Thursday, March 25, 2004

Khalil Shikaki in Madison

I just returned from a talk by Khalil Shikaki focused mainly on Palestinian public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shikaki is a Palestinian political scientist who wrote the first book in Arabic on Israeli public opinion, and has been involved in Track Two peace negotiations while doing tons of research on public attitudes and perceptions related to the conflict. His talk was really interesting, I represent it below as best I can.

Basically Shikaki focused on the evolution of Palestinian opinion on four key issues across five turning points of the last ten years. The "turning points" were the start of the Oslo process, the Camp David talks, the al-Aqsa Intifada, the Road Map, and the proposed unilateral Israeli disengagement. Of these, he said Camp David and the Road Map had little effect on Palestinian opinions. The other points gave rise to the following noticable changes on the issues"

The first issue was support for different Palestinian factions. Shortly before the Oslo process, when asked which Palestinian factions they would like to support in an election, 30% said Islamic militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, 45% said Fatah, 10% preferred nationalist radicals such as the PFLP, and about 5% said a minor group, while 10% didn't like any of the choices.

The Oslo process, however, provided a boost to Fatah at the expense of everyone else. During this period, 15% supported Hamas/IJ, 5% the PFLP, and 55% for Fatah. Once the Intifada got going, however, Fatah plummeted. Today, 35% support Hamas/IJ, while only 20% prefer Fatah. Most strikingly, according to Shikaki, a full 40% now dislike all the available choices.

This last development Shikaki related to changing perceptions of the Palestinian Authority. In 1996, voter turnout in the elections was 77%. At that time, just over 50% of Palestinians said they had good government and that the Palestinian Authority was basically honest. Four years later, however, they are more cynical. 20% of Palestinians today believe the PA is governed well, and 86% consider it corrupt. In this context, Shikaki described the rise of a "Young Guard" of Palestinians which disapproves of the "Old Guard" represented by the PA, but has not given rise to an organized leadership or political program.

The third issue he discussed was on violence and diplomacy. According to Shikaki's data, at the start of the Oslo process, 20% of the Palestinians favored violent resistance, while 80% favored diplomacy. There was no overlap between these two camps. Today, however, 80% still support diplomacy, but 80% also support violence, with a clear majority saying a combination of the two is necessary to reach their goals. According to Shikaki, the roots of this lie in Palestinian views of different Israeli governments and the idea that one government can undo the progress of another, as well as a sense that violence works fostered by Barak's withdrawal from Lebanon and something that caused me to scribble down "Hebron/Temple Mount tunnel." In addition, Palestinians are convinced that no progress will be made toward peace as long as Ariel Sharon is in office.

The final issue was the solutions people actually wanted to see. As time was running short, he focused mainly on the current data. As of October 2003, over half of Palestinians supported a two-state solution with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with Arab Jerusalem as the capital. However, only 1/3 of Palestinians believe most Palestinians support a two-state solution, and fewer than 20% believe Israelis want that. However, only 40% supported Barak's offer at Camp David. According to Shikaki, that last was probably due to a lack of knowledge among Palestinians about what Barak proposed. (This lack of knowledge among Palestinians came up a lot in his talk, and he attributed it to the traditionalist nature of Palestinian society and an authoritarian streak within the government interfering with civil discourse. Another point that came up later was that even 40% of Hamas supporters wanted a two-state solution, and Fatah was bleeding support to them mainly on issues related to corruption and public services. This accounts in part for Hamas leaders occasional statements about long-term truces with Israel as they seek to broaden their appeal.)

With regard to the unilateral steps, Shikaki focused mainly on Gaza, and said that as far as he could tell, the results would be, first, the "total collapse and disintegration of the Palestinian Authority," very quickly in Gaza, but soon in the West Bank, as well. This would be accompanied by an increase in violence as Palestinians perceived it was working. Hamas would be the main political beneficiaries.

What Shikaki is calling for at the moment, and what he said he lobbied for in Washington, was for Palestinian elections prior to a Gaza withdrawal. Based on his research/perceptions, he said that Fatah would likely win such elections, as the opinions of the disengaged 40% match them most closely. Hamas and IJ would likely not get more than the 35% or so which forms their core support, and would not join a coalition with Fatah. He said the benefits of this would be 1.) Creating a Palestinian leadership with renewed legitimacy that can act on crucial issues, 2.) Integrate Hamas and IJ into the system, thus making them less likely to use violence outside the formal PA framework while forcing Fatah to reform or risk losing support, and 3.) Reflect the above opinions about the two-state solution, helping bring to popular consciousness where people really stand.

Anyway, I won't try to add anything to his comments. He's also going to have an article in tomorrow's New York Times. (Regrettably, I didn't have the chance to actually meet him by name like I have most of our speakers, but all well.)


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