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Israel and the Palestinians

Dealing With the Palestinian Leadership

The January 2006 election of the Hamas party to leadership has posed a dilemma for Americans: a clear consensus does not exist as to whether the US should engage Hamas diplomatically. In the wake of the death of Yasser Arafat only a plurality expressed optimism that this increased the likelihood of peace but a large majority nonetheless favored a renewed effort. In the past, the public has expressed substantial doubt as to whether post-Arafat Palestinian leaders would be any better than Arafat himself.

The recent election of the Hamas party to the Palestinian leadership has raised a new issue for Americans about dealing with a government that continues to deny the existence of and advocate violence against Israel. Poll results have been inconclusive. A slight majority (51%) in a January 2006 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll supported diplomatic engagement with the government “in hopes of changing its policy,” as opposed to 37% that felt the Bush administration “should refuse to deal with the new government until it renounces violence.” Yet, when the question highlighted that fact that Hamas does not recognize Israel a different picture emerged. In a February 2006 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 44% said that the US should only have relations with the Hamas government if it recognizes Israel, while another 25% said that the US should not have diplomatic relations at all. Only 22% said that the US should have diplomatic relations with the Hamas government regardless of whether it chooses to recognize Israel. It is not entirely clear, though, given the earlier polls support for diplomatic engagement, how much respondents were specifying what US policy should be or how much they were expressing their belief in the importance of Hamas recognizing Israel.[1]

After Yasser Arafat’s death and the election of Mahmoud Abbas to head the Palestinian Authority, Americans expressed only mild optimism that this would lead to improvements. When asked in a January 2005 Fox News survey whether the recent Palestinian elections were “more likely to bring about peace in the Middle East or continued violence”, a plurality of 43% said peace was more likely. But 33% said more violence, and another 9% said the results would be mixed. Fifteen percent were unsure.

Nonetheless, a strong majority wanted the US to seize this opportunity. When asked in a December 2004 Opinion Research Corporation poll if the US “should take the initiative in the wake of the death of Yasser Arafat to push for a Middle Eastern peace arrangement that includes a Palestinian homeland?” 65% said yes. Only 22% said no. [2]

In the past, Americans have also been quite pessimistic about the likelihood that the emergence of new Palestinian leaders would have a positive impact on the peace process. When asked in a July 2002 CBS News poll, 55% felt that "if another Palestinian instead of Yasser Arafat was in charge" it would make no difference in the likelihood of a peace deal between the two parties. Twenty-seven percent felt it would make peace more likely and only 4% less likely.[3]



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Americans on the Middle East Road Map

[full report]
May 30, 2003