Professor of Political Science and Director, Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research
Khalil E. Jahshan – Moderator
Executive Director, Arab Center Washington DC
On October 7, 2020, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) invited Dr. Khalil Shikaki to address the topic of “Palestinian Public Opinion on Arab Alliances with Israel.” A professor of political science as well as the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) in Ramallah, Shikaki is regarded as a leading pollster and political analyst on Palestinian affairs. In his introduction to the webinar, ACW Executive Director Khalil E. Jahshan said that Shikaki has conducted over 200 surveys of Palestinian public opinion in the West Bank and Gaza as well as of Palestinian and Israeli views inside Israel. As for the topic of the webinar, Jahshan noted that Palestinians have not been consulted regarding the Trump Administration’s so-called peace deal, Israel’s annexation plans, or the normalization agreements between the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain with Israel. He called this marginalization of the Palestinians’ views “stunning” in light of the fact that they are the population that is most directly affected by these significant developments.
Dr. Khalil Shikaki focused on the findings of a recent PCPSR poll, conducted during September 9-12, 2020. He said that his data indicated that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians reject the normalization agreement between the two Gulf states and Israel, saying that 80 percent of those polled view it as a “betrayal” of the Palestinians, one that will spur a “strategic shift in the region” and will have long-lasting impact. He explained that the Palestinians’ views represent a vote of no confidence in Abbas and his group of allies, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which supported the normalization move and therefore seem to be abandoning him. Shikaki also said that public opinion shows that these accords with Israel open the door to other possibilities; indeed, he explained that one of the most important concerns for the Palestinian public at present is the loss of allies in the region. He said that another major worry for the Palestinians is that the normalization deal will have a domino effect in that Saudi Arabia may be next to sign a deal with Israel, which will open the door for other Arab states to follow suit.
Shikaki reported that 86 percent of Palestinians said Israel is the major beneficiary of this agreement, adding that most Palestinians do not believe the narrative that annexation is truly off the table—a point that was stipulated by the deal between the UAE and Israel. In fact, Netanyahu himself refuses to acknowledge it; eventually, Palestinians believe, Israel will act to annex Palestinian territories. Moreover, they see that the creeping annexation that has been going on for a long time will continue, with the normalization deal ushering in a significant campaign to expand settlements and confiscate more Palestinian land. The larger strategic picture is often eclipsed by the challenges of daily life, Shikaki explained; economic conditions have worsened and the Israeli military occupation is more entrenched. To be sure, Shikaki asserted, the most important priority for Palestinians is to end the occupation; “this is a point of departure,” he added, before any movement toward building a state could begin. “Everything else is secondary unless the occupation ends,” he reiterated.
In addition to their disappointment with the Arab countries, Palestinians also place blame on their own leadership, Shikaki said. The demand for Abbas’s resignation is high; indeed, the Palestinian Authority’s performance rating declined from June to September. To that point, one of the questions in his poll was, “If elections were held today, would you vote for [Mahmoud] Abbas or [Ismail] Haniyeh?” Results show that 39 percent would vote for Abbas and 52 percent for Haniyeh. Shikaki said Abbas put too much trust in Arab allies, who have now let him and the Palestinians down, thus eroding his support among the public. Nevertheless, Shikaki continued, “we did not find significant decline in support for Fatah.” He also said that the Palestinian leadership needs to step up its engagement and be more proactive. For example, the day Trump announced his peace plan—which was rejected by fully 90 percent of Palestinians polled at the time—the Palestinian leadership should have announced a detailed counter plan, in full cooperation with the Egyptians and Jordanians. Palestinians should have capitalized on that moment to neutralize the Trump plan and mobilize internationally, which would have been far more productive. In addition, he said, the Palestinians are not doing enough to reach out to the Israeli public, a goal such a counter plan could have tried to achieve.
How these developments impact the peace process is shown by the significant decline in support for the two-state solution. Shikaki explained that in 2011, 55 percent of the Palestinian public supported it, whereas now the number is down to 39 percent, indicating less of a willingness to compromise. He said that additional surveys he has conducted among both Palestinians and Israelis illustrate a significant drop in the willingness to compromise on all factors; both sides, he said, have hardened their stances. In addition, support for a one-station solution that guarantees equal rights for both peoples increased from 27 percent in 2011 to 37 percent in 2020. Younger Palestinians exhibit higher support for one state, Shikaki said, because they were not raised during the heyday of the Palestinian national movement and are much more liberal and committed to equality and democracy “in the context of a one-state reality.” A significant factor for many Palestinians, he said, are the ideas of viability and feasibility of two states: many believe that the kind of state they would like to live in is actually no longer viable.