliation of the people they voted for, only 30 percent of them told us they voted for Hamas. Half of them didn’t know who they were voting for. They were not voting for [these candidates] because they were Hamas. They voted for them because they were uncorrupt.
Your latest poll shows sharply diminishing support for terrorism. Can you explain that?
Yes. This is the first time in almost nine years that we’ve seen such a significant drop in support for suicide bombings. The last time we asked, in September 2004, 77 percent of the public supported the [August 2004] attack on the civilian bus in Bershiva in Israel. The one before was a suicide bombing in Haifa in October 2003, when 75 percent supported the suicide bombing.
Now, only 29 percent support [the February 25] suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. The significant and sharp drop in the level of support indicates the public is happy to see the current cease-fire in place, that the public wants to give the cease-fire a chance. The public is optimistic about the chances that the cease-fire will lead to progress in the peace process, and the public would like to give Abu Mazen a chance to implement his agenda. And that public, therefore, is unhappy with what happened in Tel Aviv. In fact, we see the public unhappiness in terms of support it gave to Islamic Jihad, which got only half the support it used to receive. The public is punishing those who orchestrated the attack by withdrawing support from them.
But there is a “but” here, because the public is not endorsing a crackdown on those who orchestrated the attack. Even though the public wants to give peace a chance, it is reluctant to go all the way and make a full commitment, because the public is still not sure that Israel will reciprocate. It does not want to destroy these organizations and their capacity to inflict pain and suffering on the Israelis. They see it as a Palestinian asset that should not be given up completely.
I think this is different from the situation in March 1996 after a series of suicide attacks that took place around that time. The majority of the public supported the crackdown [on militants] taking place then because [people were] confident that the peace process was moving forward and they viewed violence as hurting it. The public still views violence as harmful to the peace process, but isn’t sure yet that there is a peace process. It is all still expectations. There is no performance; there are no achievements on the ground that the public is trying to protect. There is a cease-fire, which the public is trying to protect, but there is nothing, or there is little else, and that’s why there is little support for a crackdown.
Abu Mazen has made reorganization of the Palestinian security forces a priority. Does the public support that?
The survey indicates that there is a significant level- 70 percent- of satisfaction with the way Abu Mazen is addressing the security factor. The indication we have comes from the approval of his decision to dismiss certain senior security officials after they were unwilling to implement decisions taken by Abu Mazen in regard to preventing attacks on Israelis and standing up to the militants.
Do Palestinians pay attention to the pro-democracy shifts under way in Lebanon and Egypt? Do they feel part of this process?
I think people do feel a part of that. I think, in fact, they feel that they are also responsible for much of what is now going on: that the Palestinian elections took place, even under Israeli occupation, that the Palestinian participation in the local and parliamentary elections has sent a signal to the region that people are not going to stand by and allow the politicians to determine their future. They want to be part of this decision-making and the wave of democratization. But, at the same time, of course, their conditions are such that Palestinians worry more about their own pain and suffering and their own problems.
What is the public attitude toward the Israeli plan to pull out of Gaza?
The evacuation of the settlements is viewed positively by the public, but it is seen as a victory for violence, not as something the Israelis are doing because they are nice. The public believes the Israelis are evacuating the settlements because Israel has been beaten in Gaza. The Palestinians are also extremely worried about the Israeli construction of the separation barrier in the West Bank and the expansion of settlements there. The Palestinians view these elements as part of a larger scheme by [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon to solve the Israeli demographic problem [of a growing Palestinian population that would eventually outnumber Jews] by pulling out from Gaza and by building the barrier inside the West Bank, so Israel can reduce the concern about demographics while holding on tight to the West Bank.
People don’t trust that Sharon will give up most of the West Bank, as the United States is pressing him to do?
No. At this point, the public worries about further settlement expansion and the building of the barrier, and they feel these two elements increasingly indicate that Israel, in fact, intends to stay put and has no intention of pulling out from the West Bank.
What is the image of the United States now in the Palestinian areas?
Palestinians believe the United States is totally biased in favor of Israel. Despite that, the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians would like to see the United States become more deeply involved in the search for peace. To a large extent, this is because they believe that if there is going to be any chance for diplomacy to work, the United States must press Israel on issues of importance in the peace process and, if Israel is to be pressed, only the United States will be able to do so.
If we go beyond U.S. policy and look at what the United States stands for in terms of achievements, in terms of values, in terms of its political system, we find that the Palestinians have a great deal of admiration for the United States. American medicine, education, and technology are most admired by Palestinians. Equality of women, democracy, and basic freedoms receive the highest level of admiration.