Khalil Shikaki, a leading Palestinian political expert, says recent polling among Palestinians shows most support Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel in advance of negotiations, but a great majority indicate they would back a peace agreement setting up a two-state situation. He said polling of Israelis shows many are interested in negotiating even with Hamas in the government.
Shikaki, who is the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, said he did not think a unity government between Hamas and the former ruling Fatah party could be formed unless Hamas put a lesser figure at the head of the government and allowed President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate with Israel.
There’s considerable interest here in the possibilities for forming a unity government between Fatah and Hamas and also on the attitude of the Palestinian people. Do they blame the Hamas-led government for the lack of outside aid or do they just blame the outside world? First of all, what do you think the likelihood is of this unity government being formed?
About ten days ago it looked like this was a real possibility. President Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] was able to reach an understanding with the prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, on the formation of a national unity government and on what one might call the parameters for such a government. These seemed to include two major achievements for the president, securing concessions by Hamas on very important peace-related issues.
What were these?
One was Hamas’ willingness or at least the prime minister’s willingness to consider respect for all agreements signed by the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], which obviously meant those signed in Oslo in 1993 by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the second was the Arab League initiative of 2002 [calling for peace with Israel in return for Israel’s giving up all the lands occupied in the 1967 war] would be a basis for a peace effort on the part of the president.
But soon after, extreme voices within Hamas interpreted the agreement with Abu Mazen in a way that essentially killed the agreement. At the same time the U.S. administration clearly indicated to Abu Mazen that it was not happy with these terms because they did not fully address all the terms set out by the major powers, in particular the recognition of Israel. Now with the president returning to the Palestinian areas [he had stopped off in Egypt] he will try to revive the effort to see how far he can go in terms of getting the prime minister to agree. Obviously, now that the president has heard from the Americans and most of the international community [at the United Nations] he might also want additional issues to be included in the parameters to satisfy the concerns of the international community.
In my view it is highly unlikely Hamas will agree to the original understanding let alone to any added conditions. The original idea of a national unity government is probably not realistic at this time, but other ideas might be discussed that could in fact lead to the establishment of a new government in which Hamas would participate, but perhaps not with the current leadership. And the new government might be willing to show more moderation and more flexibility [toward] the conditions of the international community without Hamas giving up or totally giving up control over the government.
How would that happen? How would you get a new government?
The difficulty has been in getting the prime minister who was the senior leader in Hamas to say things along the lines of what Abu Mazen wanted and what the international community wants because if he is to say these words as prime minister then in people’s minds he will be speaking for Hamas and I think Hamas is worried that by doing so, it will lose its core constituency. It doesn’t want to do that at this time and therefore Hamas, I believe, might be willing to show more flexibility by changing the prime minister [and] by proposing a more junior Hamas figure or perhaps someone who is not a Hamas person to lead a national unity government in which Hamas would be a partner. Obviously Hamas would continue to call the shots but in terms of meeting or dealing pragmatically with the conditions of the international community Hamas can say the government has conceded on these issues but Hamas, which [would be] part of the government, does not agree with these new positions. Hamas in [such a] case wants to have its cake and eat it too. As long as the government is doing what Hamas wants it to do, the government could be free to engage the international community in a more flexible manner.
Hamas won the election in February. What is the result of the latest polling you’ve done? Are people satisfied with the Hamas government or are people now sorry they voted it in?
The public is highly critical of the performance of Hamas in law and order and on the economy by not being able to pay salaries, etc. But this does not seem to translate into less support for Hamas if and when new elections are held. Essentially, Hamas’ popularity is the same as it was three months ago, which is a little bit less than what Hamas won during the elections. Hamas won 44 percent of the popular vote on the day of elections in February. It went up a little bit after that. May was the highest point for Hamas with close to 50 percent telling us that if new elections were held they would vote for Hamas. This came at the peak of the international pressure on Hamas, but the more international pressure there was the more steadfast the public was in supporting Hamas.
But when the pressure became internal such as when the discussion was over the so-called “prisoners’ document” [a document signed by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons that calls for negotiating a deal with Israel], where the demands were more homegrown and when the strike started a month ago, we began to see less support for Hamas.
However, I would still caution that people who have deserted Hamas have not joined Fatah. Fatah has gained almost nothing from the lack of performance by Hamas. The public still does not view Fatah as a viable alternative to Hamas.
Now, what about the specific issues like a two-state solution recognizing Israel, the really big issues between Hamas and Fatah? Where does the public come out on those?
The public takes a position almost right in the middle between Fatah and Hamas. On the one hand, two-thirds [of those polled] support Hamas’ views that it should not support the state of Israel as a precondition for international support or for entering negotiations with Israel. So in this instance we clearly see the public taking the position of Hamas rather than the position of Fatah or the president. But to the question of “If there is a peace agreement and the issues of the conflict are resolved and a two-state solution is adopted and a Palestinian state is created,” a full three-fourths say they would not only support recognition of Israel but also support reconciliation between the two peoples. In fact two-thirds of the public are willing to go further and agree to a formula whereby the Palestinians would not only recognize Israel but would recognize the Jewish nature of the state of Israel as part of a peace agreement.
The public is a lot more moderate than Fatah and Hamas put together when it comes to a two-state solution.
Are the results of this poll on your website now?
If you go to the website now you will find some of the main results, but not all of the things I’ve just told you are on the website today. Tomorrow there will be more information. We have delayed release of some of the data because we wanted to release it as part of a joint survey that was done with the Israelis [the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem] at the same time.
I see. The Israelis did a poll in Israel?
Yes, the Israeli colleagues did a survey among the Israelis and we did a survey among the Palestinians and we’ve asked similar questions related essentially to the impact of the Lebanese war on the attitudes of Israelis and Palestinians.
What did they find in Israel?
We have found that the Israeli public has become a little bit more flexible. There is more willingness today among Israelis to negotiate with a national unity government in which Hamas is a member and there is even a majority of Israelis who say today that Israel should negotiate even with the Hamas government. Three months ago there was no such majority. We’re not necessarily attributing this to the war inLebanonbut obviously the war must have had some effect. On the Palestinian side, however, we find there is thinking among the Palestinians that Palestinians should emulate Hezbollah, particularly with regard to the use of rockets against Israel. But on the other hand we also found among both Israelis and Palestinians a lot more realistic views about how useful the use of force is with a majority of both [three-fourths] thinking that resort to violence is not the way to go forward and that there is a need for a negotiated agreement between the two sides.
What is Abbas’ popularity? At one point it was very high.
In the [Palestinian part of the joint] survey there is a question about new presidential elections and we asked people for whom they would vote and Abbas only received 30 percent. Of course this question is limited in utility because we “determined” who else is going to run against him. This is not a true portrayal of reality as it is. We had, for example, in this survey [jailed leader of the militant Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades] Marwan Barghouti competing against him and, of course, Barghouti and Abbas come from the same political party and we had two from Hamas and one independent so we had five candidates and in this case only 30 percent said they would vote for Abbas and 13 percent said they would vote for Barghouti.
So Abbas still has the most support even though it’s divided?
So what is the mood at the start of Ramadan? Are Palestinians depressed?
Pretty much so. The overall perception I think one gets is the public is very depressed and feels there is little hope for the future even though more than 70 percent support Abu Mazen negotiating an agreement with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert right now. And 40 percent or so expect those negotiations to reach an agreement, but most people believe in fact violence will continue and there will be no negotiations.