A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Full of unknowns
by Ghassan Khatib
With the scheduled Palestinian parliamentary elections approaching very soon and the deadline for the end of the ceasefire agreed in Cairo last year having expired with the turn of the new year, the internal Palestinian political scene as well as Palestinian-Israeli relations are full of unknowns.
Fateh--Palestine's ruling movement, the dominant party in the Palestinian Authority and the leader of the peace camp--appears seriously divided over several issues, including whether or not to proceed with elections at the appointed time. There are three reasons for this hesitancy. First, Fateh has struggled to identify who should be its candidates for the elections, partly a result of the movement's fluid membership structure that rendered primaries an ineffective means of choosing an appropriate list.
Second, Fateh leaders fear the results of elections and are generally lacking in self-confidence. Poll after poll attest to the fact that, for the first time, Fateh is facing serious competition, and recent local elections in a few major cities and towns were evidence of the current impressive strength of Hamas.
Third, Israeli measures are blocking efforts to hold free and fair elections. These measures include restrictions on voter registration, running and campaigning in East Jerusalem, and restrictions on the movement of candidates and election activists between the different parts of the Palestinian territory, especially between Gaza and the West Bank as well as within the West Bank.
Those who are arguing that elections should be postponed are doing so for one or more of the above reasons. But some of the elements with an interest in postponing elections seem also to be instigating internal violence and using that as an additional fourth reason to argue against holding elections.
This tendency toward postponing Palestinian elections has been directly or indirectly aided by a recent Israeli escalation in it own practices, an escalation that in turn appears to be influenced by upcoming Israeli elections. Since the recent political upheaval in Israel that led to an earlier-than-planned March date for elections, Israeli military violence against Palestinians has increased, with frequent Israeli raids in the West Bank, ostensibly to arrest wanted Palestinians, often turning deadly, and almost nightly shelling of targets in Gaza. Accelerated too is the pace of settlement expansion, while restrictions on the movement of Palestinians have become more stringent.
The escalation also includes not implementing new Israeli obligations under the Gaza crossings agreement. Since the opening of the Rafah border, two deadlines have been missed by Israel: the first was the implementation, due December 15, of the agreement to allow convoys of passengers to travel between the West Bank and Gaza; the second was the agreement to increase the number of containers passing through the Karni crossing to 150. That agreement should have come into effect on January 1. Both these deadlines were missed deliberately and without good cause.
In addition, Israeli politicians have stepped up their rhetoric, no doubt in order to pander to an electorate these politicians believe will respond well to more extreme and antagonistic positions vis-a-vis the Palestinian side.
In the last year, we witnessed significant developments on the Palestinian side that were conducive to a renewal of negotiations and the creation of an atmosphere for peace, not least of which was the election of Mahmoud Abbas and his obvious commitment to political negotiations as the way to solving the conflict. His most notable achievement was to reach and maintain a ceasefire, both through dialogue and security efforts, which dramatically reduced the level of violence and consequently casualties on both sides.
These developments, however, were not encouraged by Israel nor supported enough by the international community. This, predictably, has played into the hands of elements on both sides, in whose interest it is to keep fighting.
Palestinians have no choice but to go to elections. Without such elections, the PA will have little legitimacy, either internally or externally, and there will be an increase of lawlessness and internal violence. That may be in the interest of some Israeli circles, but it is in the interest of no one else. In order to go to elections, however, the PA and the peace camp in Palestine need to be encouraged by the parties that have influence in and around Palestine.
On both sides, the common denominator at the moment is that internal politics is leading to external escalation. This could be very dangerous. These are very crucial and sensitive days that require the close and hands-on attention of the international community, particularly the Quartet. The kind of American diplomacy displayed during the Gaza crossings agreement is again required. - Published 2/1/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is the Palestinian Authority minister of labor, acting minister of planning and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Quiet . . . elections
by Yossi Alpher
All indications point to a readiness on the part of Hamas to continue to respect the current ceasefire (which technically ended January 1) at least until Palestinian national elections on January 25, and even if the organization's revolutionary credentials require that it declare otherwise. Hamas is set to claim for itself a major portion of the Palestinian pie in these elections, and renewed violence could spoil that achievement, either by causing cancellation of the elections or by losing votes.
Israel, too, has an interest in maintaining relative quiet, all the way through its own elections at the end of March. Provocations by Islamic Jihad and various Fateh-related gangs in Gaza and the West Bank, and by Hizballah--or the PFLP, or al-Qaeda, no one seems to be sure--along Israel's northern border certainly justify a vigorous response. A perception among Israel's neighbors that Israeli PM Ariel Sharon's health problems reflect weakness may be one factor that explains the provocations.
But Israel does not wish to be perceived as interfering militarily with Palestinian elections, and experience has taught Sharon that extensive military activity prior to an Israeli election can backfire on the government in power (though Sharon also needs to point to the high profile of security matters on Israel's agenda in order to counter Labor leader Amir Peretz's focus on poverty and socio-economic issues). On balance, and barring a major terrorist blow against Israel, its relative restraint will probably hold at least until after its own elections.
And what happens then? Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has reportedly appointed a policy team, headed by his trusted adviser Dov Weisglass, to examine Israel's options for dealing with the PA/PLO after Palestinian elections, based on the assumption that Hamas will either win them or achieve decisive influence over Palestinian national decision-making, and that it will persevere in refusing to dismantle its armed infrastructure. As matters currently stand, the team would appear to confront no fewer than five options.
One is to refuse to negotiate with a Palestinian leadership that includes Hamas, precisely because Hamas remains a terrorist organization that rejects Israel's right to exist. Israel would be fully within its rights to take this position, which is currently supported by the entire Zionist political spectrum from the settlers on the religious right to Yossi Beilin on the left. The problem is that this is not a policy but a recipe for political stalemate, and the outcome could be a major outbreak of armed violence.
A second option is to offer to negotiate roadmap-related or other issues with the PLO/PA no matter who leads it. Assuming Sharon heads the next government, and allowing for possible international pressure to avoid a dangerous stalemate, he would presumably proffer pre-conditions that would make it impossible in practical terms to negotiate: from a cessation of Palestinian violence to Hamas' acquiescence in the Israeli interpretation of the roadmap. This position would in fact be little different from the current official Israeli stance, except that it would risk sinking into a kind of IRA scenario, whereby Hamas is designated Israel's negotiating partner while still maintaining its campaign of terrorism. Certainly this position would be unsupportable for Israel over time without some additional initiative.
That initiative could be a second disengagement. That is what everyone is expecting Sharon to opt for anyway, and the familiar refrain "there is no one to talk to on the other side" would be far more supportable internationally when invoked vis-a-vis Hamas than Abu Mazen.
A fourth option--one not mutually exclusive with the others--is for Sharon to begin his next term in office with a major military offensive, against Hizballah in the north and Palestinian terrorist units in the West Bank and Gaza. This presumes that armed provocations against Israel by Islamic Jihad and others continue throughout the two elections and that Israeli strategic thinkers reckon it is time to restore the dimension of deterrence lost by Israeli restraint at election time. But would Hamas targets be attacked if Hamas continues to observe the ceasefire? Probably not.
A final, and intriguing possibility, would be for some form of negotiations with Hamas to evolve based on the one apparent common denominator it shares with Sharon: they both reject an "end of conflict" final status agreement and both express a readiness to discuss an interim arrangement. Hamas' stance is based on its unwillingness, as an Islamist movement, to officially condone a non-Muslim state on the Muslim holy land of Palestine. Sharon has declared repeatedly that he doesn't believe Israel's Arab neighbors are capable of genuine peace--a very problematic position except when applied to the likes of Hamas.
Could Israel and Hamas negotiate something short of peace that nevertheless creates a viable Palestinian state and leaves Israel with defensible and recognized borders? It's doubtful given the huge gaps separating even their "interim" positions on refugees, borders and Jerusalem, though not beyond the realm of possibility. Certainly, if Hamas wins these elections and continues to maintain a ceasefire, it and the state of Israel will not be able to ignore one another for long. - Published 2/1/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Elections are vital
by Ghazi Hamad
It is hard to overestimate the importance of Palestinian parliamentary elections at a time when the ever-growing chaos on the streets of Palestine has left everyone feeling insecure and confused.
To add to the instability of the situation there is now a growing percentage of people within Fateh opposed to holding elections on the set date. While many are claiming to be against holding elections now because of the situation on the street and Israeli measures in Jerusalem and elsewhere, there is no doubt that divisions within Fateh are playing an important role in this trend.
The list of tasks that a new parliament needs to tackle is endless. From unemployment and poverty to a consistent and unified strategy vis-a-vis Israel, the need for new blood in the PLC is pressing. The current parliament has sat for nearly ten years, and the situation has only become worse.
The first priority has to be stabilizing the internal situation. People are clamoring for a strong government, and only a strong government will be able to impose some order. But, for a government to be strong, it needs legitimacy. Such legitimacy can only come through a popular vote.
The call to postpone elections is therefore a bad sign. Undoubtedly, President Mahmoud Abbas is aware of this, and so far he has resisted all Fateh pressure to put off the vote. As a consequence, the pressure is being applied in different ways, and there is little doubt that the recent increase in chaos is directly related to attempts to postpone elections. Israeli measures to prevent balloting in Jerusalem as well as the obstacles placed in front of other facets of the elections process--such as allowing candidates to travel and campaign--also play a part. Some Fateh leaders have withdrawn their candidacy and others have even threatened to disrupt voting on polling day.
Nevertheless, postponement is a real possibility, and aware of this, Fateh and Hamas leaders have in recent days sat to discuss the possible consequences and alternative scenarios. There has reportedly been a suggestion that an emergency government, with the participation of Hamas, could be established until elections are held.
So far Hamas is not budging. Elections were postponed before, and there is no guarantee that they won't be postponed again. In addition, an emergency government might be seriously limited in what it could achieve, and Hamas is not interested in squandering popular credibility before it has proved itself at the ballot box. On the other hand, elections are not much good to Hamas should the majority of Fateh decide to boycott. It is a difficult position to be in.
Hamas, however, is unlikely to resort to violence. The lack of law and order, which in the public mind is blamed on the PA and the absence of the security forces, is a major reason for the growing popularity of the movement. Hamas would not want to come to be seen as a contributing factor.
Much has been made recently of the expiry of the so-called ceasefire, the calm Hamas and other opposition factions agreed with President Abbas back in March of last year. But from the perspective of the Palestinian factions the calm never really existed, in fact was broken by Israel within two weeks of the agreement. The reason some kind of calm nevertheless was created and maintained for so long was in part due to PA pressure and Fateh support, and in part due to Hamas' unwillingness to rock the boat in the run-up to elections.
In addition, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza also meant the removal of the most easily reached targets. The situation in the West Bank is much more complicated as regards armed resistance. With the lack of any political change, however, whether internally or with Israel, there is no doubt that the factions will resume their resistance at any and all opportunity. Certainly, no one feels bound any longer by the agreement reached in Cairo.
Elections might serve to create a common strategy for how to confront Israel. Hamas believes there must be a mix between armed resistance and political negotiations. It is a belief rooted in the fact that after ten years of PA negotiations with Israel, little or nothing has been achieved. It is around such a strategy that Hamas is hoping to find national consensus. Such national consensus is important not only for internal strength but for external credibility. If Palestinians speak with one voice, the message is more likely to be heard and respected by Israel.
Israeli elections, in all of this, are very much ignored. The internal situation in Palestine is so bad and so confused that no one is paying much attention to the Israeli political scene. With a strong government we might be able to affect the internal situation in Israel, but before that we must put our own house in order. - Published 2/1/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghazi Hamad is the editor-in-chief of Al Resala weekly newspaper and a Hamas parliamentary candidate for the southern Gaza city of Rafah.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
Hamas' participation: strategic or tactical?
by Yoram Schweitzer
Hamas' participation in elections to the Palestinian parliament that are scheduled (unless they are postponed) to be held in late January has generated concern in Israel and controversy internationally regarding the wisdom of permitting or supporting this move. The main consideration touches on awarding legitimazy to a movement that has championed violent struggle as a means of furthering its political interests and that will not commit publicly to cease the violence at some point and disarm. Further, Hamas refuses to cancel its charter, which calls explicitly for the destruction of the state of Israel as a sovereign and independent political entity in the region, as it has refused hitherto to recognize Israel as a legitimate and legal partner for dialogue toward a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel is concerned lest formal recognition of Hamas' right to take part in the elections be construed as acceptance of its ideology and operational strategy. This would encourage Hamas and similar movements to maintain their violent ways, given the anticipated benefits and the low cost of such a path.
International recognition of Hamas' participation in elections, particularly on the part of the United States and Europe, coupled with the anarchy within Fateh, its rival, is liable to enable the movement to register an impressive electoral achievement, estimated by opinion polls as at least one-third of the votes. By implicitly legitimizing a movement that is included in European and American lists of terrorist organizations, this would work to the detriment of the global anti-terror strategy.
Alongside the understandable concerns, it is interesting to assess the benefits that might evolve from Hamas' candidacy. In the course of the past year, Hamas has revealed the pragmatic side of its activities. Thus, for example, after years of leading the terrorist campaign against Israeli civilians Hamas unilaterally accepted the tahdiya agreement--a temporary calm in the armed struggle. And it maintained the calm more consistently than its Palestinian partners, although Hamas too did not completely abstain from sporadic firing of rockets against southern Israeli towns immediately after the Gaza withdrawal and was involved in the abduction and murder of an Israeli citizen. Inevitably, it rationalized these actions as legitimate resistance in the face of Israeli ceasefire violations.
Nor can Hamas' decision to participate in national elections for the first time be seen as merely a technical step. It reflects a pragmatic approach to the constraints of reality and regional political developments, alongside a faith in the movement's own capacity to win a respectable role in the political regime--alongside, and in future perhaps instead of, its rival, Fateh, which for more than four decades has led the Palestinian people alone.
The current Hamas leadership is aware that the Palestinian public bears a heavy burden of prolonged violent confrontation and would like to renew political dialogue with Israel in order to alleviate its distress. It also must consider its own organizational survival after many of its leaders and activists were assassinated or jailed by Israel.
Yet another reality test for the Hamas leadership requires it to take a stand, in real time, regarding extension of the tahidiya that ended officially on January 1. Even if it avoids a formal decision for the coming weeks and awaits the election results, operationally it is likely to maintain the policy it has followed over the past year.
Despite Israel's reservations regarding Hamas' participation in elections and, in their aftermath, possibly in the Palestinian government, this might ultimately turn out to be a positive and moderating development in the movement's overall behavior. Its entry into the governing coalition might actually contribute to the emergence of an effective Palestinian partner: tougher in its demands, but also more reliable in maintaining its commitments. It could lead to a Hamas decision to disarm and abandon the role of ex-parliamentary militia, and help neutralize additional terrorist groups that oppose a peace process.
Hamas is at an important crossroads: will it be a political movement or a terrorist organization. The post-electoral period will determine which path its leaders have chosen. If, after the elections, it emerges that Hamas has not opted exclusively for the political route and remains terrorist in nature, Israel has the means to extract a heavy price for its behavior, and Hamas will retain its justified place on the American and European terrorist list.- Published 2/1/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Yoram Schweitzer is a research associate specializing in international terrorism at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University.
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