Arab Spring overshadowing Israeli-Palestinian conflict

But changes in Egypt and Jordan are influencing Hamas and Fatah

Photos/Mike Lovett

Khalil Shikaki is the world’s foremost pollster and interpreter of Palestinian public opinion. A senior fellow of Brandeis’ Crown Center for Middle East Research, he has directed the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research since 2000, and has conducted more than 150 polls among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1993. Shikaki is a widely published author and has taught at several institutions, including Birzeit University and An-Najah National University in the occupied territories, the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and the University of South Florida. He also has been a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
The next course he will teach at Brandeis is “Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East,” which he will team teach with Shai Feldman, the Judith and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center, and Crown center senior fellow Abdel Monem Said Ali in fall semester 2012.

focus on facultyBrandeisNOW: With all the talk of the Arab Spring, it seems that the Israel-Palestine situation is a little bit backstage or offstage for the moment. True? And is that good or bad?

Khalil Shikaki: Even before the Arab Spring, the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations were more or less dead. But there’s no doubt that the Arab Spring is affecting the choices that Israelis and Palestinians are making. It’s toughening the positions of the Israelis, who are feeling that this is a time of uncertainty and they don’t want to engage in negotiations that would require them to make concessions when they’re not sure where the Arab world is heading and what will happen with the Palestinian Authority.

On the Palestinian side, things are moving very, very quickly. Hamas is making choices in terms of its alliance system, clearly moving away from its relationship with Iran and Syria and trying to take advantage of the changes they see in Egypt and Jordan, which are leading them to conclude that they can now gain much greater access to the Arab world. The changes provide Hamas with the opportunity to try to break through the siege around Gaza. Hamas needs access to material goods and products to rebuild Gaza, gain access to financial support for the region and so on. The Rafah Crossing between Gaza and Egypt has opened and Hamas feels that it’s possible that with a new regime in Egypt there could be an opportunity for Hamas to make Gaza a de facto state.

Meanwhile, the Jordanian regime feels threatened by the changes in the region and by the rising demands of their own public, particularly Islamists. The regime feels the need to appease their Islamists and this appeasement is pushing the Jordanians to bring Hamas back into Jordan and normalize relations.

That has not been widely reported.

This is something that is unfolding at the moment. The Jordanians are essentially opening the doors and are reassessing their position towards Hamas. The Jordanian Prime Minister said a few days ago that it was a mistake to expel Hamas from Jordan and that Jordan seeks to normalize its relationship with Hamas, to treat it just like the way it treats Fatah and other Palestinian factions.

Parallel to this is change in the West Bank, where [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas feels that the international effort that he’s leading to gain recognition of a Palestinian state might benefit from much larger public participation along the lines of the Arab Spring, with massive Palestinian public participation in nonviolent efforts, demonstrations and so on against Israeli occupation and in support of the UN bid.

People have been talking about this for years -- why isn’t there a massive civil disobedience or nonviolent demonstration-type confrontation of the Israelis.

We’re not sure that it will happen now, but there is no doubt that the message that Abbas and Fatah seem to be taking from the Arab Spring is that if Arab publics can do it in these countries like Libya and Syria and Egypt and Tunisia and so on, that Palestinians too can do it. It helps Abbas himself in getting legitimacy if he is seen as activating the public, becoming more sensitive to what the public wants, and at the same time will help his efforts to wage diplomatic warfare against Israel, to pressure the Israelis to change the status quo. So the Arab Spring has sort of created a lot of noise that has, to a large extent, overwhelmed the Palestinian question, but at the same time it has created a new dynamic among Palestinians that could gradually transform the landscape of Palestinian politics.

Is the issue for Hamas in Syria just the uncertainty? Or is there something more specific that makes them nervous about the Syrian situation.

The overwhelming majority of the Arab publics and definitely the Palestinians, as several research surveys indicate, view the Syrian regime today as a dictatorial regime that is killing its own people. There is tremendous sympathy and support for the uprising against the Syrian regime.

Hamas is seen at the moment as a friend of the regime, and as such it is losing considerable public sympathy because people might believe that Hamas supports the regime in the atrocities it is committing. Hamas is trying to distance itself from the regime, but as long as its base is there and as long as it receives political and other types of support from the regime, people will continue to associate Hamas with the regime and with its behavior. That is why Hamas seeks to get out of Syria, find new headquarters, perhaps somewhere else in Egypt or Jordan or in the Gulf. But in doing so it would have to reassess its current alignment with Iran and Syria and Hezbollah, and move away from this alliance because of the consequences of the Arab Spring, the rising demand for freedom, dignity and liberty and so on is overwhelming the demands to support a resistance regime like the one that Hamas is presenting to the public.

[Israeli author and peace activist] Amos Oz recently said that he has abiding faith a breakthrough because in the Middle East when people say ”never” or “forever,” they mean 25 or 30 years. Is that an attitude that you share? Or does the conflict really seem endless?

The past 10 years have been really very bad for the peace process, and there is no reason to believe that the next 10 years will be better. However there is a reason for optimism that I see, which is that despite the past 10 years of stalemate and violence, public perceptions both among Palestinians and Israelis have actually been moving in a positive direction. Both publics have been moderating their views. Both the Israelis and Palestinians have become more and more realistic about what to expect and they are becoming more realistic about what is expected of them in terms of making compromises. The willingness to compromise is much greater today than it was 10 years ago.

So in that case, why is nothing positive happening?

The peace process is in a stalemate because no one is pushing it forward. The American administration is simply not interested in using U.S. leverage due to various reasons, but most importantly due to American domestic political factors. The two political parties are divided on this and this is becoming a very controversial issue in domestic American politics. Without U.S. leadership, without the U.S. using leverage, very serious leverage, against both sides, I don’t see, in the short run, any change on the ground, any return to serious and viable negotiations.

People understand pretty well why the U.S. would have leverage if it wanted to use it with the Israelis, but what gives the U.S. leverage with the Palestinians?

As long as the U.S. is perceived as being one-sided and biased in favor of Israel, any pressure against the Palestinians would be futile. But if the U.S. is seen as serious in pressuring the Israelis, that’s going to change everything. Once the Palestinians begin to see U.S. pressure in terms of moving the process forward rather than in terms of serving Israeli interests, U.S. economic and financial support becomes a very effective tool and U.S. political support for the leadership and for the process will certainly become very important. At the moment the Palestinian public doesn’t see the U.S. position as being balanced by any means.

There is money in certain Arab countries, lots of money. And it seemed like there is a continuing cycle -- they have a conference to support the Palestinians, they pledge large amounts and then they don’t deliver. What’s that about?

To some extent Arab countries believe that the problem the Palestinians face is Israeli occupation, and this occupation seemed to be consolidated day after day because of American and Western support. So, in the Arab narrative, this conflict is fueled by American and European support for Israel and if the Arabs give a lot of money to the Palestinian Authority their contribution would only help to maintain the status quo, which Arabs reject. In that sense, they’re really not all that motivated to come up with the financial support.

Did the Obama administration make an error right in the beginning by trying so quickly and with such a high profile to address the Arab world with the President's Cairo speech before they had thought through their game plan?

They certainly rushed into it without first calculating what it would require in terms of American behavior. You cannot just make promises and then when the time comes to deliver seem unwilling or unable to do so. The Arab world wanted to give the U.S. and this administration the benefit of the doubt. There were tremendous expectations after the Cairo speech and the U.S. seemed to be moving in a direction that the Arabs welcomed very much, but they reserved judgment until they could see the results on the ground. And what they saw was how the U.S. approached the Israeli-Palestinian question, how the U.S. was quick to abandon the demand for settlement freeze, how the U.S. was willing to basically allow [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to dictate the terms for the process. Arabs in general felt disillusioned and betrayed by the Obama administration. The Palestinians in particular were the ones who felt this more than anybody else, but it is true all over the Arab world.

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