Omar Karmi
The National
December 19, 2009 - 1:00am

In spite of political stalemates on all fronts, it was a relatively good week for Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and the head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

On Wednesday, the PLO’s Central Council voted to extend his term in office at least until new elections are held. Mr Abbas has said that he will not run for re-election for president of the PA, but a new opinion poll found that were he to stand and elections be held now, Mr Abbas would take 54 per cent of the vote, comfortably beating Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, by 16 per cent. This is in spite of a similar proportion of Palestinians, 57 per cent, supporting his decision not to run for re-election.

Moreover, Mr Abbas’s Fatah faction maintained a similar advantage over Hamas in the event of parliamentary elections, standing to secure 43 per cent to Hamas’ 27 per cent.

The poll, from the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, also found that the single most popular Palestinian politician was Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned Fatah leader whom Hamas is negotiating to have released as part of a swap deal for a captured Israeli soldier held in Gaza.

Mr Barghouti, who is serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison, would garner 67 per cent of the vote were he, rather than Mr Abbas, to run against Mr Haniyeh in any presidential elections.

It is not all good news for Fatah, however. In spite of a concerted effort to push the blame onto Hamas, an overwhelming majority of Palestinians blame both factions for the division between the West Bank and Gaza, while the two governments score similar approval ratings and a slightly higher percentage of Gazans, perhaps counter-intuitively, feel that their personal security is improving.

Hamas, moreover, does not seem perturbed by the opinion polls. The Islamist movement celebrated its 22nd anniversary on Monday by bringing some 100,000 supporters onto the streets of Gaza.

In addition, no new elections will be held until a unity agreement is struck between the Palestinian factions, and Hamas is insisting that an Egyptian proposal currently on the table and already signed by Fatah is still in need of clarification.

Mahmoud Ramahi, a Hamas politician from Ramallah, also said that polls were likely to be misleading and that Hamas’s popular base was growing daily.

“At the moment, people are a little afraid of participating in Hamas events,” Mr Ramahi said on Monday.

“But I assure you, we know our base and we know that we are more popular than ever.”

He pointed out that prior to the 2006 parliamentary elections, every single poll had predicted that Fatah would win a narrow victory. Hamas, instead, secured an overwhelming majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council.

George Giacaman, a political scientist at Birzeit University in Ramallah, said, however, it would be wrong to conclude that Palestinian polls were untrustworthy based on that election.

“The main pollsters all use the same methodology as anywhere else in the world and it was not just Palestinian polls that got the 2006 elections wrong.”

Certainly, Palestinian public opinion appears a fickle beast. Two months ago, an opinion poll found that Mr Abbas’s popularity had dropped below Mr Haniyeh’s and that Hamas and Fatah were running neck-and-neck.

That poll, by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre, was taken in the immediate aftermath of the Goldstone report furore, where Mr Abbas and the PLO leadership had looked complicit in a decision to support the deferral of a vote in the UN on the investigation into possible war crimes during Israel’s offensive in Gaza last year.

Mr Giacaman suggested that Palestinians were uniquely attuned to political developments because they so quickly and directly affected their lives and hence polls could swing dramatically depending on when they are taken. “Politics, in the broad sense of the term, has an immediate impact on people’s daily lives. This is not just about major developments, like the Goldstone report. People are very attuned to what happens in Israel, because it immediately impacts their daily lives.”


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