Shikaki sees rough road ahead for Middle East negotiations

Neither side can deliver what the other wants most, so talks get little credibility

Photo/Mike Lovett

Khalil Shikaki in his Crown Center office

Khalil Shikaki, senior fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, has returned to campus from Ramallah for his annual autumnal team-teaching stint with center director Shai Feldman, and the assessment he has brought with him of the situation in the region is grim.

In short, the Palestinian leadership under Abu Mazen bet on Obama and lost, and now must come up with an alternative strategy to achieve Palestinian national goals, says Shikaki, who is head of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, and is widely acknowledged to be the foremost surveyor and interpreter of Palestinian public opinion.

Shikaki spoke of this and of other aspects of the situation at a brown-bag lunch arranged by the Crown Center on campus and at a subsequent meeting at Harvard of the new Middle East Program created recently as a joint venture of the Crown Center and the Belfer Center at Harvard’s John Fitzgerald Kennedy School of Government.

Marwan Muasher, a veteran Jordanian diplomat who now works at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, spoke at the forum a few days later and had a similar assessment of chances for a breakthrough under current conditions.

The effect of the American election is just one aspect, they agreed. It also has become clear that neither side alone can deliver what the other side most wants, and therefore neither gives the bi-lateral, American-mediated talks that the Obama Administration is pursuing much credibility.

The split of the Palestinian leadership and Hamas' control of the Gaza Strip weaken Abu Mazen’s ability to speak for all the Palestinians, and therefore he cannot deliver an end to future claims against the land and legitimacy of the State of Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, as currently constituted, has no desire or intention to stop settlement expansion in the occupied territories of the West Bank.

Nevertheless, Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad, the former World Bank economist who serves as Abu Mazen’s prime minister, will not resort to violence, Shikaki says; they were, after all, opponents of force even in the most polarized and conflicted days of the second intifada. The second intifada was a very tough battle for Palestinians after Israel regained the initiative, and, for now, they are still recovering, he said.

In searching for an alternative strategy, Shikaki said, “the PA wishes to avoid a repeat of what happened after the collapse of Camp David in 2000, the eruption of violence at the moment someone provides a match to ignite a fire. Abbas, but not necessarily many other Fateh leaders, is convinced that violence would be fatal and that the Palestinian Authority must do its utmost to prevent it.”

Nor will the Palestinian leadership rush to reconcile with Hamas or end Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation, he believes: “Fateh and Abbas also want to avoid a situation in which the failure of negotiations, along with their strong opposition to violence, would force them to swallow a deal with Hamas from a position of weakness.”

Abbas is therefore determined to find other options. In Shikaki’s estimate, “the alternative to violence and reconciliation is a four point strategy Abbas is pursuing on an ad hoc basis comprising: Arabization, internationalization, unilateralism, and a global campaign to delegitimize occupation and its various facets.” If the alternative strategy fails, which Shikaki expects, the road to violence will be short.

But, he said, many on the right in Israel and America are once more deluding themselves with the idea that a prosperous Palestinian is a happy Palestinian -- one who, given a choice between material well-being and an independent state of his own, will cling to material well-being. This, according to Shikaki, Muasher and Israeli military sources who’ve spoken with forum participants, simply is not so.

Shikaki asserts that part of the problem lies in the fact Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can afford to see negotiations fail, as his own coalition partners and most Israelis do not feel the urgency to reach a peace agreement in the prevailing climate of economic growth and peace and quiet.

“Israelis do not feel the pressure to end occupation as life is good and quiet is maintained,” he says. “The implication is that failure in negotiations is not risky for Netanyahu while it is too risky for Abbas due to the fact that he has to negotiate while Hamas is waiting for him to fail.”

In a year or two by Shikaki’s estimate, or in three to four years by some Israeli estimates, something will happen to light the fuse, and the third intifada will be underway.

The separation barrier will prevent the influx of suicide bombers that characterized the last phase of the struggle, so next time there will be more, better rockets.

In addition to his teaching at Brandeis, Shikaki is collaborating on a textbook with Crown Center director Feldman and with Abdel Monem Said Ali, the chairman of Al Ahram Institution in Egypt. The book reviews the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and peacemaking, covering its main turning points in addition to providing the narratives of parties regarding these events. Each chapter ends with the analysis of the three authors of the forces and dynamics that contributed to the unfolding of each of the selected turning points.

Shikaki is an associate professor of political science at several Palestinian universities, but currently is teaching only at Brandeis as he devotes the rest of his time to directing his survey research center. The Ramallah center and the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, have collaborated in researching and analyzing attitudes of the two sides.

This joint survey research started in 2000 and produced dozens of polls as well as a recent book on Palestinian and Israeli public opinion during the second intifada, authored by Shikaki and Professor Jacob Shamir of Hebrew University and just published by the Indiana University Press.

Shikaki has been a senior fellow at the Crown Center since 2005. He has taught at al-Najah National University in Nablus, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and the University of South Florida, in Tampa. He has served as dean of scientific research at al-Najah and has been a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.

Shikaki has conducted more than 150 polls among Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 1993. His polls included three comprehensive surveys among Palestinian refugees in the West Bank-Gaza Strip, Jordan, and Lebanon.

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