Direct negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis are being resumed this week. Although the majority of people on both sides do not believe the peace talks have a chance of succeeding, neither do they think there is any alternative to continuing negotiations. Muhannad Adam with the well-known Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki on this issue
A new round of direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians began this week in Washington, initiated by the USA. What do the Palestinian and Israeli people actually think of the peace process? Do the opinion surveys you regularly conduct show that they still hold out hope for peace?
Khalil Shikaki: The Israelis and Palestinians set great stock in the negotiations. Israel is trying by way of the talks first to shake off the pressure being placed on it by the USA mainly due to its settlement policy. And the Palestinians, who hardly have any faith anymore in Netanyahu's government, whether in direct or indirect talks, are first and foremost interested in exposing how different the present Israeli regime is from previous ones. They want to show that negotiating with the current government is futile.
People no longer believe that the talks can lead to peace. Nevertheless, most hold the fundamental conviction that the negotiations between Israel and Palestine should be carried on all the same.
Both the Israelis and Palestinians are prepared to make the necessary concessions, even painful ones, to come to a peace agreement. Under these circumstances it is therefore by all means possible that a solution to the problem could be reached.
What, in your opinion, might a solution look like that would be acceptable to both sides?
Khalil Shikaki: An acceptable solution must begin with the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in which the residents can live in peace, safety and in cooperation with Israel. At the same time, solutions must be found for the refugee issue as well as for the status of the holy sites.
There is in principle a large majority on both sides in favour of resolving these issues. The problem is that people can't agree on what exactly the solutions for Jerusalem and the refugee problem should be. And anyway, negotiations with Netanyahu, whether direct or indirect, will not bring success because of his government's right-wing orientation.
The fraternal strife between Hamas and Fatah poses an obstacle to the peace efforts. Where do you think the reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah are heading, and do your opinion surveys give any indication of who people think is responsible for the current impasse?
Khalil Shikaki: In this matter the Palestinian public trusts Fatah more than Hamas, although in the past both sides have been thought guilty of dooming the negotiations to failure. If one asks the Palestinians directly who they think caused the talks to break down, the answer is always that both sides bear equal blame. If one asks in a less direct way, however, then it can be seen that one quarter of those surveyed lean more toward the view that Hamas bears the brunt of the responsibility for the failed negotiations.
Let me give you an example. When we ask people: Imagine that elections were to be held and Hamas would emerge triumphant. How would that influence the chances for reconciliation? And what influence would a victory by Fatah have? The answers clearly show that people think the danger of splitting the Palestinian population would be greater were Hamas to win, while the chances for reconciliation of both sides would be better if Fatah were to prevail.
Bolstered by international and European support, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is playing an increasingly prominent role in Palestinian society. Fatah views him more and more as a serious rival. Are Fatah's fears of this new competition justified?
Khalil Shikaki: At the moment there is no good reason to dread the "Salam Fayyad phenomenon", because it does not yet have a genuine basis in Palestinian society. "The Fayyad phenomenon" means nothing more than that a technocrat like Fayyad, who does not come from the realm of politics and who has to date participated in neither the establishment of the nationalist movement nor in the Palestinian resistance, could end up leading the building of a Palestinian state. This principle, for which Fayyad stands, is not yet accepted by the Palestinian public.
That said, Fayyad has indeed achieved a great deal and is increasingly gaining the trust of the Palestinians. This is not least due to his attitude toward the arbitrary arrests of Hamas supporters in the West Bank, which often take place without any legal basis whatsoever.
Although the public by all means recognises Fayyad's accomplishments with respect to the improved economic situation and security, they have not yet accepted him as their new political leader. To that extent, Fatah's anxiety at his growing influence is unfounded.
There are rumours of a possible deal with regard to Iran's nuclear programme and the Middle East peace process. The rationale is that, in order to get a green light from the Arab states for their strike against Iran, the USA and Israel would first have to make concessions in the Middle East conflict. Do you believe that such a deal might exist?
Khalil Shikaki: That kind of deal is not part of the debate at the moment, but might offer an option for strategic action at some time in the future. After all, not only Israel is worried about Iran's nuclear programme, but the Arab states are as well. Fear of an Iranian bomb is leading Israel and the nations surrounding Iran to pursue common goals.
But should there really be an attack on Iran, its Arab neighbours would most likely not be prepared to condone it. The Arab states will not support the USA in its efforts, even if it's only to impose sanctions on Iran through the World Security Council, as long as they don't have the feeling that the USA and Israel are taking their concerns seriously and doing something about them, above all the Palestinian question.
We must bear in mind that there is massive resistance to any attempt to connect the steps taken against Iran with the Middle East peace process. The Israeli government, for example, is at pains not to let any link be made between the issue of Iran and peace in the Middle East, as it fears that it could come under pressure as a result. Israel does not want to have to purchase Arab support in the Iran affair at the price of concessions to the Palestinians.
Surveys you've conducted indicate that a major share of the refugees are prepared to renounce their Right of Return if they are offered adequate material compensation. Is this a pragmatic approach to solving the refugee problem?
Khalil Shikaki: In none of the opinion surveys we've conducted thus far have refugees indicated that they were willing to completely waive their principle Right of Return. The vast majority, about 95%, insist on the recognition of their right and will not accept a renunciation of that right.
What the studies have shown, however, is that, in the case of recognition of the Right of Return accompanied by the granting of a choice of residence – whether in Palestine, in Israel or in other countries prepared to offer them asylum – the majority of the refugees would choose to live in the newly founded Palestinian state or would remain in their current host countries. Only 10% of the respondents expressed the desire to live on Israeli soil.
These results do not constitute a sound basis for negotiations. They merely represent the opinions of 4,500 refugee families living in various countries whom I surveyed. As can be expected, the views of the respondents vary depending on which host country they are currently residing in. But there was a consensus across the board that Israel must recognise their principle right, i.e. their moral and political Right of Return. For this reason, the leaders of the talks on both sides should work toward an agreement that grants the refugees both the principle Right of Return and a choice of where they want to live.
How do you view the role of the EU in the peace process?
Khalil Shikaki: In economic questions, its role is extremely significant. Politically, however, the USA is in charge and the EU follows its lead. As long as the USA was not prepared to support the peace process, particularly under the presidency of George W. Bush, the EU did not take any action. The political problem with the EU is that it does not represent a single country but rather a community of nations with diverse interests.
There is only consensus within the EU when it comes to less important issues on which the various members are able to agree. This is not to say though that the EU does not in fact take courageous steps now and again, for instance in the question of the status of East Jerusalem as capital of the future Palestinian state.
In the past, the EU has failed however in its efforts to encourage the Palestinian National Authority to fight corruption. And it has done little by way of urging the Authority to end the anarchy in the Palestinian territories by creating strong institutions as the basis for a democratic constitutional state.
Interview: Muhannad Adam
© Qantara.de 2010
Dr. Khalil Shikaki is Associate Professor of Political Science at Bir Zeit University and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) and co-author of "Palestinian and Israeli Public Opinion", Indiana University Press 2010.
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de