Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Briefing Summary: Leading Palestinian Pollster Analyzes Palestinian Opinion Regarding Annapolis Meeting and Peace, November 7, 2007.

The American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) held a briefing on November 7, 2007 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 'Prospects for Peace: The Pulse of the Palestinian Street,' featuring Dr. Khalil Shikaki. Dr. Shikaki is an Associate Professor of Political Science, and Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (Ramallah) and a senior fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.

Dr. Shikaki analyzed the Palestinian public's attitudes towards the upcoming Annapolis meeting and its possible outcomes. He identified three components that Palestinians considered important to be included in a document that would result from the meeting and launch a post-Annapolis process leading to statehood. These were that the borders of a future Palestinian state would be based on the 1967 lines with a one-to-one land swap where negotiated, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem with sovereignty over the holy places, and a solution for the refugees based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

Shikaki said that the Palestinians believed that Israeli reluctance to deal with these three permanent status issues was the main obstacle towards achieving this goal. In addition, though there was an understanding that Israeli reluctance stemmed from skepticism over Palestinian ability to implement Roadmap responsibilities, Palestinians believed that a formal agreement on the principles of a final-status agreement was essential for Palestinians to be able to implement Phase 1 of the Roadmap thereby overcoming Israeli skepticism.

Surveys conducted by Shikaki showed that 2/3 to 3/4 of Palestinians supported a two-state solution with a majority supporting the idea of Israel as a 'Jewish state' and even a state with provisional borders, but only if the three core components were met.

If the document produced at Annapolis did not address the three core issues or only addressed part of them, then Shikaki estimated that Palestinian president Abbas and his platform of achieving statehood through negotiations with Israel would be hurt in the long-term. Conversely, the Hamas narrative that armed resistance would result in an Israeli forced withdrawal would dominate, citing Israel's withdrawal from Gaza as an example of Hamas successfully selling the 'forced withdrawal' narrative to the Palestinian public. If Abbas fails and the Islamists fail to seize the initiative, then Palestinian public opinion would embrace the 'one state solution' idea.

On the other hand, if Abbas were able to secure a document at Annapolis that addressed the three Palestinian core issues, this would allow him to negotiate with Hamas from a position of strength making it very difficult for Hamas to oppose the agreement and its implementation, and likely resulting in Hamas agreeing to abide by the decisions of his negotiations without necessarily agreeing with them.

Dr. Shikaki also addressed the issue of the Hamas military takeover of Gaza, saying that surveys had shown that the Palestinian public was unhappy with it, perceiving it as one by Hamas hardliners. Palestinians also were unhappy with Hamas actions in Gaza and the movement's social agenda. This had resulted in a widening of the gap of popular support between Fatah and Hamas, though it resulted less from Fatah action on reform and more from Hamas' Gaza takeover.

Concerning Fatah reform and fragmentation, Shikaki said that Abbas was focusing on addressing the 'negative consequences of fragmentation by changing the electoral system' and through negotiations with Israel. The aim is to create a credible process of negotiations thereby restoring public confidence in such a process, rather than engaging in actual reform at this point.

Dr. Shikaki concluded with three possible post-Annapolis scenarios. The first, and unlikeliest in his opinion, was a meaningful statement of principles that at the very least addressed two of three of the Palestinian core issues, allowing Abbas to implement Phase 1 of the Roadmap with public support to be followed by negotiations with Israel on final status issues. The second scenario was an Annapolis document offering nothing substantively new. This would result, in Shikaki's opinion, in an increase in the resonance of the Hamas narrative, increased Hamas power in the West Bank, further separation of the West Bank and Gaza and a fundamental shift in the nationalist movement away from a two-state solution. The third and worst case scenario also resulted from a non-substantive document and entailed Abbas either resigning or uniting the West Bank and Gaza under Hamas' terms followed by increased violence.

In the Q&A session that followed, Shikaki addressed the Palestinian refugee issue, outlining the parameters of a solution that would both satisfy this core Palestinian narrative without threatening the nature of the Israeli state. The results of Shikaki surveys of Palestinian refugees showed that, given a choice, a majority of Palestinian refugees would not choose to return to what is now Israel thereby losing their Palestinian identity and their right to self-determination. Most would choose to return to a new Palestinian state, accept third-country citizenship or move to the 'swapped areas' with Israel. However, the key to a successful resolution to this issue was Israel's recognition of the Palestinians' 'fundamental' right to return to their homes and the giving of the refugees a 'free choice to do so.' Once this was granted, surveys had shown a great deal of flexibility on the modalities of an agreement. 'Without recognition of this right for Palestinians,' Shikaki stressed, 'there would be no end of conflict.'

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