During three months of foundering peace talks overshadowed by violence, the U.S.-backed Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has lost popular support and is now viewed as less legitimate than the Islamist government of rival group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, according to a poll released Monday.
The survey is the latest sign that the Bush administration"s effort to shore up secular Palestinian leaders and isolate Hamas is failing. That effort, part of a strategy to stabilize the Middle East through an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, includes diplomatic support and promises of economic aid to the West Bank.
Polling data collected in the West Bank and Gaza this month show that Hamas, which rejects peace talks and continues to fight Israel, has gained sharply in popularity since December, reversing a two-year decline.
The poll was conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, an independent think tank the administration has cited in the past to make the case that its strategy in the region is working.
According to the poll, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would receive 47% of the vote if the Palestinian Authority held presidential elections today, compared with 46% for the U.S.-backed incumbent, Mahmoud Abbas.
The center"s polling in December showed Abbas defeating Haniyeh in such an election by 56% to 37%.
Haniyeh was prime minister in a power-sharing government that Abbas dissolved in June after Hamas gunmen evicted Abbas" Fatah-led security forces from Gaza. Abbas completed the violent split by appointing a West Bank government led by former World Bank economist Salam Fayyad.
Hamas" armed takeover in Gaza badly hurt the movement"s popularity. When pollsters asked in December which Palestinian government was the legitimate authority, 38% of the respondents said Fayyad"s and 30% said Haniyeh"s.
In this month"s poll, 34% said Haniyeh"s government was the legitimate one; 29% said it was Fayyad"s. Nearly one-fourth said both governments were illegitimate.
"This is a major shift in Hamas" favor," said Khalil Shikaki, head of the survey group. "Abbas and Fayyad had a six-month window of opportunity to take advantage of their support. Last summer Hamas was shunned. It had lost the ability to sell its political line. Now it"s regaining that ability, at the expense of Abbas and his team."
Shikaki and other Palestinian analysts attributed the turnabout to several factors:
The current peace talks, launched by President Bush in November, have failed to stop Israel"s military incursions and airstrikes in Gaza. Nor have they halted the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank; eased Israel"s security checkpoints there; or made evident progress on the big issues of a final peace accord, such as the borders of an independent Palestinian state and the status of Palestinian refugees.
Meanwhile, Hamas has boldly reasserted itself. In January it demolished parts of a wall along the Gazan-Egyptian border, enabling Palestinians to leave en masse to stock up on goods made scarce by an Israeli blockade of Gaza. Later, Hamas carried out its first suicide attack in Israel in more than three years and stepped up rocket attacks on Israel during a five-day Israeli incursion early this month that left more than 120 Palestinian militants and civilians dead in Gaza.
To Palestinians, "these developments managed to present Hamas as successful in breaking the siege and as a victim of Israeli attacks," the survey"s authors wrote. "These also presented . . . Abbas and his Fatah faction as impotent, unable to change the bitter reality in the West Bank" or end the Israeli occupation through diplomacy.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week that Israel and the Palestinians had not done "nearly enough" to meet peacemaking obligations.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted Monday that Israel would continue to build Jewish homes in a neighborhood of East Jerusalem claimed by the Palestinians, despite Rice"s objections to the project as an obstacle to peace talks.
"Abbas" problem is that for him, there is no other path than negotiations with Israel," said Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank. "Israel has given him little to show for it, so he is trapped, and Palestinians feel it."
The survey, which queried 1,270 Palestinians in the wake of the fighting early this month, showed Hamas has regained the popular support it had on the eve of winning the 2006 parliamentary elections and steadily lost after forming a government.
In a new parliamentary election, Fatah would defeat Hamas by a margin of 42% to 35%, according to the poll, but the gap is less than half what it was in December.
The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.