A way out of the morass

Can the Palestinian mood be leveraged for change?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE STARTLING and not widely known results of a comprehensive Palestinian survey published in early February would probably surprise most Israelis and could have important ramifications. Conducted by the Ramallah-based Arab World for Research and Development, it showed that most Palestinians have little faith in violent resistance, oppose a third intifada and are most concerned about their economic well-being and personal safety.
Respondents in both Gaza and the West Bank were asked, inter alia, about the effect of the current wave of terror on their everyday lives, how they rated the performance of Palestinian political institutions and whether they thought the Palestinian Authority (PA) would survive.
The findings revealed very interesting trends in and of themselves and in comparison to earlier surveys by the same institute.
The general mood reflects a dialectical ambivalence: widespread despair at current economic and security realities coupled with optimism over the respondents’ personal futures and the PA’s chances of survival.
Most of the respondents maintain that the current wave of terror that erupted last October has been counterproductive for the Palestinian side and oppose a third intifada.
This is in stark contrast to the clear majority for continuing the uprising in a survey by the same institute five months ago. In the current survey most respondents, especially those from the West Bank, point to a deterioration in their sense of personal safety and their economic situation.
Most believe that Palestine is being led in a wrong direction. Still, half the respondents are optimistic about the future.
Most of the one-third of respondents who heard Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s key early January speech agree with him that the PA will not collapse and that there is no rival political actor who could offer an alternative strategy. A clear majority of respondents oppose dismantling the PA and restoring full Israeli occupation of the Palestinian-run areas of the West Bank.
Nevertheless, most respondents rate the performances of Abbas, PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh as weak.
As to future presidential elections, Abbas, the incumbent, holds a significant lead over Haniyeh, the Gaza-based Hamas leader.
Surprisingly (or perhaps not) in Gaza, Abbas garners more support than he does in his home base in the West Bank. Regarding elections to the Palestinian parliament, Abbas’s Fatah wins twice the support of Hamas and emerges as easily the most popular party.
The Israeli public is not necessarily familiar with the prevailing mood and deeper trends in Palestinian society. It relies for its information on the Israeli media, which tend to focus on intensive coverage of the current wave of terror, highlighting statements on the violence by Israeli political leaders and emphasizing the PA’s incitement and poor performance.
This is not to gainsay either the PA’s incitement or its poor performance; but beyond this there are significant underlying trends that should be understood and taken into account.
The immediate inference from the survey findings is that the policy of restraint and containment advocated by the IDF with the backing of both the defense minister and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sound. Given that most Palestinians oppose the current wave of terror and see in it a wrongheaded strategic choice, it makes sense for Israel to distinguish between Palestinian society as a whole and the initiators and perpetrators of terror.
But the fact that the survey points to a loss of confidence in the Palestinian leadership and a low estimate of its performance alongside optimism over the future suggests that Israel would be well advised to weigh a more comprehensive and sophisticated policy. Beyond maintaining the distinction between the vast majority of Palestinians and the terrorists, and increasing the number of permits for Palestinians to work in Israel, a more extensive policy could leverage the trends identified in the survey toward a more substantial accommodation.
A comprehensive policy leading to significant improvement in the quality of Palestinian life, encouraging entrepreneurs, the young, the educated and the opponents of violence, could spur the rise of new, energetic local leaderships which, in turn, could back the PA and provide it with an array of functioning grass-roots institutions. In other words, state-building from the bottom up – not dependent on progress in peacemaking or driven by external international forces.
It may even be possible to restart the peace process in this way by providing genuine economic incentives, leading to pressure on the terrorists by a Palestinian mainstream intent on improving its standard of living and convinced that the PA, at least for now, cannot deliver.
Israel has a range of options to promote these trends. Clearly, it should make a genuine effort to improve Palestinian economic life, bringing in the international community, especially the pragmatic Arab world, and also taking pains to further efforts to rehabilitate Gaza.
These efforts should not be seen as a substitute for a peace deal or negotiations with the Palestinians. On the contrary, by spurring the Palestinian grass roots and middle class looking to improve living standards, they could inject new blood into the clotted veins of the PA, reinvigorating it and restoring public confidence.
Under such conditions, renewal of the peace process is far more likely. A genuine large-scale economic initiative could create conditions conducive to rebuilding trust between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships and establish a new basis for legitimation among the people on both sides for significant government commitment to peacemaking.
Initiatives the Israeli government could take include: allocating parts of the Israeli- controlled Area C in the West Bank (peripheral for settlement but adjacent to PA-controlled territories) for Palestinian industrial parks, helping to develop infrastructure and technological centers; encouraging Israeli companies, with the accent on hi-tech, to develop collaborative ventures with Palestinian counterparts; offering training courses for Palestinian farmers, help in starting farms and other agricultural ventures in partnership with Israel’s Volcani Agricultural Research Organization, agricultural associations and other experts; improving water and electricity infrastructures; launching joint tourism ventures; upgrading medical infrastructures, instruction and training of Palestinian medical personnel in Israeli hospitals, help in building new Palestinian hospitals and clinics; developing transport infrastructures and more.
The government of Israel should present its ideas to potential partners in the international community and the pragmatic Arab states, and invite them to help prepare a masterplan with the same seriousness, thoroughness and professionalism it demands of such plans in Israel itself. It should commit to investing the necessary effort and resources, and express readiness for concrete action and allocation of funds.
It is reasonable to assume that there will be many difficulties and pitfalls along the way. The PA won’t necessarily support or encourage plans developed in Israel; the Arab states are liable to balk; and the international community is tired.
However, the dilemma Israel faces is whether to wait for a Palestinian leadership that deigns to return to the negotiating table without preconditions and abandons its internationalization of the conflict strategy – in other words to sanctify the status quo – or to leverage the attitudes and underlying trends in Palestinian society that can be utilized to transform the highly problematic present.
Leveraging these trends could help contain and even check the current wave of terror, laying the foundations for the emergence of a new dynamic, more representative Palestinian leadership, ready to rise to the challenge of new initiatives that could improve the quality of life in the PA territories.
This, in turn, could raise the level of support for the political process and strengthen the PA, which does not enjoy wide legitimacy and is currently finding it difficult to function effectively.
Dr. Kobi Michael is a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies.