Polls that hid Hamas

Some people are up in arms over the fact that Palestinian analyst and pollster Khalil Shikaki has been made a senior research fellow at the new Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis. Details of the controversy are here. The Zionist Organization of America is arrayed on one side, Americans for Peace Now on the other. I know Shikaki, he’s no terrorist or terrorist sympathizer, and he’s been a welcome speaker at The Washington Institute where I hang my hat. (He appeared there most recently on January 19.) I do think the new management of the Crown Center needn’t have appointed him off the bat, since having him doesn’t signal that the Crown Center intends to be different. I said my piece about the principles I hope will guide the Center when I spoke at its inauguration last spring. I invite my friends at Brandeis to reread my remarks carefully.

The problem with Shikaki lies in another realm altogether: his polls of Palestinian opinion. Shikaki runs something called the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, which gets money from foreign governments and foundations to conduct opinion surveys. They’ve earned Shikaki the moniker of  “respected pollster,” and he’s always running off to Washington or a European capital to present his findings.

Shikaki conducted three crucial polls that affected perceptions in Washington, in the early parts of June, September and December 2005. They showed Fatah well ahead of Hamas, by a comfortable and growing margin:

June 2005: “Findings show that the level of participation in the next legislative elections will be 77% and the outcome of those elections will be as follows: 44% for Fateh, 33% for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, 3% for the left, and 8% for independent lists. 12% are undecided.”

September 2005: “Findings show that 74% of the Palestinians will participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections in January 2006. Voting intentions among the likely participants indicate an increase of Fateh’s support from 44% last June to 47% in this poll and a drop in Hamas’ support from 33% to 30% during the same period. 11% will vote for other factions and groups and 11% remain undecided.”

December 2005: “If elections are held today, findings show that 78% of the Palestinians would participate (compared to 74% last September). Among those intending to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections, 50% will vote for Fateh, 32% for Hamas, 9% for other factions and groups including independents, and 9% remain undecided.”

With each new Shikaki poll, U.S. policymakers grew more lax when it came to setting conditions for Hamas participation. Robert Satloff and Dore Gold both sharply criticized the U.S. drift that allowed entry of a gun-toting, terrorist-talking Hamas into the electoral arena. They were disregarded because of certainty at the State Department and the White House that Fatah would win anyway, and that Abu Mazen would be in a stronger position to discipline Hamas after the victory. A lot of that certainty derived from Shikaki’s polls.

Even in late December, a month before elections, Shikaki conducted a special poll that reported these results: “43% will vote for Fateh List while 25% will vote for the List of Change and Reform [Hamas], and 19% remain undecided.” Only his last poll, in early January, showed Hamas closing the gap: “42% will vote for Fateh List while 35% will vote for the List of Change and Reform, and 7% remain undecided.” Shikaki’s exit poll on election day showed the gap had been closed, but was still wildly off the mark: “Results show Fateh winning the largest number of seats (58) followed by Hamas with 53 seats.” In fact, Fatah took only 45 seats; Hamas collected 74.

Is it possible that the Shikaki polls were themselves part of Fatah election propaganda? This is the charge insinuated by a Jerusalem-based political analyst, Zakariya al-Qaq, without citing Shikaki by name: “The people who conducted these polls are inexperienced and unprofessional. They also made serious mistakes in the public opinion polls they conducted before the election. I believe they were then trying to affect the voters’ decision by presenting a distorted picture.” That’s a serious charge, although it might refer to a pollster other than Shikaki. But even if this worst-case interpretation is improbable in Shikaki’s case, the professionalism of his polls is very much in question.

That’s significant, because Shikaki’s polls have become a font of conventional wisdom. Whenever you hear someone say that a majority of Palestinians accept a two-state solution, or a majority of Palestinian refugees don’t really want to return to Israel proper, or the Palestinians hate corruption more than Israel, it’s a remote echo of one of Shikaki’s polls. Complicating the picture is the fact that Shikaki isn’t only a pollster. He’s a political analyst, and even a political activist, which is why Americans for Peace Now have rallied to him in the Brandeis row. From Peace Now to the State Department, Shikaki is admired and feted because he tells peace processors what they want to hear–not just with emotion and analysis, but with numbers.

Unfortunately, we now have a concrete case in which his numbers just didn’t add up. If Shikaki has an interesting explanation for what went wrong, and he posts it on his website, I’ll be glad to link to it. At the moment, the last entry there is his exit poll, squatting like a grim epitaph. Hamas has never liked Shikaki or his polls: they’ve always claimed he underestimates them. Now it turns out that they’ve been right. If Hamas assumes real power, the future of Shikaki’s polling gig is in doubt. It would be ironic and sad if he were forced into permanent Brandeis exile, by a famously vengeful movement he himself helped bring to power.

Update: According to this report, Israeli intelligence also relied on Shikaki’s polls.

Addendum: Earlier this month, the United States Institute of Peace published a report by Shikaki, entitled Willingness to Compromise: Palestinian Public Opinion and the Peace Process. Finding: “Palestinian public opinion is not an impediment to progress in the peace process; to the contrary, over time the Palestinian public has become more moderate. Palestinian willingness to compromise is greater than it has been at any time since the start of the peace process…. Therefore, the time is ripe to deal with permanent-status issues.” Ripe indeed.

Amusing: The New York Times throws in a quote from Shikaki in an article (Jan. 29) on the democracy dilemma in the Middle East. How is he identified? You guessed it: “respected Palestinian pollster.”

Further update: Here it is: Shikaki spins (and sugarcoats) the election results in predictable ways, in a Newsweek column.

New twist! Shikaki now claims there was an organized effort to mislead pollsters.