by Khalil Shikaki
The Palestinian political landscape is changing. Shifts in public attitudes between September and December 2004 show significant changes in outlook regarding major domestic, as well as Israeli-Palestinian, issues. The passing of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat may have been responsible. This piece examines these changes, focusing in particular on four areas: signs of optimism, shifts in the domestic balance of power, level of support for the peace process and, finally, Palestinian public perception of the role of violence. (1)
A poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in Ramallah between December 1-5, 2004, shows an emerging new reality in the Palestinian territories compared to the situation that had prevailed three and six months earlier, when PSR conducted polls in September and June .The December poll was the first comprehensive PSR survey since the Arafatís death and it was designed to measure changes in public attitudes regarding major issues of the day. Poll findings indicated a more optimistic atmosphere, a significant drop in the level of support for Hamas and a big increase in the level of support for Fateh, and a higher level of support for peace-related issues. The survey however registered only minor changes in the publicís perception regarding the role of violence.
The smooth transition of power after the death of Arafat, the election of a pro-peace member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee, Mahmoud Abbas, as chairman of that committee, the virtual absence of violence despite the gloomy expectations, and the quick preparations for elections may have all been responsible for the new optimism. The welcoming manner in which the U.S. and Israel responded to Abbasí appointment and his probable election may have increased positive expectations regarding a return to negotiations and the chances for reaching a peace agreement. The new optimism and expectations may have, in turn, generated the increased support for the peace process. Previous surveys have shown a significant correlation between optimistic expectations and willingness to compromise in the peace process. Hamasí loss of support, which started a few months before Arafatís death, may have been due to the reduced level of violence in the second half of 2004. The inability of Hamas to respond to several successful Israeli assassinations against its top leadership, and the fact that the Islamist movement had decided to boycott the upcoming presidential elections, may have also contributed to a loss of support for Hamas. Increased support for Fateh might be explained by the appreciation people had for the way Fateh dealt with the post-Arafat succession issue. The expectation that differences within that faction would lead to a violent struggle for power never materialized. A bandwagon factor may have also helped Fateh, as new supporters might have expected big gains from backing the faction that was most likely to win the upcoming presidential elections.
Optimism is best illustrated in the way the public responded to four questions: (1) the way Arafatís death would affect the chances for a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis; (2) the possibility of reaching a compromise with the current Israeli leadership of Ariel Sharon; (3) if a comprise is reached, the capacity of the current Israeli leadership to convince a majority of Israelis to support it; and, finally, (4) the capacity of the current Palestinian leadership (after Arafat) to be able to convince the Palestinians to accept it. As Chart number.1 indicates, a majority responded that Arafatís death would lead to a greater chance for a peace agreement. Similarly, a majority responded in the affirmative to the other three questions. For example, 53 percent believed that compromise was indeed possible with the current Israeli leadership and only 34 percent believed that it was impossible. It is worth noting that in July 2001, 10 months after the start of the current intifada, 46 percent said this was the end of the peace process. It is also worth noting that belief in the possibility to reach a compromise settlement with the current Israeli leadership was higher among Fateh supporters 61 percent, compared with 38 percent among supporters of Hamas.
Optimism is also evident in the way public attitudes changed before and after Arafatís death with regard to three important issues: (1) expectations regarding a return to negotiations and an end to violence; (2) belief regarding the chances for the implementation of the Road Map; and (3) belief regarding the chances of reconciliation between the two peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians. As Table No. 1 shows, the expectations that the two sides will soon return to negotiations almost doubled to 30 percent in three months. The expectations that the two sides will not return to negotiations and violence will increase dropped dramatically to 12 percent. The belief that the Road Map can still be implemented increased by almost two-thirds to 46 percent. The percentage of those believing that reconciliation is never possible dropped from about half to one-third and the percentage of those believing it can be achieved in the timeframe of a few years to one generation increased by a third to 39 percent.
Increased Support for the Peace Process
Poll findings show a high level of support for four aspects of the peace process: (1) immediate return to negotiations; (2) support for a cease-fire; (3) support for reconciliation; and (4) support for the Road Map. Support for a cease-fire and for an immediate return to negotiations is very high, reaching 80 percent for each. The level of support for reconciliation has never been higher, reaching 81 percent. With regard to the plan known as the Road Map, findings show that 59 percent support the plan and 38 percent oppose it. In July 2003, when optimism was very high (with Mahmoud Abbas appointed prime minister) support for the Road Map reached 56 percent and opposition 41 percent.
Shifts in the Domestic Balance of Power
The post-Arafat era witnessed a significant increase in the popularity of Fateh from 29 percent in September 2004 to 40 percent in December, and a significant decrease in the popularity of the Islamists (Hamas, Islamic Jihad and independent Islamists) from 32 percent to 24 percent. The increase in support for Fateh was higher in the Gaza Strip, from 24 percent to 38 percent, and the decrease in support for the Islamists was also greater in the Gaza Strip, from 38 percent to 26 percent. With this change, the differences in the popularity of the Islamists and Fateh between the West Bank, on one hand, and the Gaza Strip, on the other, has now narrowed to negligible proportion. As Chart Number 3 below shows, September 2004 saw the greatest gap between the two Palestinian areas in terms of political affiliation, with the Gaza Strip gradually becoming a stronghold of Islamists. The popularity of Hamas alone dropped in the whole of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from 22 percent in September to 18 percent in December. In the Gaza Strip, Hamasí popularity dropped from 30 percent to 22 percent.
But as the chart indicates, the decrease in support for the Islamists started in June 2004, long before Arafatís death. As mentioned earlier, it is possible that support for the Islamists, particularly Hamas, dropped in June due to the inability of that faction to respond to the Israeli assassinations of its top leaders, and that the acceleration in the decline of its support between September and December may have been caused by the factionís decision to boycott the presidential elections. The decrease in the level of violence during the second half of 2004 may have also contributed to a reduction in the level of threat perception. Higher threat perception is usually associated with an increased level of support for Islamists. An election environment, in which Fateh was certain to win, may have also contributed to the rise of support for Fateh. It is worth remembering that a similar trend of increased support for Fateh and decreased support for Islamists was observed in December 1995, one month before the first Palestinian elections in January 1996.
The Role of Violence
Palestinian attitudes regarding the role of violence has been measured in the post-Arafat era in four ways: (1) the level of support for violence against Israeli civilians inside Israel; (2) the belief that armed confrontations have helped achieve national rights in ways that negotiations could not; (3) the perception of disengagement as a victory for armed struggle; and (4) the belief regarding who came out a winner in the continued armed confrontations. While data show that the post-Arafat period has witnessed some decrease in the level of support for violence and in the belief that Palestinians, rather than Israelis, came out winners in the armed confrontations, and despite the great support for mutual cessation ofviolence (mentioned above), support for armed attacks against Israeli civilians inside Israel remains relatively high at 49 percent (December 2004). As Chart Number 4 indicates, this percentage represents a drop of 5 percentage points compared to the finding of September 2004, and a drop of 8 percentage points compared to the findings early in the year. Opposition to such attacks increased from 44 percent to 48 percent during the same period. A similar trend is evident with regard to future attacks from the Gaza Strip after the Israeli withdrawal. Two-thirds (compared to 54 percent in September 2004) oppose the continuation of armed attacks from the Gaza Strip after a complete withdrawal.
Despite the modest drop in support for attacks on Israeli civilians, the majority continued to view armed confrontations as helping the Palestinians achieve national rights in ways that negotiations could not. December 2004 saw no change in public perception regarding this matter, as can be seen in Chart Number 5.
Moreover, three-quarters of the Palestinians continued to believe in December that Sharonís plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip is a victory for Palestinian armed resistance against Israel, and only 23 percent did not see it as victory. In fact, as Chart Number 6 shows, the December findings indicate an increase (from 71 to 78) in the percentage of those who believe the prevailing public attitude among the majority of the Palestinians is that Sharonís plan is a victory for armed struggle.
Finally, the December 2004 findings indicate that more than one-third (35 percent compared to 40 percent three months earlier) believe that Palestinians have come out winners in the ongoing armed conflict that started in September 2000, and 14 percent (compared to 16 percent three months earlier) believe Israel came out a winner. But the highest percentage (44 percent) is for those who believe neither side came out a winner. In the Gaza Strip, the percentage of those believing the Palestinians came out winners reached 46 percent compared to 28 percent in the West Bank. Belief that no one, so far, has come out a winner has increased in the West Bank (48 percent) compared to the Gaza Strip (37 percent).Yet, 43 percent of all Palestinians (compared to 48 percent in June 2004) believe that most Palestinians think they came out winners, and 59 percent (compared to 51 percent) believe the Israelis think Palestinians came out winners.
The PSR December survey conducted after the Arafatís death reveals a highly positive environment, with rising optimism, increased support for the peace process, and significant shifts in the domestic balance of power favoring the mainstream nationalist forces. The findings also show changes in the way Palestinians view violence in the ongoing armed confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis. But the change regarding the role of violence is limited and tentative and can be easily reversed with a major eruption of violence. In other words, the changes introduced by Arafatís death are significant and do provide a window of opportunity if capitalized on, but they remain highly fragile.
(1) Data used in this piece was taken from polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) during 2004. These surveys were carried out among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Average sample size in each survey is about 1,300 and the margin of error is 3 percent. The questionnaires for some of the surveys used in this piece were designed by Yaacov Shamir, professor of communication and journalism at the Hebrew University and currently at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and by Khalil Shikaki the surveys were conducted jointly with the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University.