The most recent poll of Palestinian public opinion by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), a Ramallah-based NGO, makes for grim reading. Coming on the heels of canceled general elections in April, the Gaza war in May, and the murder of West Bank dissident Nizar Banat in June, the standing of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the ruling Fatah party, and President Mahmoud Abbas has cratered. 

According to the September poll, 45 percent of Palestinians think the militant Hamas, which rules Gaza, is more deserving to represent and lead the Palestinian people than Fatah under Abbas, which only garnered 19 percent support. 78 percent of the public demand Abbas’ resignation, a ten point increase since March. In a presidential race between Abbas and Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh, the incumbent would lose by over twenty points—with Fatah as a whole trailing Hamas. Most troubling, support for the two-state solution stands at just 36 percent, the lowest ebb since such polling began in 1993. And on it went.

The only glimmer of hope came when the public was asked about recent efforts at Palestinian-Israeli “confidence-building measures” undertaken by the new Israeli government. A solid majority in the West Bank and Gaza—56 percent versus 35 percent—positively viewed such measures aimed at easing their daily living conditions.

“This is very good news for Abbas,” PCPSR head Dr. Khalil Shikaki told foreign journalists earlier this month. “[It’s] the one area in the entire survey where there is some level of optimism regarding Abbas having a path forward to try and achieve something for the Palestinians that would distinguish him from Hamas.”

In its four short months in power, the Israeli government has moved ahead with several “confidence-building measures”—which it prefers to place under the paradigm of “shrinking the conflict.” 

15,000 new work permits inside Israel were issued for West Bank Palestinians, while the number for Gazans was recently increased to 10,000 (the highest level since Hamas’ 2007 takeover of the territory). Israel floated the PA a $150 million loan in order to plug its severe budget shortfall, tentatively approved some 1000 new housing units for Palestinians in the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control, and re-established Joint Economic Committees to discuss future initiatives, including an upgrade to the Palestinian cellular network and streamlining Palestinian tax collection.

Last week the Israeli Defense Ministry approved 4000 requests for legal status by Palestinians who had moved to the West Bank from Gaza or overseas, the first such move in years. And the Israeli military has reportedly increased freedom of movement for the PA Security Forces inside the West Bank (to better serve the Palestinian public living in outlying villages and towns) and decreased the tempo of its own raids into Palestinian cities.

To be clear, none of these steps on their own is enough; more can, and should, be done. In recent days, too, new settlement housing announcements, ongoing settler terrorism against Palestinians, and terror designations against six Palestinian civil society NGOs have raised questions about the Israeli government’s sincerity regarding actually “shrinking” the conflict (as opposed to enlarging it).

Yet the hope is that the above steps are early and real statements of intent by the Israeli government that will go some way to improve Palestinian living conditions—and that more are in the offing.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz has made clear that the first priorities will be economics and infrastructure, while Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has ruled out any “political process” vis-à-vis the Palestinians, i.e. peace talks. Given the precarious make-up of the Israeli governing coalition, with rightwing pro-settler parties ruling alongside pro-peace leftists, centrists, and an Arab Islamist faction, this isn’t a surprise.

But these steps are themselves political, and have to be understood as a potential strategic shift by Israel.

Under the previous rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, such “confidence-building measures”—long called for by the international community—were always beholden to torturous negotiations. The entire Israeli-Palestinian relationship was viewed through a zero-sum prism. Now, of its own volition, the Israeli government is taking these steps preemptively and has asked for nothing in return.

This is due to another major change in Israeli thinking, which is also political: strengthening the moderate Abbas and PA in its internal battle with the rejectionist Hamas. If in the past Netanyahu freely (albeit indirectly) negotiated with Hamas and discounted Abbas, the new Israeli government understands well that the PA is a vital strategic asset.

“If we give Gaza X, then we should give the PA 3x,” Gantz told me last month. “We should strengthen [the PA], and increase Palestinian self-governance, so we can live with them in peace.”

At its most basic level, the fact that Gantz and other senior Israeli ministers are openly saying this and meeting with Abbas in Ramallah, touting the importance of relations with the PA, sends a strong message to the Israeli public that there is in fact a partner on the other side.

Perhaps most surprising, there is real buy-in from the Palestinian leadership to this approach and, as the polls above make clear, the Palestinian public is supportive as well. Precisely for this reason, PA officials openly publicize every meeting and new economic measure.

The prospects of an imminent resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are admittedly non-existent due to the internal politics on both sides. Yet the strategy being proposed now by the Israeli government, if genuine, is not only the most realistic path forward but also essential: to improve Palestinian lives, to reduce friction and “shrink the conflict,” to build confidence, and to bolster the moderates against the extremists who are dead set on burying the two-state solution.

Addendum: As this article went to press, the PCPSR issued a new poll for October (http://pcpsr.org/en/node/862) indicating a slight rise in popularity for both Fatah and the two-state solution. As the report explains:

“Perhaps one reason for the rise in Fatah’s popularity might be the implementation by Israel of some of the confidence-building measures that the PA and Israel agreed to recently, such as family unifications and the rise in the number of laborers working in Israel….The current findings indicate a significant rise in support for the two-state solution compared to our findings during the past six months. Similarly, the current poll shows an increase in public belief in the effectiveness of negotiations. Indeed, for the first time in six months, the percentage of those who prefer to change the status quo through negotiations is higher than those who prefer to do so through waging armed struggle. It is possible that this change is driven by the same dynamics that increased the support for Fatah.”

Photo Credit: Harry Pockets