Survey: Israel Strengthens Hamas Yet Again

JERUSALEM – If Israeli leaders had hoped that their blockade of Gaza and the military’s early March incursion into the coastal strip might undermine support for the leadership of the Islamic Hamas movement in power there, then they will be disappointed with the findings of a recent opinion poll.

The survey results will also bolster the view in Israel, already being expressed by some politicians, that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is not the man with whom Israel should be negotiating.

If new Palestinian presidential elections were held now, the poll indicated, Gaza-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would get 47 percent of the vote, while Abbas, who heads the rival and more moderate Fatah movement, would get 46 percent.

The swing toward Haniyeh has been dramatic: the last poll by the West Bank-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, which was conducted in December, gave Haniyeh 37 percent and Abbas 56 percent.

The shift can partly be explained by an Israeli military operation in Gaza in early March in which over 100 Palestinians, many of them civilians, were killed. Israel launched the raid in an effort to prevent Gaza militants from firing rockets at towns and cities inside Israel.

The swing toward Haniyeh, said an explanation that accompanied the survey, was also due to Hamas’ decision to smash a hole in the Gaza border fence with Egypt in January in a bid to break the Israeli blockade on the strip.

Since Hamas, which is committed to Israel’s destruction, seized power from Fatah in Gaza last year, Israel has limited the flow of goods into the strip, which is home to 1.5 million Palestinians. At times it has also temporarily limited the supply of electrical power to the strip – Israel supplies Gaza with most of its power – in an effort to deter militants from firing rockets into Israel.

But the breaching of the Gaza-Egypt border, which allowed hundreds of thousands of Gaza residents to pour onto the Egyptian side of the border and stock up on food and other supplies, painted Hamas in a positive light. "These developments managed to present Hamas as successful in breaking the siege and as a victim of Israeli attacks," said the poll analysis.

The fact that peace talks, which were renewed after a U.S.-led summit last November, have been faltering, has further harmed Abbas’ standing in the eyes of his people and bolstered Hamas, which strongly opposes talks with Israel. The sides headed back to the negotiating table in December after a seven-year hiatus, but have failed to make any discernible progress. Under pressure to take a stand during the Israeli operation in Gaza, Abbas suspended contacts with Israel. They have subsequently been renewed.

While Israeli leaders may muse privately over whether the Palestinian president is able to cut a deal, one senior minister has begun to wonder out loud.

Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer recently called over Israel Radio for the release of Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader who is serving five life terms after a court in Israel found him guilty of orchestrating attacks in which Israelis were killed during the Intifada uprising. "He is by no means a moderate," said Ben-Eliezer, who is a member of the center-left Labor Party. "But at least if an agreement is signed with him, he will stand by it."

Ben-Eliezer is close to Labor leader and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and when he talks people often assume he is also expressing the views of Barak. The defense minister, though, has not made any public comments on the matter.

The implication of what Ben-Eliezer is saying is indisputable: Abbas does not have the political clout to make the concessions that will be required in securing a deal with Israel, nor the public support required to implement such an agreement.

The poll that showed Haniyeh edging out Abbas in presidential elections seemed to bear out what Ben-Eliezer has been saying. In a run-off between Barghouti and Haniyeh, the jailed Fatah leader would win by a landslide – 57 percent to 38 percent.

Barghouti is not oblivious to developments in the outside world. Shortly after the poll figures were released, he announced that he was considering running for president of the Palestinian Authority in the next elections, which are expected to be held in 2009 or 2010. "When the date of the elections is decided, I will make my decision," said Barghouti in a message he handed to his attorney, Khader Shakirat.

"He is not ruling out the option of running," said Shakirat. "All the polls show that Marwan Barghouti is the only one who can win for Fatah … the Palestinian people support Marwan Barghouti as their future leader."

Asked whether Barghouti’s popularity wasn’t boosted by the fact that he was doing time in an Israeli jail and that if he got out and ran for president it would slump, Shakirat argued that the opposite was the case. "Because he’s in jail, he gets less in the opinion polls," he insisted. "People say, ‘He’s in jail. What can he do from there?’ I’m sure he would get 70 percent if he was out."