Middle East

Israel/Occupied Territories

Polls Indicate Palestinian Uneasiness in Time of Transition

An Israeli border policeman argues with Palestinians demonstrating

An Israeli border policeman argues with Palestinians demonstrating against Israel's separation barrier on November 21, 2004. (Photo: Hazem Bader/AFP-Getty Images)

According to recent polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion (PCPO), an overwhelming majority of Palestinians grieved over the death of Yasser Arafat, and believe that his death will lead to a void of leadership in the Palestinian Authority.

The polls, conducted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip just before and after Arafat’s death, also reveal that more than half of the Palestinians polled are pessimistic about the future and consider the security situation worrisome. Opinion over the continuation of suicide attacks inside Israel is divided evenly, and 61% believe that the re-election of George W. Bush will not serve peace in the region.

Yet despite public fears over the void of leadership and continuing hostilities, the chance for a break in the stalemate between Palestinians and Israelis looks better than it has since the beginning of the Palestinian intifada in 2000. President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced last week that they hope to revitalize the stalled peace process and will work to gather the rest of the international community to support a peaceful transition to new Palestinian leadership. But while President Bush made it apparent in a joint news conference with Mr. Blair that the establishment of a Palestinian state is a major priority during his second term, Bush administration officials stress that the success of such a goal rests primarily on the emergence of more moderate Palestinian leadership and the rejection of terrorist groups.

The United States has recently put pressure on Israel to facilitate the transition to Palestinian Authority elections on January 9th, particularly where Israel has a greater security presence. There are some signs that Israel seeks to quietly contribute to a stable transition, recently releasing $40 million in frozen tax funds to the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has made it clear that if the new Palestinian leadership cracks down on violence, there is a possibility that Israeli withdrawal efforts from Gaza may be coordinated with the Palestinian Authority, particularly with regard to immigration, customs and security.

The recent PCPO polls show a majority of Palestinians prefer the withdrawal efforts to be negotiated and coordinated with the Palestinian Authority, though many suspect it is a ploy for Israel to gain a stronger hold on the West Bank.

The most prominent candidate to emerge for the January elections, which will decide the next president of the Palestinian Authority, is Mahmoud Abbas, a former Palestinian prime minister who was named Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) upon Arafat’s death. Mr. Abbas has been criticized for being out of touch with the Palestinian street, but his strengths in negotiation are widely praised. Mr. Abbas has previously criticized violence against Israelis as counterproductive to the aims of Palestinians, and vows to crack down on militant groups in the lead-up to January elections. Mr. Abbas emerged from the polls conducted by the PCPO as the most capable person to lead the Palestinian Authority, but only garnered a quarter of the vote, indicating he still lacks wide appeal.

Chief among the concerns for the transitional leadership is cracking down on militant groups. Foreign officials have made it clear that paying lip service to ending violence will not be sufficient if the Palestinians are to receive further international support for statehood. Mr. Abbas recently met with the leaders of several militant groups, but some officials are concerned that the main issue on the agenda was uniting various factions in preparation for elections, rather than stressing the cessation of violence. Hamas and Islamic Jihad announced this week that they will boycott the elections, in reference to their refusal to recognize the Palestinian Authority, which was created in agreement with Israel through the Oslo Accords. Whether such groups can be brought into the fold, or whether they can be sufficiently ostracized, will be one of many challenges facing the transitional leadership.

Even if more moderate Palestinian leaders are elected in January and agree to further negotiations with Israel, the PCPO polls indicate that the particularly controversial issue of Palestinian right-of-return will dominate and potentially derail further talks.

Nearly three-quarters of those polled say that Palestinians should not be obliged to waive the right-of-return, even if such a refusal costs them the chance to establish an independent state. An even greater number say that Palestinian leaders should not waive right-of-return in place of financial compensation. President Bush declared in April 2004 that it was "unrealistic" for Palestinians to return to lands from which they were expelled after Israel’s establishment in 1948 and the 1967 war.