Anticipating September

A broad Palestinian majority, 64%, supports a complete end of the conflict and the end of all further claims.

abbas at UN_311 reuters (photo credit: REUTERS)
abbas at UN_311 reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE DEBATE SURROUNDING Palestinian statehood is taking on new urgency as the September 2011 date for the possible unilateral declaration, and subsequent possible, even if unlikely, recognition by the UN General Assembly, approaches. Israeli leaders have steadfastly toed the line that such a unilateral action is to be rejected, and Israel is lobbying hard internationally to convince countries not to recognize such a state.
Among the Israeli public, fear seems to be the primary sentiment. In a column published here just over one year ago, we showed that a majority of the Israeli public (54%) believed that such a scenario is a threat to Israel; only 29% thought it might create an opportunity.
The sentiment seems to have grown stronger since then: according to May’s monthly Peace Index survey, conducted through Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute, fully 70% of Israelis are convinced that a unilateral declaration will lead Palestinians to start a third intifada – perhaps out of frustration that nothing on the ground has changed.
Israelis are fearful of violence, but much of the Israeli fear seems rooted in a deep belief that if the Palestinians win this unilateral battle, they will be emboldened to continue struggling until they achieve all their goals.
Of what purported Palestinian goals are the Israelis so afraid? For years, surveys have consistently shown that Israelis believe that Palestinians seek their (the Israelis’) doom: In a survey conducted by the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University in late March, the clear plurality of Israelis – 40% – say that Palestinians ultimately want to take back all the land from before 1948 and destroy much of the Jewish population, while another 17% say Palestinians want only to take over the all the land; only 28% believe that the ultimate goal is to take back 1967 land.
Are these fears justified? What do the Palestinians believe? How do the Palestinians view their situation? What are their hopes and fears? What do they want and how do they hope to get it? Although The Jerusalem Report does not currently poll within the Palestinian Authority, primarily for logistical reasons, there is extensive polling data available regarding Palestinian public opinion. However, little of this rich material is covered in the Israeli media. In response, The Report decided to provide a roundup of data, in an attempt to “look inside” the Palestinian people’s minds at this historic moment – and perhaps learn about the realities behind Israeli fears.
POLLING OF PALESTINIAN PUBLIC opinion has dealt elaborately with various aspects of Palestinian goals, conflict attitudes, and responses to recent dramatic developments.
With regard to the basic question – what Palestinian people want in terms of ending the conflict – the most recent poll by veteran pollster Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), based on 1,200 respondents and conducted face-to-face between June 16 and 18, shows that for a clear plurality (48%), the overall top goal is to end the occupation and declare a state on the land conquered by Israel in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital. One quarter (26%) of the respondents replied that their top goal is to achieve the right of return for Palestinian refugees to their 1948 homes. We do, note, however that it is possible that the highly publicized refugee riots in May are on people’s minds, and that without those events the number might have been lower.
An earlier poll, conducted in April by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC) a polling institute in Ramallah, and based on 1,198 respondents, shows that 53% prefer a two-state solution, while 22% seek an equal, binational state on all the land. Contrary to Israelis’ fears, only 10% sought a purely Palestinian state on all the land.
In a survey commissioned by the Geneva Initiative, an Israeli and Palestinian citizenled initiative for a peace agreement, and conducted by the Palestinian company Alpha Research in late November 2010, based on 1,358 respondents, a wide 79% majority of Palestinians supported the position of the Geneva Initiative, regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 areas. Two-thirds (68%) accept the Initiative’s clause according to which Israel would withdraw from the territories conquered in 1967, with 3% equal land swaps. (It is worthwhile noting that this is consistent with the language used by US President Barack Obama in his speeches in May, in which he referred to negotiations based on the 1967 borders with adjustments.) In that poll, in which the questions were presented in the context of a hypothetical agreement, a broad Palestinian majority, 64%, also supports a complete end of the conflict and the end of all further claims.
These data indicate that the majority of Palestinians at this point are more focused on statehood based on 1967 territory – with or without negotiations – than on other goals.
Furthermore, in a December 2010 survey by Near East Consulting, a Ramallah-based polling firm, more than six-in-ten (62%) Palestinians supported a change in Hamas’s position that calls for the destruction of Israel.
All of these various indicators stand in contrast to Israeli expectations that such destruction of present-day Israel and the Jewish population is the main Palestinian aspiration.
HOW DO PALESTINIANS HOPE TO reach their goals? The Geneva Initiative survey shows that a majority, 53%, believe that a political solution (in contrast to a military situation) is the best way to end the conflict. And the December poll by Near East Consulting showed that the strong majority, 69%, said they would have preferred to reach a negotiated agreement – this is ten points higher than a survey by Near East Consulting from half a year earlier. The JMCC, which does regular polling, conducted a survey in April, based on 1,198 respondents, which registered a significant rise in support for non-violent strategies as the best response to the current political conditions. From the 38% who supported non-violent approaches in January 2009, support rose to 52% who support non-violence in the current April survey. Support for violent approaches declined in almost reverse numbers: from 53% to 37%.
These findings indicate that the Palestinians have developed high hopes for the new national strategy of international diplomacy rather than organized armed resistance.
The observation is bolstered by the finding from the JMCC survey that the percentage of those who believe that firing rockets into Israel helps Palestinians has fallen to half of what it was in 2009 – from 51% at that time, to just one-quarter who believe this is good for Palestinian goals.
It seems that the unilateral declaration strategy and the perception that global sympathies are on their side has given Palestinians some measure of hope. Until the unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas, the split in Palestinian leadership was one of the top Palestinian concerns; now, together with extensive data showing support for the agreement, Palestinians show small signs of optimism in general. In the June PSR survey, the percentage of West Bank and Gaza residents who expressed satisfaction is climbing: 37% in the West Bank and 25% in Gaza say things in general are good or very good – these dismal numbers are actually the highest in both places since 2007 – when 27% in the West Bank were satisfied, and just 8% in Gaza.
BACK TO THE ISRAELI FEARS: Israelis are concerned that a Palestinian state will morph quickly into a Hamas-run Islamic state that unleashes hatred and violence against Israel.
The latest surveys do not uphold this fear, either: The JMCC poll, taken prior to the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, showed that nearly half of the respondents (46%) said they preferred a government of independent figures while 29% preferred a Fatah-majority government. Just 13% responded that they would prefer a Hamasmajority government. And in the June PSR survey, 61% hoped the new leadership would follow the foreign policy of Fatah – 59% optimistically felt the reconciliation agreement would work to unite the West Bank and Gaza.
What if elections were to be held now? For several years, surveys have consistently shown low support for Hamas; but that doesn’t alleviate Israelis’ concerns. Back in March 2009, when we last examined Palestinian opinion, based on a roundup of surveys, this column made the following observation: Not even four years after the 2006 electoral victory, surveys show Hamas in something like a free-fall by nearly all measures. Data from PSR in June shows that in a presidential election, 54%, an absolute majority, would choose current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas from the Fatah, while 38% would vote for Hamas’s self-appointed prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh. When PSR asked about parliamentary elections, 42% chose Fatah, and 28% voted for Hamas.
So it looks like Fatah has the advantage, but observers should be careful – it’s not an insurmountable advantage. In the PSR survey, 19% are undecided – that’s beyond the Fatah advantage in both presidential and parliamentary data cited above. But Palestinians also notoriously do not trust any faction in recent years in general. Near East Consulting, which has tracked such factional trust monthly or bi-monthly since 2006, shows that roughly 40% regularly say they do not trust any faction; at two points this number rose to 52% (in the NEC October 2010 survey, 38% said they trusted no faction). That means the electoral outcome is still quite uncertain.
Finally, some still hope that negotiations can see an 11th-hour breakthrough. But there is no indication that Israelis and Palestinians have any inclination to get back to negotiations of their own initiative; more likely, negotiations would only get started again with American prodding.
Judging from public opinion, neither society is too thrilled about that prospect.
Surveys in Israel regularly show that at best, Obama is viewed as neutral (usually a plurality chooses this response); but he is often seen to favor Palestinians. Among Palestinians, the exact opposite is true: fully 92% in the latest JMCC poll from June believe that Obama favors Israel.
A study released in May by Pew, a major international think tank that conducts publicinterest surveys around the globe, released in May, shows that Palestinians hold among the most negative attitudes towards Obama and the US from among seven countries surveyed in the region. Ninety-one percent, more than any other sample in the region, believe the US could become a military threat to their country.
And fully 84% – again, more than any of the other peoples surveyed – said they have little or no confidence in Obama.
Finally, despite some internal optimism and a clear course of action for Palestinians, there is plenty that could go wrong. The Near East Consulting survey from December found that 47% of Palestinians are living in poverty.
A recent report by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees said that 45% of Gazans were unemployed, as reported in Ynet, an Israeli Internet news site.
The political hopes expressed in the data above could turn into deep disappointment if the unilateral statehood plan falls through, and Palestinians are left only with the hardships of poverty and unemployment. When Palestinian (and Israeli) hopes were dashed after the Camp David negotiations in 2000 failed, and Palestinians felt that they had achieved little during the Oslo years, violence broke out.
Therefore, it’s not illogical that 70% of Israelis worry about a third intifada; 71% of Palestinians do too, according to a survey by Dr. Nabil Kukali and the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion (PCPO – another longtime polling institute).
Of all the many unknown scenarios come September, that’s one that should be avoided.