Palestinian pollster: UN declaration may be last chance for Abbas

Khalil Shikaki (Photo: Brandeis University)
Khalil Shikaki (Photo: Brandeis University)

“It’s very clear that the public wants a real state, not just a state in name. The public is willing to pay the price.” Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki explains why a unilateral declaration of statehood  may be the last chance Palestinians give to their current leadership, and the dilemmas Palestinians face come September.

As September approaches, this is the moment to understand what the Palestinian people are thinking. What will the potential statehood declaration mean for them? What are their hopes and fears? And perhaps the question on everyone’s mind is – what do they plan to do? Will there be a violence, non-violence, or non-reaction?

Khalil Shikaki is perhaps the best-known face of Palestinian public opinion in the region. He is a go-to person for many Western analysts and policymakers, perhaps because he is known for reporting even unpopular findings; once he was even attacked for presenting data showing that the majority of Palestinian refugees accepted the compromises that were discussed during the Taba negotiations in 2000.

With a Ph.D. from Columbia University in political science, Shikaki has been publishing surveys about Palestinian opinion for nearly two decades. Since the year 2000, has worked together with Jacob Shamir to conduct the “Joint Israel Palestinian Polls” at the Truman Institute at Hebrew University, one of the best resources for nuanced insight about public opinion on both sides, and the basis for their highly recommended book “Palestinian and Israeli Public Opinion and the Second Intifada” (read my review in the Jerusalem Report).

Dr. Shikaki established and directs the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. In mid-July, he gave this phone interview to +972 Magazine, speaking from Ramallah, in which he talks about trends in the Palestinian public opinion on the eve of a potentially historic change.

General Mood

HOW IS THE OVERALL MOOD AMONG PALESTINIANS TODAY?

Generally, Palestinians are not optimistic. They tend to view Israel in very grim terms. They think Israel has no intention of ending the occupation, and no intention of giving Palestinians political rights, and more than 60% believe Israel is interested in expelling them. Most are extremely worried about the occupation and worried that Israel will… kill them, injure them, confiscate their lands or homes…70-80% are worried in their daily lives.

They don’t believe the Israeli public is willing to accept compromises for peace, but they believe that [Palestinians] are interested in compromise…they blame the Israelis for the continuation of the conflict…not themselves or Hamas.

Palestinians tend to support negotiations, but they also think their political leadership must demand a settlement freeze as a precondition…This was not the case in the past…up to the failure of Camp David [negotiations in 2000], 70% supported negotiations and in general they rejected violence. Very few of those who supported negotiations supported violence. During and after the Intifada, a majority of those who supported negotiations also supported violence. [In their book, Shamir and Shikaki found that the Israeli public showed very similar trends – drs]

Attitudes toward the conflict, Arab Spring, and September

[SHIKAKI CONTINUED ON THIS THEME WITHOUT BEING ASKED]

Things have changed somewhat. We are beginning to see much less support for violence, particularly since the Arab spring. More than any time in the past, we are seeing more attention to non-violence as a way of ending the Intifada.

Most people think of the first Intifada as non-violent. Most think demonstrations in which stones are thrown are non-violent. They basically distinguish between the use of firearms, explosives, or suicide attacks as one kind of resistance, and everything else as another kind.

It will take a long time for the youth groups currently organizing as result of the Arab Spring to convince others that the use of rocks in demonstrations is not conducive to participation of large numbers of people. This is a big challenge to those who consider September a date to organize large peaceful demonstrations. The examples we’ve seen so far have not indicated they’ve managed to put their hands on the formula needed to ensure nonviolence. On Nakba Day and in June, [demonstrations] were marred by widespread rock throwing. Youth groups trying to organize for September have a big challenge ahead, as the public doesn’t seem to see rock throwing as something that contradicts peaceful demonstrations.

DID YOU IMPLY EARLIER THAT THE EXPECTATION OF VIOLENCE MAKES IT HARD TO RECRUIT PEOPLE FOR DEMONSTRATIONS?

After our March survey, we held focus groups with youth. [They] indicated that one of main concerns about organizing large scale demonstrations with whole families with kids, husbands and wives, is that participation depends on …preventing kids from throwing rocks and burning tires. The immediate reaction of Israeli security forces and the army is to use rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammunition against such demonstrators.

They believe that …civilians don’t want to participate…when they could be injured or killed. They want to participate if they know the environment will be peaceful and the risk of losing their lives, or of injury, is not that great. They hope to convince kids not to throw rocks, and to create an environment where that’s not the only option – they have organized to hold sit-ins, bring tents and organize for a long term presence…They can sit in Ramallah across from Beit El and bring in five to ten thousand demonstrators day and night, peacefully.

…They want to create small Tahrir Squares around the West Bank, to sit-in for the long haul and hope that the international media attention will isolate Israel dramatically, and in doing so highlight some of the Israeli policies that are unacceptable to the international community.

For example, if they sit peacefully and do nothing, in a road that’s forbidden for Palestinians, like the road from Beit El to highway 60…they can highlight what they call Israel’s policy of apartheid.

WHO ARE THESE YOUNG PEOPLE YOU TALK ABOUT?

Mostly male, aged 18-28, and they tend to be more educated than the general public. They tend to come from urban areas, be connected by internet – about 50% – and they are less willing to be associated with either Hamas or Fatah.  WHY? …They seem to think that Fatah and Hamas had their chances and they failed, so it’s not a plus to be associated with either. [They] are more aware, active, demanding, willing to participate… A large percentage of [Palestinians] are dissatisfied with the performance of both [parties] but are not very active politically. These young people think they can reach out and organize them, politicize them and bring them to demonstrations.

…After the Arab spring, [the parties] essentially lost the youth in significant way. Youth started to rebel against Hamas. Particularly in Gaza, demand for regime change became very vocal – almost three-quarters of the youth supported regime change in Gaza, and not just in Gaza…In the West Bank…people didn’t want [change] as much.

We held focus groups because we wanted to know why they are easier on Fatah. The answer was that the “UN/September” policy fits well. In West Bank they can wait for regime change until after occupation is addressed.

IN YOUR LAST SURVEY, A PLURALITY OF 48% SAID STATEHOOD IN THE 1967 AREAS IS THEIR TOP GOAL RIGHT NOW. WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER HALF OF THE POPULATION SURVEYED? WHAT DO THEY WANT?

Statehood is no doubt the most important [priority] for a much larger percentage of Palestinians, but [in our survey] they had to choose between four priorities and the fact that you have almost half focused on this single priority means that [1967-based statehood] is extremely important.

…If you combine two of the responses [statehood and democracy] – [these] really seems to be most important for [a majority] of respondents [59%]. For some, a state that is independent or sovereign but not democratic is not what they are really after.

Palestinian Politics

FROM YOUR DATA, IT SOUNDS LIKE PALESTINIANS ARE VERY SUPPORTIVE OF RECONCILIATION – EVEN THOUGH THEY KNOW IT MIGHT MEAN ECONOMIC SANCTIONS. ARE PALESTINIANS BECOMING DEFIANT TOWARD THE REST OF THE WORLD, LIKE ISRAEL?

National unity is a sacred value for Palestinians, they want to achieve it no matter what the price. If that means sanctions, it’s our choice. The majority would like to avoid…international sanctions, and that’s why a clear majority favors the new reconciliation government, which is committed to the policies of the present government and PLO and meets international standards – the new government is not committed to Hamas’ policy.

This …means that people want to take the risk [of reconciliation] but also want to minimize it. Almost half select Fayyad [in election questions], and only one-fifth select Hamas’ candidate… they would really like to minimize risk…even if that means rejecting Hamas’ ways and leadership…It means Hamas has lost the game vis-à-vis the national movement.

WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHO RESPOND IN SURVEYS THAT THEY DON’T KNOW WHO TO VOTE FOR, OR REFUSE TO IDENTIFY WITH A PARTY OR PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE? WHO ARE THEY? [In some surveys, the number of those who won’t identify themselves with a party or choose a candidate in simulated voting can be high by comparison to other electoral surveys – increasing the uncertainty of which party truly leads – DS]

In the last two years, we have seen defections from Hamas, but not from the other side …But these people who are defecting have not really made up their minds about where to go. They are disenchanted but they haven’t found a good reason to support another faction. Maybe they supported Hamas because they thought they’d fight corruption. Now they feel Hamas won’t do much, and that Fatah is much worse. So they sit on the sidelines…

…Essentially we have a two party system. We have eight or nine other political factions [beyond Hamas and Fatah] but combined, they didn’t break 15%, in current surveys they reach 13-14%…

Fatah feels much safer since the elections because it hasn’t been directly in government…the West Bank government is headed by Fayyad [who is independent – DS], and this helps Fatah. If Fatah had been in power, corruption issues would probably have hurt them much more.

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR FAYYAD?

Fayyad’s main problem is that Hamas doesn’t want him, so of those who affiliate and sympathize with Hamas – about 80-90% of them don’t want him.

And on his own merits, he’s not very strong. He’s seen as a very competent administrator and manager, incorruptible, and very transparent…But not as a national leader. He’s not able to stand up to Israel, or help end the occupation by his leadership. He’s not seen as able to resist if the US puts pressure [on Palestinians]. Most believe he is liked by Israelis and Americans; they are willing to turn a blind eye to that as long as Fayyad is not in charge of issues of vital national issues…

People want Fatah to be a national leader, but Fatah has problems with everything else Fayyad is good at – corruption, transparency, efficiency. So a combination of Fatah and Fayyad would be very good for Fatah. If they want to win big they need him in the coalition…

Relations with the US

WHY IS US SEEN SO NEGATIVELY BY PALESTINIANS, AND AS MORE OF A THREAT THAN SIX OTHER COUNTRIES IN THE MIDDLE EAST, ACCORDING TO PEW DATA?

For Palestinians, the basic criteria is the US position on Israel… 90% of Palestinians or more believe the US is biased and does what Israel wants, or that Israel and the US are basically one and the same. They really have a very negative view of American foreign policy; not necessarily a negative evaluation of America as such.

When we ask about American culture, science and technology, democracy, values with regards to treatment of women and so on, we find that Palestinians in fact admire these things.

…Despite these negative perceptions of US policy, they don’t necessarily want to exclude the US from involvement in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Until our March survey in which we saw a decline in this finding, almost two-thirds wanted deeper American involvement in elections. That’s been the case since Obama’s election, when we immediately saw increased level of support for much deeper American intervention, and a decline after the Obama administration’s position on settlements changed. There was further significant decline and we lost the majority, after the use of veto power against the Security Council resolution on settlements.

On September and Palestinian statehood

WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF STATEHOOD IS DECLARED AND LITTLE ON THE GROUND CHANGES?

It’s very clear that the public wants a real state, not just a state in name. The public is willing to pay the price.  In our June survey, we asked about something that doesn’t bring about immediate change for daily life, and a question we thought really would affect daily life, about access to Jordan through the Allenby bridge  – [DS – from the survey report – emphasis mine].

We asked Palestinians what they think the PA should do after the UN recognizes the Palestinian state in September. 76% think the PA president and government should enforce Palestinian sovereignty over all the territories of the West Bank, for example by opening roads in area C, start building an airport in  the Jordan valley, and deploy Palestinian security forces in area C even if this leads to confrontations with the Israeli army and settlers. 20% think the PA should not do that. Similarly, 75% think the PA should insist on assuming control over the Allenby Bridge terminal from the Israeli side even if this leads to the closure of the terminal. 20% think the PA should not do that.

Three-quarters said the Palestinian Authority should exercise and demand sovereignty over the Allenby crossing, even if it means the crossing will be closed for a long time. I think this is revolutionary – that the public would close down the only access it has to the rest of the world in order to make the point that their state is real.

If indeed September is just a declaration there will be disappointment…

WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF STATEHOOD IS ULTIMATELY NOT DECLARED?

… The likely outcome if we don’t declare is that we’ll [lose the support] of those who believed that violence is not the answer as long as UN diplomacy is viable. If you tell them it’s not viable anymore, we’ll see a shift in favor of violence and might also see a shift in favor of nonviolent peaceful demonstrations – maybe in larger numbers. The credibility of large-scale demonstrations like those in Egyptian and Tunisian cases would definitely grow.

[If the UN strategy is dropped] the leaders  would essentially be saying to the public, diplomacy is a failure, and we’re sorry we have no alternative, but we’re going to continue to be your leaders …people will say, ‘what good reason do you have to remain president or in government when in fact you’ve run out of strategies on how to deal w our most important vital goal? …There would be demonstrations calling for Abu Mazen to step down.

Lots of groups of young folks we talked to after the March survey told us they won’t demand regime change in Ramallah, because they support Abu Mazen’s call for a September showdown and they are willing to defer to him as long as he’s going to a September showdown. The moment he decides he’s not, they will demand regime change…

WHAT WOULD BE A GOOD REASON TO POSTPONE the unilateral declaration of independence?

For example would be if negotiations seem to be viable…but that must be really convincing. He has to have an alternative. If [Abu Mazen] says there will be no negotiating alternative and no UN, I think he’ll have a real hard time.