by Ferry Biedermann
(IPS) JERUSALEM --
popularity of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is falling sharply as he joins hard negotiations over the release of prisoners from Israeli jails.
Support for Abbas has dropped from 61 percent to 52 percent, according to a survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah. That drop comes since the last poll conducted in April.
The poll shows, however, continuing support for the roadmap to peace among both Palestinians and Israelis.
The survey was carried out from June 19-26, after the roadmap was accepted but before the cease-fire. Some 1,300 Palestinians were covered, along with about 1,000 Israelis, half of them settlers.
"Mahmoud Abbas's popularity dropped after his speech in Aqaba (Jordan) last month where he was perceived as not speaking up strongly enough for the right of return of refugees," Khalil Shikaki from the research center told IPS.
The main drop in the support came in Gaza where there are more refugees than on the West Bank. "If he corrects the perception on the refugees issue and is successful in carrying out his other policies, he will probably recover his popularity," said Shikaki.
There are 626,500 registered refugees in the West Bank out of a local population of 2,150,000, and 879,000 in Gaza in a local population of 1,230,000.
Abbas's position had seemed uncertain when he offered his resignation to the central committee of the Fatah movement earlier this week. Resignation from that powerful body would automatically spell the end of his tenure as Prime Minister.
The committee refused to accept his resignation despite criticism of his reconciliatory approach to Israel and dissatisfaction with his handling of negotiations for the release of Palestinian prisoners.
But Abbas seems to be in tune with the popular mood over his basic position of making a push for peace. The survey shows that 71 percent of Palestinians and 80 percent Israelis support long-term plans for peace. A majority of Palestinians agree to accept Israel as a state for the Jewish people.
Despite strong support for the roadmap and for reconciliation, the poll also indicated growing polarization among the public on both sides.
Among Palestinians, the fundamentalist Hamas movement for the first time received more support than the mainstream Fatah movement in Gaza. On the West Bank and at the national level, Fatah remains the most popular faction.
Hamas has most influence over the peace process, though. According to the poll 58 percent of Palestinians will follow the lead of the Islamists on whether to accept a cease-fire. Hamas says it still supports truce but that this is conditional on a large-scale Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners.
A senior Israeli intelligence officer had earlier discounted the idea that Hamas may break the cease-fire over the issue of prisoners. "They cannot afford to look selfish and bring down the whole process because they want their own people to be released," he said.
Among Israelis, the survey found growing acceptance of the position of Jewish settlers. In a survey last year, 14 percent of Israelis said it was right to resist a decision by the government to evacuate settlements. Now 55 percent say so.
Among settlers there is also a substantial group now, about 13 percent, who say they will resist eviction by all means.
But a majority of the settlers would accept a government decision to pay compensation and evacuate them rather than stay where they are under Palestinian rule.
Yaacov Shamir from the Truman Institute for Peace at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who carried out the poll on the Israeli side, acknowledges that the public had become more polarized.
Both Shikaki and Shamir find the results of the survey positive, but with some worrying undercurrents. Both say it highlights the fragile nature of the peace process.
July 11, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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