Not for the first time, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and peace efforts loom high on the agendas of not only Palestine and Israel but also the US. And, not for the first time, possible elections in all three polities are likely to smother any progress.
America is nearing presidential elections, leaving little room for the administration to maneuver on such critical issues as the Middle East. In Israel, the government coalition remains unstable, with the Winograd ciomission's findings on the war in Lebanon liable to jump out at any time to force an early vote. On the Palestinian side, meanwhile, the president has already called for early elections.
The casualty in all this is the peace effort. The election atmosphere, especially in Israel and Palestine, usually brings to the surface the most extreme politics and thus is the least conducive to compromises.
On the Palestinian side there are different opinions about the seriousness of President Mahmoud Abbas' call for elections. Some believe the call is simply a tactic to prolong the life of the present government, which followed the emergency government installed after Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in June.
According to the Palestinian constitution, the president can declare a state of emergency for no longer than a month after which he has to either get a vote of confidence from parliament for the emergency government or hold elections. With Hamas holding a clear majority in the Legislative Council, no such vote of confidence is likely to be forthcoming.
Complicating the situation further, some 30 of the PLC's 132 members are in Israeli jail, making it harder for it to convene. And although those imprisoned come from all the factions, most famous among them Fateh leader Marwan Barghouti, the vast majority of imprisoned PLC members hail from Hamas. Hamas is therefore not guaranteed a majority should the parliament convene and, with no consensus between the two big parties as there was over the unity government, will be unlikely to allow parliament to reach quorum. With no quorum there can be no vote of confidence in the present government.
At the same time, Hamas does not support early elections. The Islamist movement still considers the unity government the legitimate government and considers early elections a tactic on the part of Abbas to circumvent this legitimacy. With Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip, the general security chaos and lack of control by the Palestinian Authority, it is thus highly unlikely that early elections can be held. And if they were to be held in spite of Hamas objections, they would likely be so only in the West Bank, undermining the fragile unity between the two parts of occupied Palestinian territory, a division no one wants to be perceived to have exacerbated.
In other words, the Palestinian side is likely to witness no change to the current de facto division between the West Bank and Gaza, especially since this division is politically and for security purposes very convenient for Israel, which ultimately calls the shots.
Convenient or not, the division also undermines the position of the international community, which has made it clear that it foresees a solution to the conflict as being the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Prolonging the Palestinian division means postponing any settlement to the conflict something that will continue to be a cause of regional instability to the detriment of all, Israel included.- Published 6/8/2007 © bitterlemons.org
In both Israel and Palestine, the prospect of national elections in 2008 has become an integral feature of an optimistic scenario of progress toward new Israeli-Palestinian political accommodation. Both PM Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas appear to believe that electoral victories will vindicate and validate their current peace strategies. The United States has become an active accomplice in this endeavor.
All are more than likely to be sorely disappointed.
According to the "best case" narrative we can attach to these strategies, Olmert and Abbas register significant progress in their bi-weekly talks in the coming three months. At the tactical level, confidence-building measures are implemented successfully: security improves, the Palestinian economy in the West Bank recovers, Israel removes a few "illegal" outposts, and so on--the list of things to do is long.
At the strategic level, the two sides manage to agree on a new set of principles for final status that encompasses most, if not all, of the relevant issues. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice then hosts a dramatic international "meeting" in Washington in November where an impressive array of Arab leaders, including senior Saudis, give their blessing to a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
At this point, Olmert and Abbas take their achievement to the people. Each asks for and receives a new popular mandate to pursue an accelerated peace process. Olmert caps a dramatic political recovery with an electoral victory, sweeping the moderate Israeli camp. Abbas and Fateh erase Hamas' parliamentary majority and outpoll it even in Gaza; alternatively, Hamas in Gaza boycotts the election and marginalizes itself. Peace takes off.
The biggest flaws in this scenario can be found in its roots: the dreadful political dilemma shared by Olmert, Abbas and US President George W. Bush. Olmert is unpopular in Israel because of his failure to manage last summer's war successfully and his subsequent flaunting of the condemnation of his mistakes by the Winograd commission of inquiry and, more recently, by the national controller. Ahead lie the Winograd commission final report and sharp warnings of possible additional violence on both Israel's northern and Gaza fronts. Olmert, desperately in need of an "agenda" that can render him valuable to his own Kadima party and the public, appears to have fixed on Abbas and the West Bank.
Abbas, too, has seen popular support slip after losing Gaza and failing to deliver on either security or economic progress. And he is surrounded by skepticism and hostility. The Americans and moderate Arabs are disappointed with his meek leadership. The Americans prefer his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who is not from Fateh, while the Egyptians and Saudis counsel reconciliation with Hamas and Jordan fears being dragged back into the West Bank.
Then, too, there is another political dilemma involved here: Rice and the beleaguered Bush desperately need a demonstration of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front in order to relieve Arab pressure on the Iraqi and Iranian fronts. That they didn't get involved to this extent five or three years ago reflects Bush's real inclination to confine his involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to rhetoric.
Hence the stabilization plus peace plus elections scenario could easily collapse along a number of fault lines. Iran, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas all have an interest in stymieing progress toward stabilization by invoking violence. As for agreeing on a set of peace principles to bring to an international gathering, we've been there before: wiser Israeli leaders than Olmert, more powerful Palestinians than Abbas and more involved Americans than Bush and Rice have all failed. In the interim, the issues at hand haven't changed, while Israelis and Palestinians appear to have moved farther apart. Regarding elections, say, eight to ten months from now, the Israeli public will not easily forgive Olmert's mistakes, while the Palestinian public could easily hold to the mantra that "Hamas was never really given a chance to govern". Finally, developments on the Iraq or Iran front could radically change American priorities.
Some might argue that the best way to deal with these counter-forces is to provide precisely the kind of upbeat framework and timetable for progress that we now confront. After all, if necessary the international meeting can always be postponed to accommodate setbacks (it already appears to have been moved from September to November). Yet this approach still assumes that demonstrably weak leaders--Olmert, Abbas, Bush--can somehow rise to the occasion and surprise us all and that the two-state solution can still be rescued despite the Palestinian political and geographic split and Israel's crawling settlement expansion.
Here we should remind ourselves that another spectacular failure to register progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace will make it that much harder for future, stronger leaders to move ahead. A more modest set of goals, confined to the confidence-building stage and involving our Arab state neighbors in regional solutions, would appear to make more sense.
But that's not what the politicians need right now. For lack of an alternative, we wish them luck.- Published 6/8/2007 © 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 special adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Elections one way out of impasse
an interview with Hanan Ashrawi
bitterlemons: President Mahmoud Abbas has called for early elections. Do you support the idea of early elections?
Ashrawi: I support the idea of elections. I think elections are an absolutely necessary instrument of democracy and therefore the only way to settle disputes and allow the public to elect representatives and hold their representatives accountable. Elections are an essential tool for the creation of a responsible system of good governance.
On the issue of early elections, clearly the situation in Palestine is one of tremendous crisis in which we have reached an impasse. Elections are a positive way out rather than resorting to violence. Going back to the public is much more constructive than attempting to resolve things by a show of force and confrontation.
The timing is essential of course, because if you do have elections at a time in which the conditions are extremely volatile or in which you have a lack of consensus, or you have one party, regardless of how big or small, refusing to participate, then that can easily destroy the process itself and its credibility.
So we need a new national consensus or agreement and we need to recognize the necessity to hold elections, but at the same time we must understand that tempers are running high. The atmosphere, not just the objective conditions but the prevailing atmosphere, will also impact the outcome.
bitterlemons: You mention the atmosphere. Is it at all possible to hold early elections with Hamas adamantly opposed?
Ashrawi: It seems to me sooner or later Hamas has to understand that this is one way out. There is no win-win solution here, there is a lose-lose situation. Hamas has to understand that one way to resolve the impasse is by resorting to elections and if it is confident of its public support then it has nothing to fear. But this is one way of resolving the situation.
Of course you cannot have elections with part of the people or on part of the land and you cannot have elections in installments.
bitterlemons: So elections would have to include Gaza and Hamas would have to be on board for that?
Ashrawi: I think you need to have comprehensive elections both in terms of geography and in terms of demography and all the different political components of the Palestinian political reality. The Palestinian political system is pluralistic and we must respect pluralism and allow for genuine engagement.
bitterlemons: But Hamas might argue that elections were recently held, it was legitimately elected and there should be no need for new elections at the moment?
Ashrawi: You cannot have elections once and for all and say, "that's it". Elections do not give you a permanent mandate or an absolute mandate. It is common practice in all democracies that when you reach a situation of deadlock or breakdown then you go back to the electorate and say "I've tried and failed, either give me a new mandate or elect somebody else." This is common sense.
bitterlemons: Do you worry that if Hamas again wins elections we will be returned to square one, or would this resolve issues?
Ashrawi: If Hamas does win elections, both parliamentary and presidential, then that would be a very decisive victory. It would clinch the matter once and for all. Fateh and everybody else would have to recognize that this is the will of the overwhelming majority of Palestinians without any of the previous excuses that Fateh shot itself in the foot, that the numerical vote is in favor of Fateh or they cancelled each other out. All these issues will be resolved and we need clarity.
bitterlemons: There is also a suggestion that there may be early elections in Israel. Could early elections there bring about a positive dynamic in terms of peace efforts, or is there already a positive dynamic and Israeli elections would disrupt this?
Ashrawi: It depends on who gets elected. If you have the more extreme components, if you jump from the Kadima frying pan into the Likud fire, then that would certainly not be conducive to any kind of confidence in a peace initiative or a commitment to a viable negotiations process.
Now there are moves--whether the Arab initiative, American, however flawed, or international--to create a momentum for negotiations. There is a call for an "international meeting". Let's see what can be done to expand this to make it into a conference and get the international community to adopt the Arab initiative, to hold Israel to the requirements of peace in terms of having viable, substantive negotiations that would include permanent status issues. This is what we need to do now.
The issue of elections in Israel is domestic, granted, but at the same time it will have an impact on the peace agenda. Not that we think Kadima has a peace agenda, but there is in the international community right now some attempt to create a momentum or a drive for peace.
bitterlemons: So Israeli elections could disrupt this momentum?
Ashrawi: They would have a delaying impact. Whenever you have elections, whether in Israel or in the US, the Palestinians end up paying the price by being put on hold waiting for the result.- Published 6/8/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Hanan Ashrawi is a Palestinian legislator and a member of the Third Way party.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Against all odds
by Amotz Asa-El
Kissinger, said author Joseph Heller, brought peace to Vietnam the way Napoleon brought it to Europe: by losing. Now a variation on this theme may slowly be emerging in the Middle East.
No, the Middle East will not emerge from Gaza's surrender to Hamas as pacified as Europe did from Napoleon's trouncing in Waterloo, and no, there is no diplomatic genius of Kissinger's or Prince Metternich's caliber waiting in the wings. It's only that the world's most conflicted region has become crowded with losers whose quest to accomplish something, anything, may make them write some history, against all odds.
With President George W. Bush up to his waist in his Iraqi campaign's bloody aftermath, PM Ehud Olmert up to his shoulders with his Lebanese war's political fallout and President Mahmoud Abbas up to his nose in his tragic career's Gazan epilogue, the three now share a tunnel in bad need of a ray of light.
Personally, Olmert's situation is the most precarious. Unlike Bush, who cannot run for reelection in fall 2008, and Abbas, who says he will not run in the early election he may soon call, the Israeli premier intends to run in Israel's next election that may take place next year, some two years ahead of schedule. Currently, Israelis say they will vote for anyone but Olmert, whose approval ratings have been in single digits for the past year.
Paradoxically, the more the three's political flames wane, the more their diplomatic opportunity shines. Though stemming from different sources--Bush is focused on his legacy, Abbas on his people's cohesion and Olmert on his political survival--the three share a sense of urgency as they prepare for the peace conference Bush has called for the fall.
In and of itself, the idea of a Middle East peace conference goes back to the 1970s when diplomats on both sides of the Cold War hoped it would make Israel cede land and its enemies embrace peace. In Israel, the idea was originally anathema to the Right, where it was suspect as a ploy to kill the idea of Greater Israel. When such a conference finally convened, in Madrid in 1991, Israel was actually led by ultra-hawk Yitzhak Shamir and the conference generated no deals.
Since then, however, Israel's consensus has shifted leftwards as it abandoned Gaza and fenced off much of the West Bank. Similarly, Palestinian Authority leaders who in summer 2000 at Camp David displayed a diplomatic maximalism followed by massive violence now realize that if they don't quickly produce a state, Gaza's destitution and fanaticism may well arrive at their doorstep. And as for America, the White House must soon deliver something that offsets its failures in Iraq and shortens the gap that currently yawns between Bush's original visions and the Middle East's ultimate realities.
Still, chances of a breakthrough remain questionable.
In Israel, the missile attacks that followed the unilateral retreats from Gaza and Lebanon have dented Olmert's stature as a leader, let alone a statesman. Any deal he tries to deliver will now face much more effective opposition from the Right than it might have faced prior to his Lebanese misadventure.
Abbas' situation is not much better. True, he may no longer seek reelection but, sympathies aside, he is now seen as the man who got lost in Yasser Arafat's shoes, presiding over a spectacular failure to keep the Palestinian people intact. Any deal he proposes will inevitably include compromises that Hamas can be counted on to attack with fury and efficiency.
For Bush, the conference is about salvaging the great vision he unveiled for the Middle East in June 2002, when he diagnosed despotism as the Middle East's illness, ruled that freedom is the prognosis and presented himself as the surgeon. Since then, his operating table has hosted thousands of American GIs and Iraqi civilians while the freedom, prosperity and stability he promised never arrived.
Yet all this weakness paradoxically creates clout as all three men, including Olmert, have little left to lose and may end up taking risks--Olmert territorially, Abbas politically and Bush financially--they might otherwise have avoided. Indeed, were it up to these three embattled leaders Palestinian statehood would arrive within months. Unfortunately, it is also up to the Islamists whose audacity the three have experienced, each in his turn, firsthand and unprepared.
Now Bush, Abbas and Olmert clearly know who the enemy is and what to bring to battle with it. What they don't know is whether they still have the time and following that such a confrontation demands. Early elections in Israel and the PA will of course tell them the answer to this question, but they may come to regret asking it in the first place.- Published 6/8/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Amotz Asa-El, author of The Diaspora and the Lost Tribes of Israel and a lecturer at the Shalem Center's Institute for Philosophy, Politics and Religion, is the former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.