Shikaki Offers Glimpse Into Palestinian Public Opinion, Political Differences

“Palestinian voices, I think, are often absent from the U.S. media, and when they are present, they are often presented as though they’re some type of unitary consensus,” said Peter Krause, an assistant professor in the political science department, as he introduced Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki to an audience in Devlin 008 on Wednesday evening. “The reality, obviously, is far more complex. In this country, I think we often know quite little about the real ambitions and alliances within Palestinian politics and society-the real thoughts, hopes, and fears that Palestinian civilians hold. We often see Palestinians purely through their relations to us in the United States, rather than to each other and how they define themselves.”

Krause introduced Shikaki as the top expert in the world on Palestinian public opinion-since 1993, Shikaki has conducted over 100 polls among Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He conducted his first poll of Palestinians in 1993, and the findings were released just as the Oslo Agreement was signed in Washington, D.C.

“I can tell you that the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, insisted that we keep him appraised of Palestinian attitudes,” Shikaki said. “Month after month, I had to write a summary for Arafat. Every single month, a one-page summary of attitudes regarding the peace process.”

According to Shikaki, Arafat would be upset if he ever read reports of the polls in the newspaper before seeing the numbers himself, and insisted that Shikaki fax his reports directly.

Shikaki told the audience, a mixture of students and professors, that he would generally address four questions during his talk: factors that account for changes in Palestinian politics; factors that influence the two major Palestinian forces, the Islamists and the nationalists; the impact of the division within Palestine on major issues-focusing on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process; and what would be necessary for the two political systems within Palestine to be integrated.

Shikaki identified two factors that he called “drivers” within Palestinian politics: religiosity and tradition. The more conservative or traditional people, he said, are more likely to think that politics and religion ought to go together. “These are the ones who would insist that a woman’s place is home, that God is the source of all legislation in the political system, that in matters of foreign policy, just like domestic politics, Islam is the ultimate-you cannot make decisions based on pragmatic considerations.”
Speaking broadly, Shikaki said that conservatives, who generally have more Islamist values, tend to vote for Hamas, while those who vote for Fatah tend to be more nationalist. Those who identify as “slightly conservative” are more or less split between the two parties.

Shikaki addressed the way in which Palestinians view democracy. “A lot of Palestinians support democracy-a lot of Palestinians support democratic values,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of Palestinians say democracy is really, really bad-but it’s the best system in the world.” According to a graph Shikaki showed, 83 percent of Palestinians polled support democracy, with 40 percent identifying as Islamist democrats-those who support the implementation of sharia law-and 43 percent identifying as secular democrats, supporting a more liberal democracy. Of the remaining 17 percent who did not support democracy, 10 percent identified as secular and the remaining 7 percent identified as Islamist.

He moved on to discuss the relative popularity of Hamas and Fatah. After the first Palestinian elections in 1996, enthusiasm about democracy was high, Shikaki said, but quickly waned as discontent with the Palestinian Authority and the lack of a peace treaty with Israel grew. Many people initially voted for Hamas because it was meant to fight corruption and be more democratic than Fatah had been-it was also expected to form a Palestinian state and normalize relations with Israel. Hamas did not, however, recognize Israel as at all legitimate, and in fact declared a two-state solution impossible, which led to its decline in popularity, especially in the public sector.

After concluding his lecture, Shikaki took questions from the audience. Ali Banuazizi, a professor in the political science department, asked Shikaki whether he thought public opinion, as opposed to discussions between elites, significantly influenced the success or failure of the peace process. “Well, I’m likely to be biased … my answer is of course it does,” he said.

October 31, 2013