Since the election of Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996, mutual trust and confidence between Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority (pa) and Israel's new Likud government have steadily deteriorated. That vicious cycle will only be exacerbated as the two sides harden their positions in preparation for the final status talks. These negotiations touch on both Israelis' and Palestinians' most critical issues of security and national survival: refugees, Palestinian statehood, security arrangements, settlements, and, thorniest of all, Jerusalem.

The erosion of the Oslo process gives new importance to Palestinian politics. Palestinian public opinion will determine Arafat and the pa's room for maneuver in the run-up to May 1999 -- the deadline for the conclusion of the final status talks and, if those negotiations fail, Arafat's avowed date for unilaterally declaring Palestinian statehood. So far, al-Fatah, Arafat's mainstream, secular nationalist movement, has provided the backbone of the peace process. Its support has held despite the setbacks. But Fatah's success is based on two key factors: Arafat's leadership and a lack of initiative by the Islamist opposition. As the grand old man of Palestinian nationalism, Arafat's personal influence and political wiles have let him dominate and change Palestinian politics in a way no other figure could. But Arafat will not live forever, and Hamas will not stay on the sidelines forever. If the peace process flags, Arafat falls, and Hamas rises, the nationalist center could indeed lose its hold on power to the Islamists. Palestinian politics, increasingly, are the front line of the peace process.


Palestinians, like their Israeli neighbors, are highly politicized. The 1993 Oslo Accords -- which call for an end to terrorism, mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the creation of the pa, and deferral of the remaining issues to the final status talks -- have increased the importance for peace of Palestinian views. Pundits often make sweeping generalizations about belligerent Palestinian attitudes without bothering to offer evidence of any sort. But since 1993 Palestinian public opinion has been surveyed regularly and extensively, and can be quite accurately gauged.

There are three major political forces in Palestinian politics and society today: the mainstream nationalist center, a leftist nationalist opposition, and an Islamist opposition. Ideologically, the mainstream nationalists, led by Arafat and Fatah, the dominant faction of the plo, are semi-secular pragmatists who place some emphasis on traditional values. The center says little about personal behavior, but it rejects political Islam and embraces some democratic values. It seeks to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza through the Oslo peace process. In demographic terms, supporters of the mainstream are disproportionately likely to be young, male, and less educated.

The national opposition, composed of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), is more leftist, secular, and socially liberal, but wary of liberal democracy and capitalism. Of the three groups, it has consistently had the least support. The leftists accept the notion of a Palestinian-Israeli peace based on a two-state solution, but they do not support Oslo and refuse to participate in the negotiations. To highlight their opposition to the peace process, the DFLP and PFLP boycotted the January 1996 national elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Supporters of the left are disproportionately well educated and are also often young.

Support for the peace process and opposition to violence is associated with educational level, age, and political affiliation. The well educated and supporters of opposition groups tend to be less supportive of Oslo and more supportive of terror. Palestinian students, like most other Arab students, tend to be more radical, defending ideals rather than compromises. To be sure, a general lack of responsibilities influences student thinking about the peace process. But more important, students' perceptions of Oslo are colored by the way they perceive their own governments. Most students see the peace process as an American tool to stabilize Arafat's corrupt regime and maintain the domestic status quo. The more disillusioned the students are with the pa about issues like corruption, mismanagement, and lack of democratization, the more opposed to the peace process they become.

The third force, the Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, focus on personal behavior, embrace the values of political Islam, and seek to establish an Islamic state. They emphasize traditional values, including veiling women and limiting their political role, but are not totally opposed to some liberal and democratic values. The Islamists oppose the peace process, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel. They have no consistent demographic characteristic, even though disproportionately more support for them is found among illiterates and the most educated youth. The nonaffiliated are likely to be older, female, better-educated West Bank residents.

The universities aside, Palestinian society remains deeply traditional. But religion cuts different ways for the Palestinians. Those who pray daily are as likely to support the secular nationalists of Fatah as they are to support Hamas. But the Islamists have more support among those who oppose women's participation in politics and less support among feminists. Support for Hamas increases significantly among those who strongly oppose reinterpreting Islamic law to make it applicable to conditions of contemporary life, while support for the mainstream and the left increases among those who seek a more modern form of Islam. While Fatah has done well at appropriating some religious symbolism, the bottom line is that Palestinian traditionalism provides a deep wellspring of support for Hamas.

Perhaps most important, surveys of Islamist public opinion reveal significant heterogeneity. Palestinian Islamists are not a special group with identifiable demographic characteristics. They do not necessarily think alike, and they lack a unified worldview. The Islamist opposition is often ideologically motivated, but it has recently shown signs of pragmatism. This means that they are not restricted to a narrow demographic or religious base from which they cannot grow. On the contrary, there is no logical limit to the support they could muster, were Arafat to fall out of favor and they to act shrewdly.


Oslo rewrote the political map of the West Bank and Gaza. It halted the continued rise of the Islamists, diminished the appeal of the leftist nationalists, and shifted the overall balance in favor of the pro-peace camp. Oslo also changed the composition of the ruling elite. The national bourgeoisie emerged with the most power, the commercial class came to dominate the West Bank's economy, and the popular leadership of Fatah took control of the security services.

The opposition began deflating immediately after the establishment of the pa in Gaza in 1994. Early that year, the mainstream had an average support of about 38 percent.1 The leftist opposition had an average support of about 10 percent in early 1994; it was cut in half to about 5 percent by early 1998. The Islamists, who had an average support of about 23 percent in 1994, dropped to about 15 percent in early 1998. In other words, while the mainstream has been able to maintain its popular support, the opposition -- both leftist and Islamist -- lost about 40 percent of its strength in the Palestinian street, dropping from 33 percent to 20 percent.

The opposition splintered between those inside and those outside the pa. Hamas' West Bank leaders increasingly urged accommodation with the pa, an end to violence, and participation in Arafat's political system. But the purist Islamist outsiders -- particularly those based in Syria, whose president, Hafiz al-Asad, would like to scuttle Oslo -- refused to renounce terrorism or to permit the emergence of a local leadership in the West Bank and Gaza.

By mid-1995, the opposition was on the run from the reality of Oslo. Its continued denunciation of the peace process and its resort to terrorism, particularly suicide attacks against Israeli civilians, were no longer popular. Hamas and the leftists' inability to come to terms with the growing legitimacy of the pa -- the direct result of the peace process which they rejected -- made it extremely difficult for the opposition to define a role for itself in the new Palestinian politics. The paralysis led to the decision to boycott the January 1996 elections -- a blunder that further weakened and marginalized the opposition as the newly elected legislative council became the focus of the Palestinian national debate on the peace process, democracy, and national reconstruction. The opposition became divided and weak.

Those who deserted the opposition did not necessarily join Fatah. In late 1993, only 11 percent of the population supported no organized political faction; by the end of 1997, that level was over 38 percent. Most of those remaining undecided have not embraced an alternative ideology. Those who deserted Hamas may go back to it if it regains the initiative.


The peace process transformed the Palestinian psychological environment, leading more and more Palestinians to support negotiations and oppose terrorism. But as Oslo stalled during 1996-98, a significant number of Palestinians came to simultaneously back violence and the peace process.

So long as the Oslo process is moving, support for it remains strikingly strong, but tempered by reservations about the process' outcome. Many Palestinians seriously doubt that the final status talks will produce a mutually acceptable solution. In particular, the young and educated are wary of the peace process.

While overall support for Oslo remains high, its fortunes affect Palestinian opinion. In a September 1995 poll, in the wake of leaks of an impending interim agreement, backing for continuation of the peace process reached 71 percent. It continued to rise despite harsh Israeli reprisals and suspension of peace talks after the suicide attacks of February and March 1996, reaching 81 percent in June 1996, despite the election of Netanyahu a month earlier. But support dropped by 11 points in September, to 70 percent, in the wake of violence after Netanyahu's opening of an entrance to an archaeological tunnel near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, an act that many Palestinians saw as part of an Israeli campaign against the nearby Muslim holy sites. It dropped to 60 percent in April 1997 when Israel announced its intention to build the Har Homa settlement in Arab East Jerusalem. The ensuing deadlock in the peace process has kept the level of support for Oslo below 70 percent for the 12 months leading up to March 1998. Support for the peace process also extends to a willingness to remove the anti-Israel sections of the Palestinian charter, but that too has waned as frustration has set in.

As the peace process progressed, Palestinian support for violence against Israeli targets declined. Opposition to terrorism depends on diplomatic movement, national reconstruction, and Arafat's leadership. Support for attacks against Israelis has dropped from 57 percent in November 1994, to 46 percent in February 1995, to 33 percent a month later, and to 21 percent in March 1996 -- all dates of major suicide bombings by members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

But frustration creates a constituency for terror. Israel's response to violence, including a policy of closing off the West Bank and Gaza to Israel proper, threats of cantonization, and the infliction of collective pain and suffering, led to a rise in support for violence among Palestinians after months of steady decline. One significant jolt occurred in the spring of 1997 in response to the groundbreaking at Har Homa. Ominously, violence is popular among Palestinian university students. Almost 60 percent advocate armed attacks against Israeli targets, while only 25 percent oppose them. Moreover, 70 percent believe that armed resistance is a realistic option for Palestinians if the current negotiations fail.

Nonetheless, a clear majority of Palestinians not only rejected terrorism against Israelis but also backed the March 1996 pa crackdown against the Islamists after the bus bombings the month before, knowing full well that the raids sought to prevent further attacks on Israelis. Only 32 percent opposed the reprisals against Hamas. To most Palestinians, Islamist terrorism slows the return of West Bank land, undermines the Palestinian economy, boosts the Likud, and pushes the pa to focus on Israeli security at the expense of Palestinian democracy and civil liberties.


The second stage of Oslo is the final status talks, which address the most fundamental issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinian public opinion displays a certain flexibility on some of the most important questions of final status, as seen in its reaction to the release of two versions -- one Israeli, one Palestinian -- of a proposed peace settlement negotiated in 1995 between the PLO's Abu Mazin and Yossi Beilin of Israel's Labor Party. The Abu Mazin-Beilin plan dealt with a demilitarized Palestinian state, territorial exchange, settlers, refugees, security arrangements, and Jerusalem. Palestinian reaction to the two versions, one favoring Palestinian sensibilities, the other favoring Israeli ones, is highly instructive.

For Palestinians, statehood is a sine qua non. A final status plan that did not grant Palestinian independence would be doomed on the Palestinian street. Moreover, Palestinian opinion would buck any resolution that did not give the new state of Palestine the vast majority of the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians, however, are quite flexible about security arrangements to ease Israeli jitters. The most important of these, demilitarization of a Palestinian state, would almost certainly be acceptable to Palestinian public opinion, so long as the state comprised most of the West Bank. Fifty-two percent of Palestinians supported the establishment of a sovereign but demilitarized state in 95 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, but support dropped to only 16 percent if the state took up a smaller area of the West Bank. Palestinians would also probably tolerate continued security cooperation with Israel and a limited Israeli troop presence.

On two other contentious issues, settlements and refugees, the Palestinians are also flexible. About a third of Palestinians would accept Israeli annexation of some settlements, amounting to 5 percent of the West Bank. Over 40 percent of Palestinians support having the settlers remain, under Palestinian sovereignty and law. As for one of the central grievances of Palestinian nationalism -- the plight of the refugees who lost their homes during the fighting after Israel was established in 1948 -- many West Bankers and Gazans have abandoned the refugees' dream of returning to homes in present-day Israel. Instead, they would have the 1948 refugees settle for a "right of return" that exists only in principle, accompanied by an actual return to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

The stickiest of the final status issues is Jerusalem. Here, the Palestinian street gives Arafat little room for maneuver. The Abu Mazin-Beilin agreement suggested leaving Jerusalem as Israel's undivided capital while establishing a Palestinian capital in Abu Dis, a Palestinian village adjacent to Jerusalem but technically outside its municipal boundaries; al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, the two mosques atop al-Haram al-Sharif, would be placed under Palestinian sovereignty. This arrangement won only 9 percent support. The Palestinian version of the plan, which spoke of the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem reverting eventually to Palestinian control, managed to get 27 percent support, but such additional territorial concessions in Jerusalem would be unthinkable for even a dovish Israeli government.

Worse, about half of Palestinians say that final status talks with Netanyahu are doomed to failure. Palestinians flatly distrust Israel's leaders. When asked whether they trusted Israeli government intentions toward the peace process, only 7 percent said yes, while 81 percent said no. The suspicion intensified after the election of Netanyahu and the groundbreaking at Har Homa, rising to 91 percent in March 1997. By contrast, more than half the Palestinians saw the Israeli public as genuinely wanting Palestinian-Israeli peace.

The Palestinians, then, are flexible enough that there is a final status deal to be cut, if Israel wants it. But even though most Palestinians say that they believe in the good intentions of the Israeli public, they think that Netanyahu has no intention of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


National reconstruction is key to continued Palestinian support for Oslo, Arafat, and peace. As Israel began to withdraw, the resultant power vacuum was filled by popular organizations, strengthening Palestinian civil society. Oslo also led to the first general elections in modern Palestinian history, which consolidated the legitimacy of the PA and, with it, a new Palestinian political order. Even so, democratization has not been easy. Corruption and mismanagement by the PA SAP Palestinian confidence in the peace process much more than the lack of economic growth. If the PA's performance here does not improve, it will alienate the bourgeoisie, one of the key constituencies for the peace process. Support for Oslo could collapse if the nation-building project falters further.

Palestinian reactions to the national reconstruction process mix hope with disillusionment. The establishment of the pa has led 62 percent of Palestinians to say they believe that a state of their own will indeed be established in the next few years, up from only 44 percent when Oslo was signed in September 1993.

Arafat's leadership is essential. He remains the pillar of Palestinian politics. Positive evaluations of his performance have risen steadily, with only minor hiccups. As the newborn PA floundered in November 1994, Arafat's favorable rating stood at 44 percent. It rose to 58 percent in October 1995, after the signing of the Taba interim agreement. One month before the January 1996 elections, support for Arafat stood at 69 percent. He won resoundingly, and the opposition's call to boycott the voting was ignored. In contrast, support for Sheikh Ahmed Yasin, the leader of Hamas, dropped from 20 percent to 14 percent between November 1994 and October 1995; in the same period, support for George Habash, the head of the PFLP, dropped from 7 percent to 3 percent. Today, Arafat's positive rating stands at about 75 percent.

The rest of the PA gets more mixed reviews. Men, the more educated, and supporters of opposition groups tend to be more critical than women, the less well educated, and Fatah supporters. Positive evaluations of the security services have been very high, standing at about 80 percent today, as have those of the cabinet's performance, which are about 60 percent. The executive has done particularly well in education, health, public order, and security.

The PA gets its worst ratings on economics. Only about a fifth of Palestinians approve of the pa's economic performance, but the implications for continued support for Arafat are surprisingly small. Most Palestinians blame their economic woes on difficulties in the peace process, not PA incompetence.

They are less forgiving of corruption, the second key area in which public criticism has been rising during the past two years. In 1996, 49 percent of Palestinians said PA institutions were corrupt, a figure that has since risen to around 60 percent. Moreover, exactly half the population expects corruption to increase or remain constant, reflecting public skepticism about PA assurances that it would root out graft. Belief in the existence of corruption is higher among males, the young, the more educated, and supporters of the opposition -- all constituencies who could cause political trouble for Arafat.

A third key area in which public criticism is widespread is democracy. Palestinian views of the status of democracy under the PA have been consistently negative. Only about a quarter of the population say that the Palestinian political system is moving toward democracy. The PA's legislative branch, the Palestinian Legislative Council, has been a disappointment, and most Palestinians, despite their hopes for a more open political process, see the PLC as largely overridden by Arafat. A clear majority of Palestinians say that one cannot criticize the PA without fear. Similarly, only about a quarter of Palestinians describe the press in the Palestinian areas as free. Palestinians rank their democracy behind those of Israel, the United States, and France, and ahead of Jordan and Egypt -- neither heretofore known as bastions of civil liberties. Perceptions of the democratization process are associated with the same independent variables as corruption, with greater skepticism from males, the young, the more educated, and supporters of the opposition. These numbers show an intriguing sophistication. The democratic systems of Israel and America get high marks not only among supporters of the peace process but also among supporters of the opposition, including the Islamists. For example, fully 80 percent of Hamas supporters describe Israeli democracy as good or very good, and 71 percent of them evaluate American democracy as good or very good. Almost across the board, Palestinians know quite clearly what kind of democracy they admire. They also know they do not have it at home. Their dissatisfaction poses a major threat to the continued dominance of Arafat, Fatah, and the nationalist center.


As the Oslo process has unfolded, its inadequacies have become clear. The open-ended and transitional nature of the Oslo agreement bred ambiguity, conditionality, and reversibility. In theory, Oslo sought to transform the Israeli-Palestinian political and psychological environment, building confidence during the interim phase to let the sides eventually tackle the thornier questions of final status. In reality, its two-step approach let each side raise its own expectations. When these remained unfulfilled, disillusionment set in, impeding further progress.

Moreover, postponing the most painful issues until the final status talks gave Oslo rejectionists one last chance to use violence and create what the settlers call "facts on the ground." The disparities in power between Palestinians and Israelis let the strong -- the Israelis -- dictate the pace and scope of progress in the implementation of the agreements and led the weak -- the Palestinians -- to conclude that an alternative to negotiations must not be completely ruled out. Neither side has been willing to completely give up its negotiating assets, including territory, jurisdiction, and, most grimly, the ability to inflict violence, pain, and suffering. As such, Palestinian society has hedged its renunciation of terror. On the Israeli side, violence from radicals like Baruch Goldstein, the settler who massacred 29 Palestinian worshipers in a Hebron mosque in 1994, and a siege of bulldozers and border closures by the Israeli government rocked Palestinian confidence in the pa and the peace process.

The key to continued Palestinian support for Oslo is Arafat himself. If he were to leave the scene, the pro-peace camp would be in grave trouble. Indeed, the main constituency for peace comes from Arafat's Fatah movement, defers to his leadership, and sees him as the unchallenged leader of Palestinian nationalism. Arafat remains the most potent symbol of the Palestinian revolution. As such, he cannot be touched, despite the shortcomings of Oslo, national reconstruction, and the transition to democracy. Arafat's loyalists oppose Islamist violence and fully support the peace process because it is Arafat's chosen path, his "peace of the brave." This group, which tends to come from the ranks of the less educated, less liberal, and less democratic, forms the backbone of the pa's security forces and dominates its bureaucracy. Its top priority is the peace process, framed as the ending of the hated Israeli occupation and the building of a Palestinian state. Economic development, institution-building, and democratization are secondary. So long as Arafat does not abandon peace, this group will not abandon it or him.

The other main constituency for peace is the Palestinian bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. While they are secular nationalists who support Arafat's peace strategy, they are less impressed by his leadership, especially in the domestic sphere. Their support for the peace process stems from a desire to build both a national home and a democratic state. The bourgeoisie tends to be composed of more educated, older professionals with an affinity for liberal democracy. Their support for the peace process depends less on Arafat himself than on the pa's ability to respect civil liberties and build state institutions that are efficient, democratic, and free of corruption.

The keys to support of the peace process are Arafat's leadership and a successful national reconstruction effort. Economics are strictly secondary or even irrelevant. Although two-thirds of Palestinians believed initially that the Oslo agreement would pay economic dividends, support for the peace process remained strong despite their deteriorating economic situation. In fact, most West Bankers and Gazans actually blame their economic difficulties on Oslo. In 1997, 57 percent said that the peace process had a negative impact on the Palestinian economy. Similarly, in 1995, only 8 percent reported that their personal economic situation had improved since the beginning of the peace process, while 53 percent reported that it had worsened -- statistics that show little sign of changing. More to the point, Gazans are usually more supportive of and optimistic about the peace process than their West Bank counterparts, even though unemployment rates in the Gaza Strip have consistently been much higher than in the West Bank. Moreover, Gazans are more likely than West Bankers to assess their economic conditions as having been hurt by the peace process -- which they nevertheless continue to support.

Economic failure does not erode Palestinian faith in the peace process, but diplomatic stagnation and attacks on democracy do. If the talks with Israel remain stalemated and the pa remains corrupt, disdainful of civil liberties, and mismanaged, backing for Oslo will continue to dwindle. Arafat's presence at the helm minimizes the risk of such reversals. But if the deadlock of the peace process is coupled with a Palestinian failure at the task of national reconstruction and, crucially, Arafat's departure from the scene, any remaining Palestinian constituency for the peace process will quickly evaporate. The countdown to violent confrontations and regional instability would begin. Inevitably, the young and educated -- the most active, idealistic, disillusioned, and uncompromising, and the least burdened with personal responsibilities -- would ignite any future violent outbreak. The next few years are crucial.

Above all, one should not write Hamas off. The same traditionalism that limits the appeal of the DFLP and PFLP provides a strong basis for expanding Hamas' influence. In the spring of 1997, some senior Palestinian officials were wary of holding local elections for fear that the Islamists might win. A memorandum written to Arafat in April 1997 by a senior security official warned of a new Hamas strategy of winning control of local councils and municipalities -- the same plan the Islamists used in Algeria. The memorandum cautions that this would be the first step toward the creation of a parallel authority that would eventually usurp the pa. Arafat faces a painful dilemma: if he limits democracy to thwart Islamist infiltration into local government, he will further alienate one of the peace process' key constituencies, the national bourgeoisie. But the more open Palestinian politics are, the more susceptible they are to permeation by Hamas.

After the bus bombings of early 1996, Arafat was willing to crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He had just been legitimized by his election landslide, and he saw clearly that the Islamists threatened to marginalize him and undermine his Israeli partners in Oslo. Arafat's strategy has not been to eradicate terrorism or destroy Hamas' infrastructure and the social welfare network that gives it such deep public support. Rather, he has sought to marginalize the Islamists -- to divide and discredit them, not destroy them. Ideally, Arafat would even like to co-opt them and bring a more manageable Hamas into the new Palestinian political process. There are some potential benefits to Arafat in keeping Israel nervous about renewed terrorism, and Hamas could even be an asset to be activated if negotiations failed.

The situation today is dire. If Arafat and the national movement fail, the Islamists could take the initiative. It is only amazing that they have not done so already. Hamas remains the sole credible alternative to Fatah and the mainstream nationalists. Those who have deserted the Islamists have not changed loyalties; most have simply sat on the sidelines. They could become a reservoir for an Islamist revival. One of the main reasons that Yitzhak Rabin, known in Israel as "Mr. Security," went to Oslo was his fear that his choice was to deal either with the PLO today or Hamas tomorrow. Binyamin Netanyahu faces the same choice. He does not act like he knows it.

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  • Khalil Shikaki is a Professor of Political Science at an-Najah National University in Nablus and Director of the Center for Palestine Research and Studies.
  • More By Khalil Shikaki