In this report, Khalil Shikaki analyzes survey data gathered from dozens of polls conducted over the past decade and identifies long-term trends in Palestinian public opinion and related policy implications.

Summary

  • Palestinian public opinion is not an impediment to progress in the peace process; to the contrary, over time the Palestinian public has become more moderate. Palestinian willingness to compromise is greater than it has been at any time since the start of the peace process. This increased willingness to compromise provides policymakers with greater room to maneuver.
  • For the first time since the start of the peace process, a majority of Palestinians support a compromise settlement that is acceptable to a majority of Israelis. Therefore, the time is ripe to deal with permanent-status issues. In order to frame such a process more positively for Palestinians, any vision of a final settlement needs to have an Arab, as well as an international, stamp of approval.
  • Palestinian opposition to violence increases when diplomacy proves effective. Public support for violence increases in an environment of greater pain and suffering and decreases when threat perception is reduced.
  • Palestinian misperception of Israeli public attitudes is evident even when it comes to one of the core elements of the peace process: the two-state solution. Lack of normal personal interaction, because the only Israelis most Palestinians encounter are soldiers or armed settlers, encourages misperception and the desire to portray the other side negatively.
  • All major transformations in Palestinian politics were preceded or accompanied by changes in public attitudes. The 1993 Oslo accords led to greater public willingness to oppose violence and support peace, negotiations, and reconciliation with Israel. Islamists lost much of their public support during this period.
  • With the collapse of Oslo in 2000, Hamas reemerged as a credible alternative to the nationalist Fateh movement and the peace process. Recent years have also witnessed a significant decline in public support for the nationalist old guard, and the ascendance of a new young guard.
  • By reducing threat perception, political and security stability has the advantage of reducing the appeal of violence and improving the prospects for Palestinian democracy. But only progress in the peace process can sustain such stability.
  • In the absence of progress toward sustained stability, it is highly unlikely that Palestinians will find their way to democracy and good governance. If they do manage to produce a democracy under such adverse conditions, it will be one dominated by the rise of Hamas and a declining prospect for peace with Israel.
  • The post-Arafat era shows more public optimism about the peace process and more willingness to compromise. Support for violence against Israelis, while still high, is declining. This period is also characterized by tougher competition between Fateh and Hamas, with the latter benefiting from weaker Palestinian Authority legitimacy at the local level, while corruption emerges as a weakness for Fateh and traditional nationalists.

Introduction

Palestinian youth carry posters at rally.
Young Palestinians hold portraits of the late leader Yasser Arafat during a rally to celebrate Israel's pullout from Gaza and the West Bank on September 8, 2005. (Courtesy AP Wide World)

All major transformations in modern Palestinian politics were preceded or accompanied by changes in public attitudes. In the 1970s, universities, schools, and Israeli economic and security policies helped to shift power from the traditional commercial and feudal classes to the nationalists. By 1976, when the first Palestinian local elections took place in the West Bank, the nationalists were already in control of the Palestinian masses; the election outcome only confirmed that. The first Palestinian intifada, in the late 1980s, brought about a second transformation, leading to the emergence of political Islam as a mobilizing force, and the parallel emergence of nationalist young guards who gradually came to pose a challenge to the dominance of the PLO's old guard in exile. As the first intifada was winding down, almost one-third of the public favored Islamist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The third transformation reflected the impact of the 1993 Oslo peace process and the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), leading to greater public willingness to oppose violence and support peace, negotiations, and reconciliation with the state of Israel. In the midst of this phase, the Islamists lost much of their public support. The fourth transformation began with the eruption of the second intifada, in September 2000, and led to the reemergence of Hamas, this time as a credible political and security challenge to the dominance of the nationalist Fateh and to the peace process. The second intifada also brought about a significant decline in the influence of the nationalist old guard, and the ascendance of the young guard.

Findings throughout 2005 show that the post-Arafat environment is already shaping the formation of Palestinian public attitudes, which in turn are likely to influence the outcome of the next transformation in Palestinian political life. The post-Arafat era is characterized by a much tougher competition between Fateh and Hamas, with the latter benefiting from weaker PA legitimacy at the local level, with corruption emerging as a major weakness for the nationalists. Moreover, the post-Arafat era shows more public optimism about the peace process and more willingness to compromise. Support for violence against Israelis, while still high, is declining.

This report examines major trends in Palestinian public opinion during the past two transformations: the one heralded by the Oslo peace process and the one brought about by the second intifada. It also examines the immediate effects of the death of Arafat, and the future trajectory this major event is likely to generate in public attitudes. The study first describes the basic process and turning points during the past decade and then outlines the basic trends in attitudes related to state building and peacemaking. It concludes with an assessment of the role of Palestinian public opinion in the peace process, and an examination of the policy implications that can be inferred from reviewing the basic trends in Palestinian attitudes. The study is based on more than one hundred polls conducted during the past eleven years by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, under the author's supervision, among Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.1

Two basic trends in state building are clear: the PA has gradually lost much of its popular legitimacy, and the competition between the nationalists and the Islamists has become fierce, with the dominance of Fateh becoming a thing of the past. Peacemaking trends have been mixed: over time, confidence in diplomacy dropped and support for violence increased, but surprisingly, willingness to compromise and support reconciliation continued to increase over time. In fact, Palestinian willingness to accept a two-state solution along with territorial and other compromises has never been as great as it is today.

One should not underestimate the role of public opinion. Despite a narrow tolerance of dissent during the past decade, Palestinian public opinion played a significant role in empowering and constraining leaders. It gave or deprived them of legitimacy to act in ways that significantly affected the prospects for peacemaking and state building. But public opinion has also been subject to manipulation and framing and has fallen victim at times to misperception and ignorance. The realities on the ground constrained its ability to play a more positive role in the peace process. Heightened threat perception increased public support for violence, while progress in the peace process and state building generated optimism, leading to greater moderation.

A policy aimed at articulating and promoting a permanent-status vision, reducing threat perception, and encouraging democratic norms and practices in the PA creates an environment conducive to progress in Palestinian state building and Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking. This conclusion is based on the following lessons, drawn from a review of past trends:

  • By reducing threat perception, political and security stability has the advantage of reducing the appeal of violence and improving the prospects for Palestinian democracy. But only progress in the peace process can sustain such stability.
  • Palestinian public opinion is not an impediment to progress in the peace process; to the contrary, its increased willingness to compromise provides policymakers with greater room to maneuver. When progress is attained, it is likely to further reduce the appeal of violence, weaken radical groups, and consolidate Palestinian democratic tendencies.
  • A Palestinian transition to democracy is likely to increase tolerance for dissent, reduce misperception, and thereby positively contribute to the goal of peacebuilding.
  • Yet, in the absence of progress toward sustained stability, it is highly unlikely that Palestinians will find their way to democracy and good governance.
  • And if they do manage to produce a democracy under such adverse conditions, it will be one dominated by the rise of Hamas and a declining prospect for peace with Israel.

Policy Implications

Three trends of long-term significance and three related policy implications emerge from this study. First, Palestinians are becoming more willing to compromise. Today, willingness to compromise is greater than it has been at any time since the start of the peace process. That this trend persisted even during the worst days of the second intifada attests to its depth. Second, public demand for violence is not stable; it responds to threat perception, to the level of pain and suffering imposed by the policies and actions of Israel. Positive stimuli that take measures to end the Israeli occupation produce greater rejection of violence, while steps that seek to inflict punishment increase support for violence. Third, processes of state building and peacemaking are highly interdependent. Therefore, any attempt at understanding the failures and successes of peacemaking in the Palestinian- Israeli conflict requires full awareness of the interplay between the two processes: state legitimacy and democracy facilitate peacebuilding and must not be sacrificed for the sake of short-term security gains.

The first policy implication should be obvious: the time is ripe for a permanent-status agreement. For the first time since the start of the peace process, a majority of Palestinians support a compromise settlement that is acceptable to a majority of Israelis. Leadership is needed to articulate a clear permanent-status vision, educate the public, and positively influence the framing process. The Bush administration can take the lead in this regard by articulating its own vision for permanent peace, perhaps by announcing "the Bush parameters." Giving the permanent-status vision an Arab, as well as a general international, stamp of approval can help frame it in a positive light for the Palestinians.

A greater involvement of the Quartet (the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia) in formulating that vision could also reduce negative framing effects. Greater communication among Palestinians, obtainable through greater democracy and greater tolerance for dissent, would reduce collective ignorance. In other words, success in producing greater Palestinian democracy can facilitate peacemaking and peacebuilding. Greater exchange between Palestinians and Israelis is likely to reduce misperceptions and increase each side's willingness to compromise and take risks. Projects aiming at promoting free exchange between Palestinians and Israelis, people-to-people, can help reduce the negative effects of misperceptions.

The second policy implication relates to the role of violence. Public support for violence increases in an environment of greater pain and suffering and decreases when threat perception is reduced. Moreover, opposition to violence increases when diplomacy proves effective. In other words, measures of collective punishment and humiliation, such as those used by the Israelis during the past five years, are counterproductive. The United States and the international community can help change Palestinian public perceptions regarding the role of violence by advising Israel to put an end to its closure regime, stop the humiliation at checkpoints, freeze settlement construction, and cease land confiscation and house demolitions. Termination of negotiations when violence erupts leaves the public dependent on violence as the only means to address grievances and deliver gains. Unilateral steps, when taken in the middle of the violence, as was the Israeli disengagement plan, strengthen public confidence in violence. The United States and the international community can reduce the negative consequences of Israeli unilateral steps by pressing Israel to negotiate future disengagement plans with the Palestinian Authority. This can be done by embedding such disengagement plans into the Quartet Road Map.

The third policy implication focuses on the link between democracy and the peace process. The overwhelming majority of Palestinians embrace both democratic political values and the peace process. Moreover, it has become evident over the past decade that lack of good governance has led to weak political institutions, widespread corruption, and the exclusion of the Islamists and young guard nationalists from the political process. As a result, weak PA institutions have failed to deliver on Palestinian peace commitments, just as they have failed to deliver vital services to the Palestinian public. Gradually the PA lost much of its legitimacy, which in turn emboldened its opposition to challenge its authority, leading to the creation of a state within a state. Perceiving a diminishing legitimacy, the PA leadership has lost the political will to enforce law and order or bring to account those who refuse to respect its security obligations. Moreover, the Islamists, who are perceived by the Palestinian public as uncorrupt, have managed to gain greater public credibility and respect, leading to a significant change in the domestic balance of power, which weakened the nationalists, who remain the backbone of the peace process.

It is clear today that only by creating a more open and inclusive political system, one that fights corruption while integrating Islamists and young guard nationalists into itself, can the Palestinians finally deal effectively with violence and empower their leadership to enforce its security commitments in the peace process. As the Palestinians examine their security commitments under the Road Map, it is clear that the quickest and most effective security reforms are those that seek to provide the Islamists the means to influence public policy from within, rather than from outside, the political institutions. Any attempt to forcibly disarm the Islamists and dissolve their militias is likely to fail the test of public support. Only by fighting corruption, including the removal of many of the top security officials, can the nationalist PA regain the support of the majority of the Palestinian public. Concerns about the impact of anticorruption steps on the PA's ability to deliver short-term security should not be allowed to paralyze the PA, since that might lead to greater insecurity in the mid and long term.

Notes

1. Data used in this study are taken from polls by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR). These surveys were conducted among Palestinians in the West Bank and the 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 Hebrew University and formerly at the United States Institute of Peace, and Khalil Shikaki. The surveys were conducted jointly with the Truman Institute at Hebrew University. All surveys used in this study can be found at the PSR Web site: http://www.pcpsr.org/survey/index.html.

About the Report

The United States Institute of Peace's Project on Arab-Israeli Futures is a research effort designed to anticipate and assess obstacles and opportunities facing the peace process in the years ahead. Stepping back from the day-to-day ebb and flow of events on the ground, this project examines deeper, over-the-horizon trends that could foreclose future options or offer new openings for peace. The effort brings together American, Israeli, and Arab researchers and is directed by Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate at the Institute.

In this report, Khalil Shikaki analyzes survey data gathered from dozens of polls conducted over the past decade and identifies long-term trends in Palestinian public opinion and related policy implications. Shikaki's study is essential reading for policy planners on all sides. The first study in the series, The Future of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Critical Trends Affecting Israel, by Yossi Alpher, was published in September 2005.

Khalil Shikaki is one of the foremost authorities on Palestinian public opinion and Palestinian national politics. The director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in Ramallah, Shikaki holds a PhD from Columbia University. He has served as senior consultant to the Independent Task Force on Strengthening Palestinian Public Institutions and has written numerous essays in leading publications around the world.

The views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect views of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policy positions.

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