Before remarking on the meaning of Israel's March 28 elections for Israeli-Palestinian relations, it behooves us to recall why Israel has such frequent elections, yet can't install a government capable of resolving the Palestinian issue. The reasons are both Israeli and Palestinian in substance.
At the Israeli domestic level, every Israeli government since 1988 has been brought down by internal politics that hinge on the Palestinian issue. No Israeli government has taken more than one significant step toward dealing with this issue without collapsing under the weight of its own coalition contradictions. Such is the nature of the Israeli political system, and Israeli politics in general, that coalitions tend to be complex multi-party and sector-based partnerships that paper over serious differences of political philosophy on a number of domestic and international issues, until confrontation with a controversial decision related to the Palestinians brings them down. This was the fate of the Shamir government that went to Madrid, the Rabin-Peres government that signed Oslo, the Netanyahu government that returned from Wye, Barak after Camp David, and no fewer than three Sharon coalitions in five years.
Prime Minister-designate Ehud Olmert's anticipated coalition will almost certainly suffer the same fate. The 29 mandates of his own party, Kadima, representing just under one-fourth of the electorate, are not sufficient to sustain a stable coalition for the long haul, particularly in view of the party's inbuilt diversity of views regarding the Palestinian issue (Haim Ramon and Tzachi HaNegbi? Shimon Peres and Shaul Mofaz?). Labor, Kadima's principal potential coalition partner, has more confidence than Olmert in negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), and places higher priority on a renewed attempt at a peace process.
Additional coalition partners such as Shas have traditionally backed out of coalitions that move toward accommodation with the Palestinians. If Avigdor Leiberman joins the coalition, he may insist on "Um al-Fahm first". Tensions with Kadima over the welfare-state demands of Labor, Shas and the Pensioners' Party could destabilize the coalition. Olmert himself is completely untried as a national leader and has a hard act (Sharon) to follow. In short, Olmert and his prospective coalition partners have the clearest electoral mandate yet to end the occupation, but the system still won't cooperate.
Turning to the Palestinians, Abu Mazen is a doubtful peace partner, just as Yasser Arafat before him turned out to be an impossible peace partner. The Camp David and Taba negotiations of 2000-2001 demonstrated that the most accommodating Israelis and Palestinians are too far apart on the issues of the right of return and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and Old City to resolve the conflict. Since that time, Palestinian suicide bombings have stiffened Israeli resolve on these issues. The rise of Hamas to power in Palestine renders yet more doubtful the wisdom of seeking agreement with Abu Mazen, now a lame-duck president. Taken together with the gathering clouds of chaos and extremism to the east of Jordan, the most moderate Israeli government will respond by insisting on a long-term security presence in the Jordan Valley.
Olmert will almost certainly now be obliged by his Labor partners, and possibly by international pressures, to attempt another round of negotiations, presumably with Abu Mazen. Only when this fails will he turn to "convergence", i.e., dismantling additional settlements. Under the best of circumstances, the nature of his coalition and the built-in constraints in his own party will probably afford him breathing space for one "round", one accomplishment, before Israel is plunged back into early elections. That means the initiation of a major withdrawal of tens of thousands of West Bank settlers: initiation, because the cost and logistics of removing so many settlers guarantee that the project will take far more years to complete than Olmert's coalition can survive.
A yet more sober scenario for the coming Olmert years might also include an ending of the tahdiya (lull) due to acts of terrorism condoned or even encouraged by Hamas, and another round of violence, this time possibly involving friends of Hamas like Hizballah, Syria and Iran. Not surprisingly, Olmert may have an easier time holding together a broad coalition under conditions of conflict.
One way or another, the most we can probably expect from the incoming government with regard to the Palestinian issue is low-level contacts with Hamas to ensure that Palestine is not plunged into a humanitarian crisis, along with the beginnings of another round of settlement dismantlement on the West Bank and completion of the security fence along an increasingly rational path--all with Washington's blessings. Under current conditions of conflict management rather than conflict resolution and in view of Hamas' rise to power in Palestine, this would be no mean accomplishment in terms of maintaining a strong, democratic and Jewish Israel and keeping open the option of a two-state solution.- Published 3/4/2006 © bitterlemons.org.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is 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
No clear direction
by Ghassan Khatib
Although the results of the Israeli elections reflected a slight change away from the rightwing policies of Ariel Sharon, they also showed continued confusion, indecisiveness and hesitation on the part of the Israeli public.
Kadima is a mixture of ex-Labor and ex-Likud members and the election night statement of its leader Ehud Olmert indicated that it is still unclear whether it will continue to pursue the unilateral policies of Sharon or will give a chance to negotiations with the legitimate leadership of the Palestinian people led by Mahmoud Abbas.
It's also not clear yet whether this newly elected Israeli leadership will continue the policies, practices and position that contributed to the Hamas victory in Palestinian elections, or will follow policies that might empower the peace camp led by Abbas.
One of the most interesting aspects of the elections is the significant progress the Labor party achieved and the dramatic decline in the number of seats for the Likud party. These two features would seem to show that the Israeli public comprises a significant portion of voters who seem convinced that the previous strategy, the unilateralism and the unbridled use of force of Sharon have not been successful. That strategy clearly neither moved forward the peace process nor empowered those on both sides who are interested in peace.
Two options confront the newly elected leadership in Israel in terms of relations with the Palestinians. It can focus only on the presence of Hamas and use it to further escape its obligations to respect international legitimacy along with those obligations included in the roadmap, such as stopping the expansion of settlements, ending restrictions on the movement of Palestinians and resuming negotiations.
Or it can acknowledge the presence of the elected Palestinian president--who is the ideal partner for a resumption of negotiations--and recognize that resuming the peace process together with alleviating economic suffering will contribute to shifting the balance of power back in favor of the peace camp in Palestine.
Recent statements from Washington, however, that seem to be giving a green light to an Israeli unilateral strategy in the next phase, including from officials such as Condoleezza Rice and influential experts like Martin Indyk, are undermining the position and efforts of Abbas. Consequently, Palestinians are left to draw the conclusion that Hamas and its government are the only choice. After all, if the elected authority that is legally empowered to conduct negotiations, i.e., the president, is being ignored by Israel with the backing of the US, what is the alternative?
After the formation of an Israeli government, the international community, through the Quartet and hopefully with an active US role, must come up with a political initiative--and the necessary political will to see it through--that will re-empower the peace camp in Palestine so it can present a viable, peaceful alternative to the Palestinian people and lead us out of [this] the miserable situation we are all in and toward ending the occupation and independence.
In the meantime, and in any event, the international community cannot shirk its duties or responsibilities toward the Palestinian people. It must continue humanitarian and development work with and on behalf of the Palestinian people and Authority, because punishing the people as a result of their electoral choices by making them ever poorer will simply serve to increase sympathy for Hamas and drive home Hamas' message. - Published 3/4/2006 © bitterlemons.org.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the outgoing Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
Seek agreement by negotiation
by David Kimchi
Good, but not good enough. That was how the peace camp in Israel summed up the results of the elections. The left of center had hoped for more, but was not overly dissatisfied with what it got. The peaceniks consoled themselves with the fact that their opponents had much greater cause to bemoan the results.
Those results were, above all, a vote of no confidence in the settler movement and its backers. The Likud had declared that the election results should be accepted as a referendum on Kadima's avowed intention to lead a policy of withdrawal from occupied territories. The majority of Israel's voters very clearly pronounced their support for that proposed withdrawal. Moreover, the Likud was trounced, and the major settler supporters--the National Religious Party in cohorts with the ultra-right, pro-transfer party of Beny Elon--did more poorly than expected, with their votes coming overwhelmingly from the settlers themselves.
The Gaza disengagement last year had shown that the majority of Israelis were disenchanted with the settler movement and with Israel's presence in the occupied territories. This was, however, the first national election in which the choice of staying or leaving a large part of the West Bank was put to such a clear test, and the results were as convincing as they could be. Even the successful right-wing ultra-nationalist party, Yisrael Beiteinu, whose leader has been termed an Israeli equivalent of Le Pen, is willing to give up most of the West Bank.
However, the fact that Kadima received far fewer votes than it had expected will make it more difficult to establish a strong government able to implement its policy of withdrawal. Its first priority will be, in any case, to patch together a coalition that enables it to receive a majority of votes in the Knesset in the forthcoming debate on the government budget, for without a budget it will not be able to govern. Given the social agenda of its major prospective coalition partners, this will be no easy hurdle to surmount. Yet after the budget the big, overriding issue before the new government will be its Palestinian policy.
It has, theoretically, three options: to maintain the status quo for any number of reasons; to begin negotiations with the Palestinians for an agreed settlement; or to declare that a Hamas government precludes any possibility of negotiations and it therefore opts for a unilateral withdrawal. Its choices will be largely affected by the composition of the ruling coalition, by Washington, and by the Palestinians.
In practice, however, those choices are severely limited. Maintaining the status quo and not budging from any part of the West Bank would discredit Kadima and the entire government, for the center plank of the prime minister-designate's election platform was his pledge to withdraw to what would become the permanent borders of Israel.
Moreover, on the assumption that the Labor Party would be Kadima's leading coalition partner, Labor leader Amir Peretz would on no account allow his party to remain in the coalition if the government did not follow through on its pledge to withdraw.
The relatively small number of mandates separating Labor from Kadima will enable Labor to influence government policy in a much stronger manner than in previous governments. Moreover, Amir Peretz is not Shimon Peres, and Ehud Olmert is not Ariel Sharon. Peretz will not remain in a government that reneges on its central policy issue. Peretz, who dislikes the idea of unilateralism, will insist that the government make every effort to reach agreement by negotiation before going unilateral. He believes negotiations are possible with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) or with people he appoints.
In a recent poll initiated by the Geneva Accord Movement and conducted by the Hebrew University's Truman Institute, 60 percent of Israelis favored negotiations with Abu Mazen and 46 percent believed that a peace accord ending the conflict is possible despite the Hamas government. Ehud Olmert himself, in his victory speech on March 28, reiterated his determination to enter into peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Significantly, he said not a word about the Hamas government. The mutual refusal of both Hamas and Israel to have anything to do with each other will, in all probability, be circumvented through unofficial contacts by non-government persons while official negotiations will be strictly with non-Hamas officials of the President's Office.
Washington, for its part, can also be expected to press for a resumption of negotiations and will only reluctantly approve of unilateral withdrawal as a second best choice if negotiations prove to be impossible.
Finally, as always in our corner of the world, any prognosis for the future will be worthless if renewed violence--katyushas, qassams, suicide bombers-undermines the chance of successful negotiations. Will the new Hamas government be willing to curb renewed violence? That is the big question that will determine future moves on the political chessboard. The answer to that question will tell us whether Israelis and Palestinians alike can live in hope for the future or in despair.- Published 3/4/2006 © bitterlemons.org
David Kimche, former director-general of Israel's Ministry for Foreign Affairs, is today president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and is active in a number of peace organizations.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
No horizon for a settlement
by Ali Jarbawi
With a series of corruption scandals that shook public confidence in politics and politicians, a lack of vitality and charisma among political leaders, and a lack of any pivotal and collective issue, Israeli elections came across as tedious, not only to observers and Palestinians, but also to Israeli voters, many of whom simply refrained from participating.
Voter turnout was the lowest ever in Israel's history. Given the variety of issues and concerns at hand, both internal and external, the results were muddled. A portion voted for unilateral separation while another voted for a continuation of negotiations. Still a third group voted to expel and isolate Palestinians. A fourth sector opted for religion and the Torah. A fifth group voted for pensioners.
Although Israeli elections have always resulted in a spectrum of programs and lists represented in the Knesset, this time the diversity in the mix was great. Sharon's absence lost seats for Kadima; Netanyahu's presence lost seats for the Likud; Peretz gave the Labor Party hope; the Russians became a political power; the Sephardic religious and racist Shas advanced. Political, economic and various social issues will intertwine in a new Israeli government that will embrace unilateral separation from the Palestinians not because it is the greatest common denominator among the different coalition partners, but because it is the only common denominator.
To pass judgment on the coming government, we must first wait and see what the make-up of the coalition will be. However we must understand that political trends in Israel are moving right. When the Kadima party is considered centrist, the center is effectively moving right. The significant political consequence of this is that any future dealings with the Palestinians and any political settlement will be more extreme and radical than in the past. Circumstances and the Palestinian elections have also dictated that, at the same time, Hamas sits at the helm of the Palestinian Authority, something that will only encourage the rightward trend in Israel.
Regardless of the make-up of the coalition, we can be certain that the next Israeli government will claim not only that there is no Palestinian partner to revive hopes of a political settlement through negotiations, but that the PA is a terrorist organization and must be isolated. The presence of a Hamas government will make it easier for Ehud Olmert to proceed with his separation plan without negotiations.
If the Labor party is part of the coalition, it will demand negotiations with the Palestinians, but only to reach a final settlement not much different from what is being proposed in Olmert's unilateral separation plan. The compromise between Kadima and Labor, if the latter does participate in government, may be to open a channel of negotiations with the Palestinian presidency through the PLO. The aim of these "negotiations" is not to negotiate but to convince the Palestinian side of the need to accept the Israeli vision of a unilateral separation. At some stage, these "negotiations" will inevitably collapse and the Israeli government can blame their failure on Palestinian obstinacy.
No doubt, some parties in this government and the right wing parties outside it will try to aggravate Palestinian sentiments during this "negotiating" period in order to provoke Palestinian bombings inside Israel. If these operations do take place, which they most probably will, the Israeli government will be relieved of the burden of these "negotiations", and Kadima will be given a green light to impose its separation plan.
There will be opposition from right wing circles and the settlers. This opposition will be stronger than it was during the evacuation of Gaza Strip settlements because of the difference in the level of importance of the West Bank to these groups.
These groups will use all possible methods to prevent the evacuation of settlements in the West Bank and will rely on Palestinian bombings to spread fear in Israeli society. This could either lead to a government collapse or a strengthening of its position. It all depends on the behavior of the Israeli majority at the time and on the positions of international parties, particularly the US administration.
The Palestinian position, meanwhile, is much hampered by having passed on opportunities that could have proven fruitful in confronting the Israeli separation plan such as the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, and is at the mercy of Israeli politics.
Political tension in the Palestinian arena as a result of Hamas' election victory will drive those embracing the strategy of continuous negotiations with Israel to desperate measures to revive the process with the next Israeli government. However, such negotiations, if they should occur, will soon hit the wall of the Israeli separation plan. Given their inability to exert any tangible pressure on the Israeli government, Palestinian negotiators will not be able to achieve any progress.
On the contrary, the internal Palestinian situation will complicate further because of friction between Fateh and Hamas.
Hamas will adopt a wait-and-see approach regarding any political process in order to embroil Fateh in new and futile negotiations with Israel. Then the Palestinian government (if it still exists) will reject the negotiations but without preventing the Israeli government from implementing its separation plan.
What will prove important for Palestinian affairs in the upcoming stage will not be the consequences of Israel's unilateral separation plan but how the predicaments created by the tensions between Fateh and Hamas, as played out between the presidency and the government and in the PLC and in public institutions will turn out. Everyone in the Palestinian arena will be preoccupied with the burdens of internal tensions and as a result will leave Israel to decide the Palestinian destiny. After that, Palestinians may decide to begin a new intifada.
Unfortunately, Palestinians oscillate between favoring negotiations at times and the intifada at others, and offer no creative alternatives. Confronting the unilateral plans of the Israeli government requires that Palestinians seriously look into the option of dissolving the PA.
Israel plays unhindered with Palestinian destiny because the PA continues to cling to its existence. Israel needs the PA in order to implement its separation plan. Without a PA that accepts to be pushed into isolated areas and behind a wall, the plan is useless. Palestinian politicians are loath to admit this, but maybe the PA will dissolve after Israel implements its plan. The question then will be: is it too late?- Published 3/4/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University in Ramallah.
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