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Middle East

'You can keep buying time'

Dr Khalil Shikaki has his finger on the pulse of Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza after over a decade of carrying out political polls. DW talked to him about the latest setbacks in the peace talks.

The latest polls carried out in March show 62 percent of Palestinians would reject the peace framework agreement if it includes a request to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. Fifty-five percent of Palestinians are opposed to extending negotiations until the end of the year.

DW: What is your assessment of the events of the past few days with Israel refusing to release Palestinian prisoners and the latest effort to reach some kind of deal to extend peace talks?

Khalil Shikaki: I think they are likely to reach some kind of a deal. I think the whole crisis is due to the fact that the framework document has not really been gaining support among Palestinians the way the Israeli government hoped it would. Israel faced the possibility it would release the prisoners and a month later negotiations would stop. [Benjamin] Netanyahu doesn't want to look like a fool so he's trying to use this last release as leverage to get something out of the Palestinians, either with regard to the framework document or with regard to the extension of negotiations.

If Israel agrees to the release of more prisoners and a deal is reached for the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard - is this a big deal, are we on the brink of peace in our time?

No we're on the brink of extending this whole process, you can call it whatever you want, it's not going to lead anywhere nine months down the road. The basic compromises that this Israeli government is willing to endorse are unacceptable to the majority of the Palestinians and to Fatah Central Committee, which will be the first body to look at it. The Palestinians would be happy to move along with something similar to what they've done in the past but not with the current demands. The longterm military presence is unacceptable to them, the Jewish character the way Netanyahu seems to define it is unacceptable, we know there are a few additional issues with regard to Jerusalem, with regard to the size of the territorial exchange, with regard to the location of the exchange.

Remember since the start of the peace process, the Palestinians have never negotiated a permanent status agreement with a right-wing government, they have always negotiated with either left of center. The right-wing never really endorsed the previously compromises that the left and center in Israel did. Palestinians believe the US Secretary of State [John Kerry] is taking the Israeli demands and finding a way to force the Palestinians to swallow them. If the American's still have the same position on asking the Palestinians to endorse Israel's demands the Palestinians will say no. The Americans will be able to buy the time that they want, but there will be no breakthrough at the end of that period.

Buying time - what can be done within those nine months?

Dr Khalil Shikaki 
copyright: Kate Shuttleworth

Dr Khalil Shikaki

There are things that can be done that could help you buy further time later on when the nine months end, you can keep buying time. Things could happen that will change the environment. If for example we have nine months, by the end of the year the Israelis may decide that it's worthwhile for them to begin to change things on the ground for Palestinians, such as greater Palestinian control over Area C (one of three West Bank areas created under the Oslo II accord - the ed.), greater access to financial markets, greater access to the crossings into Jordan. These are things that are not packaged as an interim agreement but these are things the two sides, with the help of the Americans, can begin to make happen. It is not going to lead to a greater willingness to accept Israeli demands in the negotiations but it could help then renew negotiations after the nine months.

What do Palestinians thing of a call to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland?

There's no doubt that if the Palestinian Authority, the PLO, endorses the deal that contains recognition of the Jewish character of the state, this will change public opinion. Today only 32 percent of Palestinians are in favour of such a deal. How much more can an endorsement from Abbas or the PLO give, 50 percent? My guess is no.

If the Jewish character of the state is defined in a manner that is more flexible this could change things for the public. This has not yet been clarified, the Palestinian public still doesn't know what Netanyahu means and the Americans have not clarified this to the public. If the Americans were to clarify it, they could change public opinion.

At the moment the Americans basically say it is not about narratives. This is not about Jewish narratives gaining and Palestinian narratives abandoned. This is very critical for Palestinians, I am actually very surprised that the Americans have not yet clarified this publicly.

It needs to be clarified so that it does not mean discrimination against Israeli Arabs and it doesn't give Israel license to discriminate. It is a strong Israeli commitment to equal rights so this could go a long way in gaining public support.

How will Palestinians react if the peace talks collapse?

We looked at this in recent polls and the likely outcomes could be an Arab-Spring-like revolt against the Palestinian Authority which would be in financial crisis. The most likely option was the PA going to international organizations in search of ways to fight Israelis diplomatically and Israelis and US congress responds by suspending financial transfers and support. The PA would be unable to pay salaries and would gradually lose the confidence of the public leading to a gradual rise of armed groups in refugee camps and cities challenging the control of the security services, gradually leading to the collapse of the PA. Armed groups would take over in some places and Israel would come in and take over in places. This is the most likely scenario from our research and the trigger is the collapse of the negotiations.

Dr Khalil Shikaki is director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah. He is also a professor of political science and senior fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.

He has conducted more than 200 scientific polls since 1993 among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and since 2000 has carried out combined polls on Palestinians and Israelis.

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