- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Khalil Shikaki, director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, says there has been a profound shift in the attitudes of Palestinians since the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in August. Shikaki, whose organization is the leading public opinion group in the Palestinian Authority, says that prior to the Gaza withdrawal, Palestinians overwhelmingly gave the “end to the occupation” as their top priority.
Now, he says, the priority is for an improvement in the economic life in the Palestinian areas, with an end to political corruption, and an end to the occupation falling far behind. “For the first time, after the Gaza disengagement, we have economics coming on top…And the second one is in fact a virtual tie between fighting corruption and fighting occupation. The gap between the first, which is improving economic conditions and the second which is corruption and ending occupation is wide. It’s 15 percent.” Ironically, he says, the Palestinians now are strongly in support of a permanent ceasefire, even though most of them believe the Gaza pullout was due to the Palestinian use of force.
Shikaki urges the Israeli authorities to recognize this and not punish the Palestinian population for the limited recent acts of violence, because this will only turn the population again in favor of the use of force. He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on October 19, 2005.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is meeting with President Bush and other officials in Washington this week and there is considerable interest about the whole Israeli-Palestinian relationship in the aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in August. What do you see as the major issue right now?
The most important thing for the Palestinians at this moment is to ensure that the post-disengagement environment is quiet, that Gaza is not isolated from the rest of the world, and in particular that it’s not isolated from the West Bank. Another point is that negotiations, or some form of negotiations is resumed and that these negotiations ensure that the separation barrier being built in the West Bank is not done in such a way that would seriously harm the chances for a negotiated solution in the future.
At the moment, these are the most important things that the Palestinians look for. In the meeting with the president, I think these are the issues that the Palestinian leadership will be raising. This is so that when people look at the talks, they will feel that the future will be better than the past or the present. The urgency comes from the fact that we have [legislative] elections in January. These elections are the most critical part of the peace process because they come after years of intifada in which the Islamists have gained tremendous public support, in which nationalists have lost a lot of public support. The fear is, therefore, that [the Muslim fundamentalist group] Hamas will present the Gaza disengagement as a victory for itself—something that we already see signs of in terms of public reception. If this is reflected in the elections, Hamas will win a significant number of seats.
Right now, then, you’re saying that your latest polling shows that the Palestinian people still think the Israelis’ pulled out of Gaza because they were defeated?
The results are fascinating. On the one hand, the polling very, very clearly indicates that the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians, 84 percent, believe that disengagement was the result of the victory of our resistance to occupation. The largest percentage of the Palestinians gives credit to Hamas for this achievement. But, if you try to go beyond this point and look how people will then translate these two realities, you’ll find major contradictions. For example, instead of leading to further increases in the level of support for violence against Israelis, the perception that violence pays or that violence paid in the Israeli disengagement decision has in fact led to a reduction in the level of support for violence, rather than an increase in the level of support for violence.
So in other words, you’re saying that your latest polling shows continuing lack of support for violence.
We see a continued decline in the level of support for violence contrary to the expectation that we would see more support in light of the fact that most people believed the disengagement was a victory for violence. Moreover, we see people saying, with regard to Gaza—two-thirds are telling us—there should be absolutely no more violence in Gaza altogether. Even more important than this, for the first time we have a majority among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza that favors collection of arms from militias and the armed groups in Gaza—not in the West Bank, but in Gaza.
And very significantly, we have more than three-fourths, 77 percent of the public, telling us that it supports the continuation of the ceasefire. So, in terms of the issues related to violence, it is very clear that we made significant progress in the people’s willingness to move away from violence even as they believed that violence was responsible for the achievement of the disengagement. And to add to all of this, the most important finding is that [Abbas’ political party] Fatah, not Hamas, has gained more public support. Compared to our survey four months ago in June, our survey in September shows the widening of the gap between Fatah and Hamas by another six percentage points.
So what is the difference now?
Let me give you the survey in June first and then I’ll give you the survey in September. In June, it was 44 percent for Fatah and 33 [percent] for Hamas. In September, it is 47 percent for Fatah and 30 percent for Hamas. So the gap has widened by another six percentage points. It is a significant development. On the one hand, it contradicts the finding that says that disengagement has been victory for violence and for Hamas.
But it is in line with the finding that shows much less support for violence. I will tell you what I think the reason is for this. We’ve been asking this over the last decade or so: What are the top priorities? Normally, the top priority is ending the Israeli occupation. This has always been No.1. This has usually been followed by improving economic conditions and at the end of the priorities would come things like fighting corruption or improving government, things like that. But after the passing of [former Palestinian Authority President] Yasir Arafat late last year, we began to see a narrowing in the order of priorities. The gap between improving economic conditions and ending occupation narrowed considerably after the passing of Arafat. Now, for the first time, after the Gaza disengagement, we have economics coming on top. For the first time, improving economic conditions is priority No. 1. And the second one is in fact a virtual tie between fighting corruption and fighting occupation The gap between the first, which is improving economic conditions and the second which is corruption and ending occupation is wide; it’s 15 percent.
That’s quite a change.
Yes. That’s a transformation, I would say. This is a dynamic that has been triggered by disengagement. In my view, this is the most important development that we have seen here in the last sixth months and this is entirely due to the disengagement. And it reflects, I believe, a real opening for Palestinians and Israelis because these are major changes. The level of optimism is back very high, as high as it has ever been before the start of the intifada [in 2000]. So, we are looking at a level of public perception that is not only supportive of compromises but, at the moment, is willing to act on this in terms of voting in the elections in terms of support for discontinuation of violence.
What about the violence? That’s become an issue which has given the Israelis reason to keep cutting off communications between Gaza and the West Bank. You’re indicating that there really isn’t popular support for this continued violence?
I think the Israelis are looking at the Palestinian situation and they can only see the trees and they are unable to see the forest. The forest is what I’ve just described. This is really what is going on. This is the reality that the Israelis, instead of looking at this larger picture, are instead looking at this event, or that event, in which groups are sensing the transformation in the society and the demand for Abu Mazen to begin to crack down and collect arms and stop the violence. These groups that are sensing all of these things I believe are responsible for the violence. Hamas, in particular, post-disengagement, wanted to remind everybody that disengagement was its own victory and its own challenge to the Palestinian Authority was motivated by that. Seeing how the public was moving, Hamas was worried and it tried to undercut that policy and it failed.
The latest incident which took place three days ago, I believe, was a message to Abu Mazen who was at that moment on his way to Washington. The message was, “Be careful to what you commit yourself to in Washington because we’re here. We’re the boss and we will be able to dictate to you and to the Americans and to the Israelis your agenda in Washington.” This is a tree, however. This is where the Israelis, because of their own domestic constraints and weaknesses in the post-disengagement environment, are unable to understand that they need to look at the big picture and understand that these small incidents are desperate attempts by groups that feel the heat and are trying desperately to prevent the continuation of the peaceful transformation.
The Israeli reaction, however, could have very serious negative consequences. The Israelis in the past tried to very quickly impose collective punishment. The collective punishment the Israeli army is imposing at the moment, is sending a negative message to those people who told us yesterday that they oppose violence, they want to collect arms, they will vote for Fatah. The Israeli government makes no difference between you and those who make violence. And you will all be dealt the kind of punishment the Israeli government is inflicting at the moment. This affects the civilian population, the motorists who cannot use the roads anymore to travel, people who are unable to reach their own businesses, their factories, their shops—they’re destroying the economy. I think it’s a big mistake by the Israelis to try in their response to the violence to crack down on the population rather than on those who commit the violence.
Let’s talk about the election in January. From what you’ve said, the polling has shown greater support for Fatah over Hamas. But, on individual candidates, you’ve said in the past, Hamas’ candidates often win because they’re perceived as uncorrupt. Is that going to happen again? Does Hamas, despite the polling, have a better chance of winning a majority?
Yes, it will happen again in the parliamentary elections. But these elections are going to be mixed elections. Half of the seats will be contested in proportion or representation where people will be voting for factions rather than for individuals. So, half of the seats will be elected based on the results that we have gathered from the streets. The other half will be district based in which a majority system will be used and in which people will actually have the right to select certain individuals and vote for them as they wish to.
So that means Fatah has a better chance?
In this case, Fatah is going to have difficulty. Hamas will be in a much better position because Hamas’s reputation of incorruptibility. The Hamas candidates in general have done very well when they ran head to head against Fatah candidates. The results of the surveys clearly indicate that voters will be looking at the question of corruption and this issue will be a major dynamic in terms of consideration of the voters. So, there is going to be that difficulty. Fatah has tried to put its house in order through a system of primers. And it looks so far that they are serious about it although there is still a long way to go. But if Fatah is successful in organizing the primaries, it will win half of the battle over corruption.
How popular is Abu Mazen in your survey?
Abu Mazen’s popularity is relatively high compared to where he was before he became president. In our June survey, 60 percent were satisfied with his performance although most of the people of that time didn’t feel that he made much difference. Most people felt that he was weak. 60 percent are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt at this point. Another 63 percent voted for him. So, I think that what people are telling us is that it is too early to give up on him.
That was in June. You didn’t take that question in September?
No, we did not ask that question in September.