The recent internal Palestinian crisis initiated by the task of forming a cabinet--a crisis resolved only hours ago--cannot be described as the kind of political emergency experienced by any normal government, or even as the healthy practice of democracy. Indeed, it seems more that this crisis is spurred by the serious existential questions that now surround the life of the Palestinian Authority.
It is not possible to understand these internal Palestinian conflicts and bitter disputes divorced from the failing peace process or Israeli-Palestinian confrontations. In the last three years, Israel has been systematically working to either dismantle the Palestinian Authority or cause fundamental changes in its character and makeup. To do this, the Israeli authorities have slowly narrowed the physical and political space within which the Authority is able to move. By eliminating the political prospect that this Palestinian Authority might develop into the government of a state, Israel challenges its reason for being. By narrowing Palestinian economic space through sanctions and restrictions on the movement of people and goods, Israel keeps the Palestinian Authority at its economic mercy and transfers at whim Palestinian tax revenues. International aid often plays the role of subsidizing the expenses of the occupation, thus deepening Palestinian independence and easing Israel's financial burden. The Israeli military has cut deeply into Palestinian security space with its repeated and extensive operations in areas that were once under Palestinian security control. Finally, Israel continues to narrow the geographic space of the Palestinian Authority by reoccupying towns, restricting the movement of all Palestinians (as well as officials of the Palestinian Authority), expanding its settlements and confiscating land. What remains is barely room to move.
These Israeli practices, coupled with Israeli and American conditions prescribing under whom and under what conditions the Palestinian Authority is a partner, are largely responsible for the continuing internal debate in the Palestinian political arena. Maneuvering room is extremely limited, producing many differences over the best way to handle these restrictions and dilemmas. A specific example of this is the debate among Palestinians over the role of Palestinian security. The Israeli and American governments said they were only willing to deal with the Palestinian Authority in the context of the peace process if Palestinians unified their security apparatuses--with the intent, of course, of taking specific actions against the Palestinian opposition.
That might make sense in theory, but when we consider the ongoing Israeli practices listed above, the most glaring of which is Israel's negligence towards the roadmap obligation of stopping settlement expansion (which has no security implications whatsoever), the Palestinian Authority finds it difficult to discern the best course back to peace. What is in the best interest of Palestinians? There is a real conflict here in the Israeli and international message.
Another example of the conflicting interests at play is when the Palestinian Authority, headed legitimately by President Yasser Arafat, is required to come up with a regularly formed cabinet that has the confidence of the parliament and all the security powers required to enforce law and order, while this same elected president is unable to leave the confines of one building, meet with his constituency, oversee the security forces which he commands according to the functioning constitution, make sure that law and order is implemented, and even attend the meeting of the Legislative Council in order to push things along.
If Israel is to continue narrowing the breathing room of the Palestinian Authority (half of the Palestinian people say they don't even feel the Authority's presence) then Israel will eventually achieve its goal of ridding itself of the Authority. That is the Israeli government's first strategic objective on the road to strategic objective number two: removing the practical possibility of an independent and viable Palestinian state through intensive and illegal settlement expansion in the occupied territories. Israel instead wants a kind of Palestinian services administration to continue under an arbitrary Israeli security regime: i.e. autonomy forever.
But Palestinians will not tolerate for much longer the contradictions inherent in this continuing state of affairs. What we are seeing at work today in the Palestinian political sphere is resistance to accepting this miserable status quo. I think that we might be heading towards a crossroads, whereby this enforced disintegration will either be reversed by international peace efforts, or we will see an end to the Palestinian Authority. In any case, there is no way that the Palestinian public will allow its leadership to become a cover for the occupation.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He has served in successive Palestinian cabinets and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst.
Internal politics in any country tend to be unpleasant if not downright disgusting, based as they usually are on manipulation, raw interests and naked power. The test of their efficacy is not whether they present an aesthetic picture, but whether the sum total of their interactions works to promote the country's strategic interests.
Both Israel and Palestine fail this test miserably.
In Ramallah, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is again fully in control, having beat back the reformers. He and his Fatah Central Committee cronies retain a strategic approach that ultimately relies on violence, and that does not seem to allow for genuine coexistence with a sovereign Jewish state neighbor.
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remains committed to a strategy of military compellance, coupled with carving out a "state" of non-viable Palestinian enclaves through settlement construction and now fences.
Arafat's most recent success at domestic political manipulation is to oblige Abu Alaa (Ahmed Qurei) to form a government that does not even aspire to control the Palestinian Authority's security establishment. By retaining overall control, Arafat can ensure that violence continues and that the means for committing it continue to exist. Abu Alaa may or may not succeed in negotiating a new ceasefire, which could give us all a few weeks of relief. But he will not be a peacemaker as long as Arafat is his master.
Sharon is about to crown Hasan Nasrallah of Hizballah--no friend of Israel or even of a united and sovereign Lebanon--the new savior of the Arab cause, by handing him hundreds of Palestinian, Jordanian and other Arab prisoners. Sharon could not bring himself to repatriate these people to Abu Mazen, King Abdullah and other Arab leaders who are genuine partners for peace, apparently because he is afraid to nourish a peace process that would demand of him genuine territorial concessions. Instead he did a deal with Nasrallah, who is backed by Iran and Syria, thereby further encouraging Islamic extremism. Humanitarian consideration for the fate of a single Israeli hostage who ended up in the hands of Hizballah due to his own avarice and stupidity, and for the families of three dead Israel Defense Forces soldiers whose bodies will be returned, is not a sufficient explanation for an act of folly that contradicts Israel's strategic interests. Rather, we are looking at Sharon's real politics.
One would think that these two not-so-young leaders, Sharon and Arafat, would want to be remembered for something more than bloodshed and stalemate. In their own way, of course, they do: Arafat apparently believes that 50 years from now he'll be deified as the man who manipulated Israel into a South Africa-type situation, until the Jewish state disappeared. Sharon evidently thinks he can manipulate the Palestinians into a South Africa-type situation that enables Israel to survive as a Jewish state while no viable Palestinian state ever emerges. Together, these mirror images constitute yet one more act of collective folly.
Beyond the Middle East, there is one additional case of internal politics that merits our attention. US President George W. Bush believes that in order to be reelected a year from now, he must essentially stay out of the Israeli-Palestinian mess, thereby not antagonizing key Jewish and right wing Christian constituencies. Of course his reelection will depend on other factors as well: Iraq, and the American economy. But he is wrong in his decision to lower his profile of involvement here. Stronger American pressures on both sides might make the difference in keeping the roadmap going. Despite the unpleasantness with some constituencies at home, Bush could endear himself to the large majority of American voters both by generating a peace dynamic in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and by improving America's overall image in the Middle East.
"All politics are local politics," said American politician Tip O'Neill. In our case, strategy is also local politics.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. 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
Democracy and elections would revive this movement
an interview with Jamal Shobaki
bitterlemons: What will be the political program of this Palestinian cabinet?
Shobaki: The ministers' first tasks are establishing a policy to confront the segregation wall, the settlements and the Judaization of Jerusalem. Then they must make reforms to get to the point of presidential, Legislative Council and municipal elections as soon as possible, and to continue as much as possible with determining a development policy, despite occupation conditions.
bitterlemons: How do you intend to respond to the separation wall?
Shobaki: A new strategy must be established in order to expose this Israeli settlement policy and to enlist the world and the Arabs to pressure Israel to put a stop to the wall. It must occupy a broad space in the media and in popular activities, as well as support the citizens living in the wall region and those who have been recently harmed by it.
bitterlemons: What will be the difference between this government and its predecessor headed by Mahmoud Abbas?
Shobaki: In program, there are no significant differences. The difference is perhaps over the issue of the interior [minister] that has been resolved by keeping security in the hands of the Higher Security Council, which is headed by the president and represents all the leading factions. This is a new formula and perhaps handling the issue [of security] will be easier when the president himself is in the picture.
bitterlemons: Do you believe that the Legislative Council will approve the cabinet selections?
Shobaki: Nothing is guaranteed. The Legislative Council may approve it--or may not. If there is broad participation, the government will attain the council's vote of confidence. If there are comments [to be made] on the government program and budgeting issues for next year…but I must remind you that recently the atmosphere has been one that assists the government in gaining a vote of confidence.
bitterlemons: How will the government handle the issue of security in light of American pressure?
bitterlemons: I think that there is an exaggeration of the issue of security that originates outside and is imposed on the Palestinian street. Israel is disseminating this [view] and the United States and the international community have adopted it in an attempt to focus first on security.
However, the first problem is not security, but the existence of occupation. There are no policies [at work] that offer Palestinians the hope of a political solution. I believe Palestinians are ready to compromise and to honor the agreements and provide the security demanded of them. However, if we go back to the old-new story of "security first", then we must determine whether one has done enough concerning security--only then will [Israel] think of easing measures and reconsider the wall and the settlements.
This standard has proven to fail; it will not succeed today or tomorrow. If security is not joined to the political issues and with restoring an obvious political track that gives Palestinians guarantees for escaping the suffering they live in, nothing in the security arena will change and no Palestinian government will be able to change it, because this is something that we do not control.
How can they [Israel] demand security from us, when they invade Jenin and Rafah daily? If they were to halt their aggression and withdraw from the cities and reconsidered the security issue, then the Palestinians would have something to protect in the [resulting] relative sovereignty of the Palestinian population. The experience of Bethlehem is an example: since the Israeli withdrawal, not one security incident has occurred. This is proof that if Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza, stop killing Palestinians, and [stop] its aggressive policies, the Palestinian Authority would be able to preserve security.
bitterlemons: When does the Palestinian Authority become unfeasible as an agent of the two-state solution in light of the Israeli settlement policy?
Shobaki: The potential [for independence] lives on in the Palestinian people on their land, and thus they maintain the international legitimacy for self-determination with which to establish their state and acquire sovereignty and independence once the occupation is removed. The Israelis will not attain normal economic and security conditions until they deal with the Palestinian issue in seriousness. This is what we rely on as we search for new people who believe in peace to come to power in Israel, those who believe in returning to the June 4 borders and granting Palestinians a state in order to achieve peace and security. There is still hope.
bitterlemons: What are your expectations for the future?
Shobaki: As long as the occupation and the aggression against our people goes on, there will be uprisings from our side against this occupation, and resistance in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There will be undesired retaliations. The last operation in Haifa (which we were opposed to) initiated in Jenin, which has been occupied for more than a year and a half. No one can throw the responsibility for security at the Palestinians, since it doesn't reside there.
bitterlemons: There seem to be some new faces among the ministers representing Fateh on the cabinet.
Shobaki: If a referendum were to be carried out in the Palestinian street, the vacuum to be filled by new faces [in the cabinet] would be wide. The current change, in fact, is small. I would not call this a generational struggle, but a natural process of regeneration. To resolve this internal issue, we must return to holding movement conferences and conduct an election in the bodies of Fateh to elect [new] leadership or reelect the current leadership. Democracy and elections would revive this movement.
-Published 10/11/2003 ©bitterlemons.org
Jamal Shobaki was recently nominated for the position of minister of local government in the cabinet of Ahmed Qurei. He is a member of the Fateh Revolutionary Council and the Palestine Liberation Organization Central Committee.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
We are the moderates in this government
an interview with Avraham Poraz
bitterlemons: What is the Shinui Party's new peace plan?
Poraz: We think that we should do something about the peace process, and our initiative is to encourage Palestinian moderates, including Abu Alaa, the new prime minister, by proposing a ceasefire and, after a period of quiet, evacuating the settlement of Netzarim and leaving it as a military base, then evacuating the military, and by releasing some prisoners, removing the siege on many Palestinian cities, enabling some Palestinians to enter Israel, and starting new joint economic ventures.
bitterlemons: Some reports indicate you want to change the location of the security fence.
Poraz: We know the Palestinians don't like the fence. The aim is to prevent terrorists from getting into Israel. We're flexible on the location, for example it should not go around Ariel, but be more or less parallel with the green line. But we know that if we start to discuss the location with the Likud, in the end we'll have no fence.
bitterlemons: Can Shinui lead this government to a new peace initiative?
Poraz: Our agreement with the Likud is based on the roadmap and Prime Minister Sharon's Herzlia speech, according to which in the end there will be a Palestinian state. But we know that within the government there are two parties that oppose a Palestinian state, and we know that even some Likud ministers are actually more to the right than we would like. We are the moderate part of the government, trying to move toward concessions.
bitterlemons: How do you understand Sharon's strategy on the Palestinian issue?
Poraz: It's difficult to judge Sharon and to describe his real feelings. We do know now that unfortunately we have no Palestinian partner. During my period in the government we've seen that the Palestinian Authority is not serious about security. Abu Mazen [Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas] had to resign, and the chances for progress are slim. If we have a partner, I believe the Sharon government will move with it. Sharon has stated he would, and there's a lot of pressure from the US and the EU. I want to believe that in the end he would like to have an arrangement with the Palestinians. In addition the economy is a main factor. Hotels are empty and investors aren't coming because of the political situation. So the government has an interest in peace.
bitterlemons: Do you see any likelihood of a coalition switch--Labor replacing the two right wing parties?
Poraz: It's hard to say. A big mistake was made by Labor under Mitzna in refusing to join a national unity government. Now this does not seem relevant, and unfortunately Labor does not have a leader. But if a peace process starts and Israel is asked for concessions, then the National Religious Party and National Union might leave and Labor could be asked to join.
bitterlemons: You voted against yesterday's cabinet decision to carry out a prisoner swap with Hizballah that includes hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. How do you think such a swap will affect the Palestinian issue?
Poraz: I think that if we look at the Arab world we see, on the one hand, the extremists, Islamists, headed by Iran, including Hizballah and Hamas and Islamic Jihad, down to the Israeli Islamic movements. Releasing 400 prisoners to Hizballah is a sign that Israel understands only force. It strengthens the extremists.
bitterlemons: Do you think the new Palestinian government under Abu Alaa (Ahmed Qurei) can renew the peace dynamic?
Poraz: Not really. We wanted to believe that Arafat had become "passè" and would accept the role of honorary president and give power to a prime minister. Now we hear that the security forces will still be controlled by Arafat and he is not taking the necessary steps against terrorists. I think some negotiations will begin with Abu Alaa if he's ready, but negotiations by themselves are not the goal, we need results. If the Palestinians are able to stop terror in some way, then the process can go on. The Israeli government will not say no to a ceasefire if it's voluntary.
Avraham Poraz is minister of the interior and deputy chairman of the Shinui Party.
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