Maybe there will be quiet in and around Gaza on Thursday morning. This is not something to bet your savings on, or even your lunch money. According to this report , a Palestinian official says – as long as he can’t be quoted by name – that the fix is in for a ceasefire, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry says yes. Defense Minister Ehud Barak (whose politics appear to have moved rightward since 2000 even more quickly than Joe Lieberman’s) says there’s no agreement, nope, we’re just checking the details.
If it does happen, it will certainly be a positive development: people on both sides of the Gaza line will have a higher chance of getting through the day without being blown up. It will show that with the America gone AWOL from diplomacy, other actors are moving into the vacuum: Egypt mediating between Israel and Hamas; Turkey between Israel and Syria. It will prove again the sad principle that when all else fails, sometimes people are willing to try talking instead of shooting.
But it will also be worth examining the potential political impact in light of the latest poll by top Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki. In some respects, the poll shows some positive results that surprised Shikaki himself. Still, one possible conclusion from a careful read is that by consistently treating diplomacy as the last resort rather than the first, Israel is yet again strengthening Hamas.
Shikaki, I should note is a careful, thorough pollster. No poll is a perfect picture of people’s feelings, but Shikaki gives a good view of the complexities of Palestinian opinion. Israelis who think that “the Palestinians” think this or that should read his results and learn that our neighbors are as confused and volatile in their views as we are.
So in the last three months, unexpectedly, PA president Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah has gained popularity and Hamas leader has lost ground. On the “who would you vote for if elections were today” question, they’ve gone from a statistical tie to a 12-point lead for Abbas (with a margin of error of 3 percent, so this is a significant difference). Fifty-seven percent of Palestinians think that Abbas’ s security forces, recently deployed in more Palestinian towns, have succeeded in providing law and order. (That is, despite the pessimistic expectations of some analysts, Israeli and Palestinian, the Palestinian public would see Abbas’s forces as collaborators, mere enforcers for the Israelis.)
There’s a slight rise in satisfaction with the Fatah government of Salam Fayyad in the West Bank. A strong plurality thinks that Abbas is more able to make peace with Israel and to gain Israeli concessions. Support for armed attacks against Israel dropped from 67 percent to 55 percent. That’s still depressingly high, but it’s a marked improvement. It’s also a sign that more people believe that Palestinians can gain independence through diplomacy rather than by violence. Fifty-eight percent want a two-state solution, only 27 percent want a one-state solution.
In short, moderation has gained some ground, and most Palestinians would still rather live side-by-side with Israel than try to eliminate the Jewish state.
But note this too: Shikaki suggests that Abbas has gained popularity by offering to renew the dialogue with Hamas on national unity. Hamas lost support because it wasn’t able to reach a ceasefire. Most Palestinians oppose a ceasefire that only applies to Gaza, not the West Bank.
Some background. As I noted in the American Prospect in April , Israeli and American policies have empowered Hamas over the last three years:
…In 2005, Israel pulled out of Gaza unilaterally, avoiding any negotiations with Abbas on a final-status agreement. Among Palestinians, that served as proof that Hamas’ armed struggle had driven Israel out. In the run-up to the January 2006 elections… Abbas initially favored Hamas participation… By the time Abbas realized the danger of Hamas victory and got cold feet… the Bush administration “was not prepared to be seen as changing course on democratic elections.”…
As detailed in a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London last year, and more recently in a Vanity Fair investigative article , the United States did not just join in boycotting the Hamas government and the unity government that followed. It armed the PA’s Presidential Guard, which was independent of the Hamas government, and pushed Arab countries to help train it. By June 2007, Hamas expected a Fatah coup with American backing — and preempted by seizing control of Gaza.
Choosing diplomacy back in 2005 – putting the Gaza pullout in the context of negotiations on final status – would have had the opposite effect: Palestinians would have credited Abbas and the diplomatic option for getting Israel to pull back. Dealing with the unity government could have prevented the Hamas takeover of Gaza and moved us toward an agreement with a single Palestinian representative.
As things are at the moment, a ceasefire deal with Hamas is to be preferred to the other option: An Israeli invasion of Gaza. But to get the ceasefire, Israel now has to let Hamas get credit for it. Meanwhile negotiations with Abbas move nowhere. This is the diplomacy of the clumsy, of men trying to do ballet while dressed in battle gear.
Israeli officials forget how much impact we have on Palestinian opinion. We should have – and still should – encourage establishment of a Palestinian unity government. The negotiators would be from Fatah. The credit for a ceasefire would go to the moderates. We would have a partner for final-status talks who represents all the Palestinians.
One last note from Shikaki’s survey: Marwan Barghouti, the young Fatah leader jailed in Israel for murder, would beat Haniyeh 61-34 percent with a higher voter turnout. Barghouti favors a two-state solution and is also respected by Hamas. He is a man with a blood-stained past, but so is nearly everyone able to make a deal. (More on this here .) A riddle for Israel is how to release Barghouti without allowing Hamas to get credit for that as well.