Magazine article The American Conservative

How to Handle Hamas

Magazine article The American Conservative

How to Handle Hamas

Article excerpt

The Holy Land needs a more modest peace plan. Think Cyprus.

GOOGLE "respected pollster" and "Palestinian" and you'll get quite a few hits leading to Khalil Shikaki, who is described as "the most respected Palestinian pollster." This view is shared by Tom Friedman and other journalists who regularly soundbite the findings of the head of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research-whose institute has received funding from American foundations and who has served as an adviser to the U.S. government.

But according to Middle East expert Martin Kramer, there is one major problem in lending respectability to Shikaki as a pollster: his polls. Shikaki conducted three crucial polls that showed the moderate Fatah well ahead of militant Hamas by a comfortable and growing margin on the eve of the Palestinian parliamentary election. State Department officials were paying close attention to the results of these polls, which helped reinforce expectations that Fatah would win anyway and that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would be in a stronger position to discipline Hamas. "A lot of the certainly derived from Shikaki's polls," which according to Kramer, "have become a font of conventional wisdom."

Shikaki, spinning his miserable performance, wrote in the Feb. 6 issue of Newsweek International, "a closer look at the numbers reveals a more complex picture," noting that Hamas received only 45 percent of the popular vote, and that "the nature of the electoral system" magnified the fragmentation of Hamas's opposition and gave the Islamist movement the 58 percent of the seats it won. According to Shikaki's numbers, the divided Fatah won a majority of the popular vote-55 percent-but only 39 percent of the seats. The "respected pollster" then went on to explain that Hamas's remarkable showing "demonstrates that its supporters were more determined to vote than Fatah's, and perhaps that some former Fatah supporters were lodging a protest vote." And most important, "even Hamas's own voters do not share its views on the peace process" with three quarters of all Palestinians, including more than 60 percent of Hamas voters, willing to support reconciliation between the Palestinians and Israel. "Had the issue of peace been the most important consideration in these elections, Fatah would certainly have won. But the peace process was the least important issue for the voters," Shikaki concluded.

Shikaki should be reminded that his job was to uncover the "complex picture" before the election and that many of the problems that he mentioned as a way of defending his polling fiasco are the kind of issues considered by any experienced pollster. But more disturbing than his dog-ate-my-homework excuses is the fact that Shikaki's spin on the Hamas victory has been embraced. Not unlike our old buddy Chalabi, who provided Washington with "information" that was instrumental in raising expectations about the outcome of the Iraq War, Shikaki seems to have become an expert in feeding American officials and pundits the kind of news that enables them to promote their preferred policies. In return, Mideast operators like Chalabi and Shikaki win fame and fortune and help shape U.S. policy based on their respective agendas. Have a wishful thought? Democracy in Iraq or Palestine? Sunni-Shi'ite reconciliation in Mesopotamia? Peace in the Holy Land? Consider Chalabi & Shikaki your men in the Middle East.

Indeed, if Shikaki's pre-election findings played a critical role in solidifying Washington's policy (encourage Abbas to co-opt Hamas and create the conditions for reviving the peace process), his postelection spin (Hamas's victory was not a landslide; Abbas's allies won the popular vote; most Palestinians want peace) is feeding a fantasy: let's isolate and weaken Hamas and deal with and strengthen Abbas and help ignite a backlash against the militant Islamists that will force them to support the peace process or cast them into the dustbin of history. …

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