P.A. Crackdown: Khalil Shikaki's Research Comes Under Threat

Khalil Shikaki in Ramallah
For the past twenty-five years, the Palestinian political scientist Khalil Shikaki has been his own best evidence for the promise of civil society in a Palestinian state. In 1993, he founded the nonprofit Center for Palestine Research and Studies, in Nablus—which, in 2000, became the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research—with funding mainly from the Ford Foundation and the European Union. As if Western democratic norms could be willed into being, he began polling public opinion on the new Palestinian Authority, which was created as a consequence of the Oslo Accords, and advocating for policies based on his findings.

There were polls on the popularity of Palestinian parties and factions, on the P.A.’s performance, on American mediation, and on interim agreements. The findings were often implicitly critical of P.A. leadership, especially in recent years, as President Mahmoud Abbas, now eighty-two, has been thwarted by Israeli diplomacy and has come to be viewed as increasingly authoritarian. In 2015, a poll revealed that eighty per cent of Palestinians considered the P.A. corrupt; last year, another found that seventy per cent thought that Abbas should resign. Still, the fact that Shikaki could publish such results with apparent impunity seemed to offer reassurance that the P.A. was not despotic.

Nor, according to Shikaki’s polling, has the P.A.’s investment in the two-state track been futile, though you have to penetrate the numbers to see why. Since 2000, Shikaki has conducted joint polls with Israeli researchers that show that both sides have, over time, lost enthusiasm for a two-state solution, not because their majorities rejected the necessary compromises, in principle, but because they stopped believing in the good faith of the other side. Shikaki’s most recent poll, conducted last December, with Dahlia Scheindlin, a researcher affiliated with Tel Aviv University, found that less than half of Israelis and Palestinians now support two states, with the former growing more reconciled to annexation and the latter to armed struggle. Yet the research also found that mere symbols of of good faith can be unexpectedly decisive. “If Israelis would recognize the Naqba”—the “disaster,” when seven hundred and fifty thousand Palestinians went into exile as a result of the 1948 war—and “Palestinians would make clear that, with peace, Israelis could visit the Temple Mount—the Haram al-Sharif—then almost half of the Israeli Jews opposed to two states, and about forty per cent of the Palestinians, would change their minds,” Shikaki told me.

Making peace with such numbers can be risky. In 2003, during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, Shikaki was attacked and the P.C.P.S.R. offices in Ramallah were ransacked by a mob after the center published findings, based on more than four thousand interviews, showing that only ten per cent of Palestinian refugees would choose to live in Israel, over other forms of compensation, if they were offered the “right of return.” The attackers thought that Shikaki was being cavalier about the right of return. He was really trying to reassure both sides that, precious as the right is to Palestinians, actualizing it would not mean the end of Israel; that, on both sides, a majority constituency for a two-state solution remained to be tapped. (The prospect of confederal relations produces a similar shift in opinion.) “The numbers prove the importance of incentives,” Shikaki said.

Nevertheless, after two decades of tolerating Shikaki’s work—and even, at times, consulting with him—Abbas and his inner circle seem to have had enough. In 2015, the P.A. issued regulations requiring that all Palestinian N.G.O.s, including the P.C.P.S.R., register as nonprofit companies, report their intended activities and funding to the Cabinet, and specifically ask its prior approval to receive funds transferred to Palestinian banks from both local and foreign sources. The P.C.P.S.R. did not initially comply with the regulations, and they were not widely enforced until late 2016, after an armed, underground cell clashed with P.A. police in the Balata refugee camp, in Nablus. “This left me in the impossible position of having to petition the leaders of the hundred or so members of Abbas’s élite—the very people whose popularity I am trying to research and whose actions I often criticize—for funds to maintain my center and research what ordinary people think about them,” Shikaki said. Meanwhile, in an even more brazen move against the judiciary, Abbas replaced the Chief Justice, without consulting the independent judges of the Supreme Judicial Council, and created a so-called Constitutional Court, which is almost certain to reject any of appeals of the regulation.

Read on at The New Yorker