Dr. Khalil Shikaki, a senior fellow at Brandeis's Crown Center for Middle Eastern studies, has recently generated controversy over his support for the release of Marwan Barghouti, a former Fatah leader who was convicted in Israel in 2004 of five counts of murder, as well as one count of attempted murder. Shikaki has been the head of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research since 2000, and is considered a world expert on the field of Palestinian public opinion.
In his working paper entitled With Hamas in Power: Impact of Palestinian Domestic Developments on Options for the Peace Process, Shikaki argued, "Israel needs to release Barghouti" with the aim of "improving relations with the Palestinians" and "unifying the ‘young guard' [of Fatah] under his leadership while cementing his relationship with [President] Abbas."
This paper incited a strong response from the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). In a press release February 20, ZOA President Morton Klein said in a release, "despite all that has happened at Brandeis, including its refusal to investigate the background of Khalil Shikaki despite the revelations about his past activities and association with terrorist figures, it is surprising that Shikaki now openly calls in a Brandeis publication for the release of a Palestinian Arab terrorist with Jewish blood on his hands. Barghouti is a convicted terrorist found guilty of involvement in the murder of Israeli civilians."
Klein added "it is clear that Brandeis University is failing to address the widespread concerns about the direction its Crown Center has taken and Shikaki's recent call for Barghouti's release simply reinforces ZOA's outstanding call that donors to Brandeis should reconsider giving money to Brandeis, a university founded under Jewish auspices, funded largely by Jewish donors, and whose Crown Center was originally conceived in part to be a counterweight to the biased and politicized treatment of Israel and the Middle East at so many other North American universities."
This is also not the first time Shikaki has come under fire. In February 2006, the Investigative Project on Terrorism, headed by Steve Emerson, compiled a report of Shikaki's alleged links to terrorism, highlighting his brother's founding of Palestinian Islamic Jihad as well as Shikaki's own participation in Islamic Committee for Palestine panels, which allegedly featured fervently anti-American and anti-Israeli speakers.
He was also connected with Sami Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor who was arrested for funneling money to Palestinian terrorist organizations, though Shikaki said that funds he received were used for an Islamic charity in the West Bank. The World & Islam Studies Enterprise, which was founded by Shikaki and Al-Arian, was shut down by federal authorities.
In response to these allegations, Shikaki said through email, "the accusations are baseless. They come from people who know little about my work and the research I did."
While the allegations were persistent from certain individuals such as Daniel Pipes, Shikaki's peers have consistently defended him. Martin Kramer, author of Ivory Towers of Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, wrote, "I know Shikaki, he's no terrorist or terrorist sympathizer."
In a February 2006 letter to the Hoot ("Crown Center innumeracy: what counts?," February 10th, 2006), Professor Harry Mairson (COSI) also defended Shikaki and pointed out the difficulty of his work as a pollster. "Surely life is more complicated than numbers," said Mairson in his letter, "and it's amazing what you can do with numbers—take it from this computer scientist."
In response to the alumnus e-mail, President Reinharz said "the allegations concerning Dr. Khalil Shikaki are, in my judgment, a complete red herring" on the comment page of Daniel Pipes's web site. Also, Reinharz's confidence in Shikaki was reinforced by an endorsement from Shai Feldman and members of Israel's intelligence committee.
When asked about the latest statements made against Shikaki, members of the President's office declined to comment.
Before the Palestinian elections of 2006, Shikaki had forecast a sizable Fatah lead in the election in three separate polls, though the margin had been closing. When Hamas won handily however, many were wondering why the numbers were off.
In a January 2006 article in the Washington Times, Shikaki acknowledged the Hamas victory might have been due to a late minute surge of support which pollsters had missed, while also pointing out that many Palestinians had simply refused to talk with pollsters. Shikaki added that "Fatah's campaign was the lousiest," and even "Hamas itself was surprised."
Many had acted according to Shikaki's projected polling numbers and were not prepared for the election of Hamas. The prospects of a Hamas government had dimmed the prospects for peace.
Recently, Hamas and Fatah agreed on a unity government that would be a credible partner for peace and would allow the Palestinians to receive aid. In his paper, Shikaki discussed how the differing groups within Fatah could best reconcile their differences to aid in unity.
The major schism within Fatah was between the "old guard" leaders such as Mahmoud Abbas and newer, "young guard" members such as Marwan Barghouti. In order to create a unified body, the leadership must reach out to the younger members and allow for power sharing. Thus, if Israel releases Barghouti, Shikaki wrote, the Palestinian government may finally be a partner for peace.
Barghouti, though in prison, is still an influential leader, and in the 2006 election was reelected to the Palestinian Legislative Council. Many individuals have petitioned for his release on the grounds of diplomatic immunity and an Israeli violation of the Geneva Convention, while Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Simon Peres promised his release if election to the presidency.
In an e-mail, Shikaki defended his recommendation, saying "Mr. Barghouti is the most popular Palestinian leader at this time. He is perceived by the public as clean and patriotic. He can defeat any potential Hamas leader when it is doubtful than any of his Fatah colleagues currently out of jail can. He is the most able to reform the movement and make it more democratic. As importantly, he is fully supportive of the peace process and the two-state solution and has worked in the past with Israeli leaders to promote the peace process."
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, however, told the Israel National News, "we must not forget that he is a cold-blooded murderer who was sentenced by the court to five life sentences... It is out of the question to free an assassin who has blood on his hands and was duly sentenced by a court."