Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is maneuvering to establish a broader-based government in order to proceed with disengagement from the Gaza Strip. The alternatives to such a government appear to be either new elections or a right-religious coalition under Binyamin Netanyahu.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei (Abu Ala) tendered his resignation against the backdrop of growing anarchy in the Gaza Strip. In the Palestinian case, there is no clear alternative to the present government--other than more anarchy.
The obvious connection between the two governmental crises is the advent of Sharon's disengagement plan. In the Israeli case, Sharon's center-right coalition collapsed over the issue; his challenge is to put together a pro-disengagement coalition with a comfortable majority, despite the reservations of many in his own Likud party concerning both disengagement and the entry of the Labor party into the coalition.
In the Palestinian case, the prospect of Israel's departure beginning in March 2005 has further destabilized an already chaotic situation in the Gaza Strip. Local power brokers there vie for control by means of violent demonstrations, abductions, and elections to Fatah branches. The authority of Qurei and his superior, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, is being challenged and eroded.
In a broader sense, Sharon is following in the footsteps of all his predecessors since the late 1980s--Shamir, Rabin/Peres, Netanyahu, and Barak--each of whom was eventually unable to remain in office because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict/peace process destabilized the coalition. And while Qurei in his resignation statement did cite the economy alongside anarchy and the absence of a peace process as reasons for his intention to leave office, clearly in the Palestinian case too the cause is the conflict and its ramifications.
In Israel, the split in public opinion over the Palestinian issue finds expression in an orderly parliamentary procedure that follows constitutional rules. While that procedure is flawed and problematic and has thus far proven incapable of delivering on a peaceful resolution, it remains better than all the alternatives. In this regard the greatest threat to disengagement is the intention of extremists among the ideological settler minority to bypass the democratic process, while the lesser threat is the built-in constraint within the Israeli system that allows a highly energized political minority like the settlers to delay or even disable the process.
In contrast, Palestinians in their current dilemma have nothing by way of democratic precedent and little in terms of democratic practice to fall back on. They have Arafat, and he is increasingly understood, even by them, to be part of the problem rather than the solution. While some of Sharon's policies of the past three years have undoubtedly deliberately destabilized Palestine--Israel's prime minister seemingly does not believe in genuine peace with our Arab neighbors--at this juncture the Palestinians have only themselves to blame. The dynamic in Gaza is liable increasingly to resemble Lebanon, or even Somalia; that would be disastrous for the entire region.
One way or another, the interaction between Israeli-Palestinian peace and the functioning or malfunctioning of democracy in both countries could not be more obvious. While the conventional wisdom of the Bush administration and many on the Israeli right holds that democracy--Palestinian, Iraqi--must precede peace and stability, this appears to be a luxury we in Israel are increasingly unable to afford. On the contrary, Israeli-Palestinian peace, or even far-reaching unilateral separation initiated by Israel, could have the beneficial effect on Israeli democracy of finally removing or at least minimizing a divisive political issue that has been stymieing the system for nearly two decades.
On the Palestinian side, the problems are more complex; there are no political precedents for linking greater democracy with peace, or vice versa. There has been one democratic election, in January 1996, followed to a large extent by paralysis, corruption, and a culture of violence. Now the mere threat of Israeli withdrawal has further exacerbated instability.
Yet there are many democratically minded people in Palestine who see in Israeli withdrawal an opportunity for Palestinians to place their country back on the road to peace and democracy. We can only hope that eventually they will have the upper hand.-Published 19/7/2004©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.
In spite of the fact that the current upheaval enveloping the Palestinian political regime seems to reflect a failure to enforce law and order, there are other deep roots of the situation. The crisis is, in fact, a repetition of other, similar crises that took place eight months ago after the resignation of then-Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).
This predicament has both political and economic causes. The political cause is simply a result of differences among components of the Palestinian elite on how to respond to the possible political developments resulting from Israel's unilateral disengagement project. The mainstream of the Palestinian leadership is cautious vis-a-vis this project and wants to avoid neutralizing the Gaza Strip and disengaging it from the West Bank. Others seem to feel differently and for that reason may be trying to create instability in order to weaken the leadership and Authority.
Because of the fragile situation caused by economic difficulties to which the Palestinian people and Authority have been subject, creating instability in the Palestinian Authority is relatively easy. Unemployment, which has ranged from one-third to one-half of the Palestinian labor force during this intifada, has increased poverty to two-thirds of the Palestinian people and leaves the Palestinian Authority and government very vulnerable to criticisms and complaints by the public. In addition, Israel's systematic efforts to reoccupy the Palestinian territories, by--among other things--crippling the Palestinian security forces in order to blame them for not fulfilling their obligations, has also made the Palestinian Authority fragile vis-a-vis the Palestinian people and different political groups.
Against this backdrop of weakness, which was caused intentionally by Israel, the developments in Gaza can be better understood. In this context, it becomes relatively easy for any group or political element to cause instability, especially in Gaza. The Gaza kidnappings happened in the course of Israel's attempt to pressure the Palestinian political leadership to be more cooperative with the political proposals that it is unilaterally presenting.
The members of the Palestinian cabinet, and particularly Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei (Abu Ala), find themselves in an awkward situation, as explained in his letter of resignation. The first concern is the inability to deal with the economic crisis and the public's continued blaming of the Palestinian cabinet for not being able to solve the economic problems, especially unemployment. What aggravates this problem is the decline in financial support coming from Arab and international donors to the Palestinian Authority. The second concern is the inability to enforce law and order, and the third is the political deadlock with Israel.
In spite of the seriousness of this crisis, it is a manageable crisis that can be contained by the different Palestinian groups and tendencies within the framework of the Palestinian political leadership. How can we be so sure? Simply because the Israeli offers creating these different reactions are not generous enough to justify this internal division.-Published 19/7/2004©bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is the Palestinian Authority minister of labor and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
No longstanding partnership
a conversation with Ephraim Sneh
bitterlemons: Is the current parallel political instability in Israel and Palestine coincidental?
Sneh: No doubt there is a connection. The political paralysis in Israel and Palestine has something in common. In Israel the composition of the Knesset does not allow any real progress toward peace. On the Palestinian side, the rivalry between Yasser Arafat and the rest of the leadership has the same effect.
bitterlemons: In Israel, coalition negotiations with Labor begin this week. What are the chances for success?
Sneh: I don't bet on a longstanding partnership, because basically our [Labor's] concept and Sharon's are entirely different. We are ready to join him for a limited period of time, only to make sure he is the one that dismantles settlements and starts the withdrawal. This is the only reason.
If there is no Likud readiness to make substantial changes in the government guidelines, there is no real chance for a coalition. In Gaza we need a concrete and shorter timetable for withdrawal. If this doesn't change and there is no change in [Finance Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu's social agenda, we have no reason to join.
bitterlemons: Is there a basis of mutual trust between Labor and Likud on the Gaza disengagement issue?
Sneh: What Sharon really wants is to solidify his grip on the West Bank and materialize his vision of the final boundaries of Israel, giving the Palestinians sovereignty in seven West Bank enclaves and Gaza, with Israel retaining half the West Bank under its control. We may join his coalition not because we accept the entire plan or don't see the deception, but because we want him to take the first step of dismantling settlements and to pave the way for us in the future.
Sharon's plan is based on the false assumption that there is no Palestinian partner. He made sure there is none by giving nothing to a possible moderate partner, because such a partner would not accept his final vision of seven enclaves plus Gaza as a Palestinian state. So there is no reason for us to stay in Sharon's coalition beyond limited disengagement.
bitterlemons: As a veteran observer of the Palestinian scene, how do you think the current Palestinian governmental crisis will be resolved?
Sneh: We are talking as events occur every hour. This upheaval may evolve into substantial changes in the Palestinian political structure. But one thing is for sure: there is great discontent among the Palestinian population. I have been talking with Palestinians for the last two weeks; there is great discontent with Arafat. One day the Palestinians in the territories will say enough is enough to incompetence. To quote what General Nasser Yusuf told Arafat in a bitter argument, "All the national revolutions in this generation have succeeded, but yours."
bitterlemons: Is Israel's disengagement plan a positive or negative catalyst for Palestinians?
Sneh: Paradoxically, though I don't like the hidden agenda of this plan, which is annexation of at least half the West Bank, I think it stimulated the Palestinians to action. For the first time, they responded in a [historically] Zionist way. They said okay, what you give, we take. At least somebody like Mohammad Dahlan spoke in this spirit, and this is very encouraging.
bitterlemons: Whether or not Labor joins the coalition, the next Israeli elections have to be held within a little over two years. Are the settlements and disengagement issues likely to affect those elections?
Sneh: In this regard, the next election in Israel should be one of national decision and not national consensus.-Published 19/7/2004©bitterlemons.org
Ephraim Sneh is a member of Knesset (Labor) and a former member of the Israeli cabinet. A retired Israel Defense Forces general, he is a former head of the Israeli administration in the West Bank and was a long-time negotiator with the Palestinian Liberation Organization on behalf of Prime Ministers Rabin and Peres.
bitterlemons: In your view, what prompted the kidnappings in the Gaza Strip?
Salahi: First of all, using arms against others for political purposes is a very bad development in Palestinian internal relations. Causing problems in Gaza now is not helpful for the Palestinians, even though internal pressure for reforms in the Palestinian Authority is necessary. These events took place because there is conflict between those in power now and those who want more power in the Authority in general and in security agencies in particular. It is not an issue of security reforms but of who is in power.
bitterlemons: Why did Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei (Abu Ala) tender his resignation now, after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat finally agreed with him to restructure the security forces?
Salahi: I think it was a mistake to tender his resignation before giving the present government a chance to stop the conflict in Gaza. But in general Abu Ala thinks he cannot continue like this because of the government's lack of power, especially on security, which is controlled by Arafat. The resignation of the government now will not support reforms but will cause difficulties for all Palestinian goals. The Israeli contention that there is no Palestinian negotiating partner will be reinforced by this situation. The Israelis will continue their escalation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, using the lack of a prime minister as an excuse not to talk to the Palestinians. At the same time, the PA's difficulties with the United States will resume, since this crisis seems to confirm US complaints about the Palestinian Authority.
If the government can succeed in its role by asking the Palestinian masses to help stop this dangerous development, it can justify its place in the Palestinian system. So this is a test for the Palestinian system. If the PA can get control of the security situation, it will become more powerful than before. If, on the other hand, the government resigns or does nothing, the public judgment will be negative.
bitterlemons: What is the connection, if any, between the Palestinian government's collapse and the Israeli government's search for a coalition with Labor?
Salahi: The connection is indirect, not direct. I think a coalition government in Israel would strengthen Sharon's plan and add impetus to the Palestinians' demands for more power in their government. Under a coalition, Sharon's plan would be implemented faster. The PA's role is being tested. If the PA has clear duties related to the disengagement plan, especially for negotiations and security, it can continue working with Egypt and others to manage Sharon's plan.
There are different positions among Palestinian groups regarding Sharon's plan. The majority thinks we should not negotiate on the basis of Sharon's plan and we should go back to the roadmap or the United Nations. Sharon's plan is now different from what he gave to Bush and what the Israelis have talked about with the Egyptians. None of the Palestinians knows exactly what Sharon's plan is, but in general the majority of Palestinians thinks this is a Sharon maneuver to create more difficulties and that in the end Israel will not leave the Gaza Strip. Abu Ala cannot continue working for political mobilization without a united Palestinian concept on the Egyptian initiative and Sharon's plan.
Any initiative, even the Egyptian initiative, has a duty to clarify the Israeli government's disengagement plan and the plan's relationship to the wall and to withdrawal from PA territory, which is necessary for PA elections to take place before March 2005. The PA has to think about the new developments in Israel. Some Palestinians think a coalition government in Israel will be worse for us; others think it will move something and bring us back to the roadmap. I don't think that Sharon and Likud will change their plans; Labor will accept Likud ideas, not vice versa.
bitterlemons: In the Israeli case, the dismissal of corruption charges against Sharon has made a coalition with Labor possible for the first time. What effect do ongoing charges of corruption against Arafat and other PA officials have on Palestinian coalition building?
Salahi: In Israel, even though there is not a complete legal case against Sharon, the majority thinks that Sharon has a relationship with corruption. Corruption in the Israeli political system is clear in many ways and with different ministers or former ministers. On the Palestinian side, there are many issues of corruption in addition to the main issue of how to stop Israeli aggression and the wall, which has damaged all the Palestinian areas.
Palestinians think they will not be successful against Israeli aggression without deep reform in their own political system. PA corruption should stop, and we should go to the UN to make Israel withdraw from PA territory so that we can hold elections under UN supervision. Even if in Israel they manage with their corruption, we cannot manage ours, because it means that the occupation will continue. With elections, we can stop corruption and other abuses of the democratic system. The legislative council is now discussing changing the electoral system. Hopefully this will result in a more democratic system.
bitterlemons: How will this crisis affect the Palestinian government and agenda in the long term?
Salahi: For the Palestinians, the first priority now is to stop this crisis. The second is to disarm armed groups and implement reforms of the security agencies, so that only trained professionals work in these areas. We also need to address social and economic priorities, stop corruption, and rebuild the damaged institutions of the PA and Palestine Liberation Organization.-Published 19/7/2004©bitterlemons.org
Bassam Salahi is the secretary general of the Palestinian People's Party and a member of the PLO Central Committee. He was a member of the first intifada's United Intifada Leadership.
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