Israelis and Palestinians agree in poll: Negotiations are the key

BY RACHELLE KLIGER, THE MEDIA LINE LTD.

Both Israelis and Palestinians prefer to see future withdrawals from the West Bank take place with negotiations, rather than being carried out unilaterally, a joint Israeli-Palestinian opinion poll indicates.

The poll was the 15th in a series of surveys gauging public opinion since 2000, shortly after the collapse of the Camp David summit.

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According to the poll, around three quarters of both Palestinians and Israelis would like to see further withdrawals in the West Bank take place within a framework of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, while 23 percent of Palestinians and 17 percent of Israelis would prefer further withdrawals to be unilateral.

The poll was conducted by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah. Pollsters questioned 1,270 Palestinian adults in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip between March 16 and 18, with a margin of error of 3 percent. On the Israeli side, 603 adults were questioned between March 16 and 21 with a 4 percent margin of error. The results were published several weeks later.

Among the Palestinian public, there is “significant support” for further withdrawals, whether negotiated or not, said Dr. Khalil Shikaki, who supervised the Palestinian element of the poll. “This applies to all factions and all sectors of society,” Shikaki said, including supporters of Hamas and Fatah.

On the Israeli side, polls indicate low support for the plan of the elected premier, Ehud Olmert, to unilaterally withdraw from sections of the West Bank. Olmert’s proposal aims to evacuate Jewish communities east of the security barrier and “converge” them into four large blocs.

Olmert said he will first offer the Palestinians the possibility of reaching an agreement through negotiations, if the Hamas government recognizes the state of Israel. But if negotiations fail to commence, he will act unilaterally.

“I think he’s trying very hard to recruit legitimacy for his plan,” said Dr. Yaakov Shamir, from the Truman Institute and the Department of Communication and Journalism at the Hebrew University. Shamir, who supervised the Israeli side of the poll, said the public does not perceive the election results as a mandate for Olmert to go ahead with his plan. In the March elections, Olmert’s Kadima party won 29 seats in the Israeli parliament, less than a quarter of the 120-seat assembly.

According to the poll, 56 percent of Israelis support evacuating both Jewish communities and the army from parts of the West Bank. “But most Israelis prefer, as the Palestinians, a negotiated approach rather than a unilateral approach,” Shamir said.

Talking with Hamas?

The rise to power of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) poses questions regarding the feasibility of Israel talking with a party that does not recognize its existence. “We have found that about three-quarters of the Palestinians would like Hamas to negotiate with Israel, and that includes a majority of Hamas voters,” Shikaki said.

According to the poll, 62 percent of Israelis think Israel should talk with Hamas if this is required to reach a settlement with the Palestinians. Shamir implied that this indicates a moderating trend among the Israeli public, because in previous polls less than half the interviewees supported this.

However, optimism on both sides remains relatively low. “Israelis are very skeptical about Hamas’ ability to adapt to the new reality, to give up its armed struggle and its ideology of not recognizing Israel,” Shamir said. Israelis also feel threatened by Hamas’ aspiration to take over Israel, including the pre-1967 territories. “There’s no optimism in this regard,” he said.

The international community, and particularly United States and its partners in the Quartet, will determine the path to proceed, Shamir said, and here Olmert’s freedoms are limited. “The United States cannot afford these days to be perceived as assisting Israel to annex unilaterally large settlement blocs, not to mention the areas around Jerusalem.” The question, he said, is not whether Olmert will initiate negotiations, but with whom, and what will be the specific framework?

Talking with Abbas

The poll suggests that 60 percent of Israelis support entering negotiations with P.A. Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, but less than half believe it is possible to reach a settlement with Abbas and the Fatah leadership.

Nevertheless, former Palestinian labor minister Ghasan Al-Khatib said he thinks negotiations with Abbas should be the next step. “According to the Palestinian constitution, it’s the president who has the mandate to negotiate with outside parties and governments,” he said. “Reviving the peace process will strengthen the peaceful tendency within Palestinian public opinion and weaken Hamas and its popularity on the other hand.”

Shikaki does not see the future of negotiations through rose-tinted glasses. He believes that since the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships do not see in each other negotiating partners, the most effective and feasible Palestinian partner is a broad coalition of Palestinian forces that includes both Fatah and Hamas. However, he does not think this is likely to materialize. Even if Fatah agrees to be part of a coalition with Hamas, which he said is unlikely, he does not think the Israeli government will be willing to negotiate with such a grouping.

Maj. Gen. Shlomo Gazit, a former head of Israel’s Military Intelligence, said that in his opinion, despite indications that both people prefer a negotiated solution, the only feasible answer is unilateral acts by both parties.

If Israel makes no withdrawals, Gazit said, whether negotiated or unilateral, it will create a situation where a two-state solution is no longer possible. “The result will be an enormous emergence of violence between the two sides.”

Even if Israel were to negotiate with Abbas, without Hamas, Gazit said, and “by a miracle” the two sides would be able to reach a final settlement, he believes it will be impossible for Abbas to impose this agreement on the elected Hamas government, unless Hamas accepts the terms of the agreement.

Al-Khatib disagrees. “[Abbas] doesn’t need to impose it on the Hamas government. The government, according to the constitution, is not party to the negotiations. Constitutionally speaking, the government is irrelevant in this regard.”

Although the poll indicates that both populations do not agree with the current policies of their elected leaders, the pollsters are aware that decision-makers will not necessarily act according to where the wind is blowing amongst the general public. “We know that public opinion rarely dictates specific policies,” Shamir said, “but rather delineates a range of acceptable options within which leaders operate. Hamas senses support of Palestinian public opinion for its own policies right now,” he said. “The question is to what extent it’s sensitive also to rejection of its policies.”