February 21, 2011 Edition 5 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
Palestinian elections, the UN arena and the conflict
Who is the biggest loser?  - Yossi Alpher
What did Abu Mazen expect, that Hamas would join elections willingly?

Preparing for September  - Ghassan Khatib
Palestinian officials view the September 2011 deadline for statehood very seriously.

Dealing with the legitimacy issue  - Ron Pundak
No one, including apparently the man himself, knows whether Abu Mazen will run for another term.

Learn the lessons  - Saleh Abdel Jawad
"Too little, too late"--this expression has gained a new reputation in the last 40 days.

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Who is the biggest loser?
 Yossi Alpher
The past week witnessed two initiatives by the PLO leadership of the West Bank to advance its agenda of building a Palestinian state and diplomatically isolating Israel. Neither seems to have proceeded quite as planned. This calls into question the wisdom of the leadership. Yet the Netanyahu government in Israel can hardly rejoice: it is an even bigger loser. Nor can the Obama administration, whose attempts to deal constructively with the wave of pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the Middle East also suffered a setback.

The first initiative was the call by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) for municipal elections in July and presidential and parliamentary elections by September. It came shortly after Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was asked by Abu Mazen--for similar reasons involving the need to preempt public criticism--to form a new government.

Within days Hamas had, as anticipated, declared it would boycott the elections, meaning no elections at all in Gaza and no Hamas participation in the West Bank. Abu Mazen quickly began to backtrack on his elections commitment, while Fayyad suggested that elections could go forward with the PLO acknowledging Hamas' rule in Gaza if Hamas agreed to elections.

What did Abu Mazen expect, that Hamas would join in willingly? Or perhaps the elections initiative was simply a temporary sop to Palestinian public opinion, which identifies with the current regional democracy wave. Now that Hamas has rejected the initiative, can Abu Mazen blame it for everything and forget about elections?

The elections schedule was also apparently about something else in addition to democratization. In September the Palestinian state-building program, with the wind of growing international recognition in its sails, is expected to appeal to the United Nations for recognition of a Palestinian state. Obviously, it would be advantageous for PA leaders when they go to the UN to be newly-elected through a democratic process, rather than holdovers from long-outdated elections, bereft of a genuine popular mandate. Logically, then, since Hamas is quite obviously not a party to this strategy, it would make sense to move ahead with the electoral process even without it.

This brings us to last Friday's drama at the Security Council, where the Obama administration vetoed a Palestinian and Arab League initiative to condemn Israel's settlement-construction policies. Because President Barack Obama designed his Israeli-Palestinian peace policy around a settlement freeze, it seemingly made sense for the Palestinians to use the settlement issue as a kind of "warm up" for what is to come in September. The US veto, accordingly, signals that in September Washington is likely to be equally intransigent regarding the state recognition initiative.

None of this is good for the Obama administration's image in the region. Having fumbled and stammered repeatedly in its approach to pro-democracy demonstrations from Egypt to Yemen and Bahrain, it now appears to lack the courage of its anti-settlement and pro-Palestinian state convictions in the United Nations as well. With even the Europeans increasingly welcoming Palestinian statehood come September, Washington has now backed itself into an isolated corner together with Jerusalem. It seemingly attributes huge influence to domestic pro-Israel opinion, while ignoring Arab public opinion--which by now, after Egypt and Tunisia, it should understand is equally if not more important. And the administration's attempt to explain its vote in the UN in terms of the need to protect a non-existent peace process is the ultimate insult to the intelligence of Israelis and Arabs alike.

The Netanyahu government can smugly pat itself on the back after Obama bowed to the will of some of Israel's misguided supporters in Congress and the American public. One can even make the case that Abbas is mistaken in going to the UN rather than sitting down with Netanyahu, with the US present, and calling his bluff regarding the conditions for a two-state solution (although there is growing evidence that Abbas' negotiators have come close to doing precisely this, by presenting detailed documentation of their positions that Netanyahu's negotiators refuse to look at). It's hard to tell who is weaker and who will ultimately pay the heavier price politically and security-wise: Abbas, Obama or Netanyahu. Certainly, Obama now has a score to settle with both Abbas and Netanyahu.

Right now, they all look like losers.-Published 21/2/2011 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Preparing for September
 Ghassan Khatib
Palestinian officials view the September 2011 deadline for statehood very seriously and most of their political behavior between now and then needs to be taken in that context.

The attempt to go to the United Nations Security Council should be viewed as part of Palestinian attempts to build up an international position that is more responsive to the failure of the bilateral approach and the inaction of the United States, the country sponsoring the bilateral process on behalf of the international community.

For that reason, Palestinians feel that some of their objectives were achieved in spite of the American veto of last Friday's resolution against Israeli settlements. They weigh the significance of the 14 votes of members of the Security Council, including four of the five permanent members, as well as the international attention that was drawn to the danger of continuous Israeli settlement activity.

The veto that the US applied to this resolution was as harmful to it as it was to the Palestinians. It reminded the public in a region that is undergoing serious turbulence of the double standard that the United States uses for the various conflicts of the Middle East. The Arab public, particularly Palestinians, will have great difficulty taking seriously American attempts to support democratization in the Arab world at the same time that it is suppressing attempts by Palestinians to achieve implementation of international legality.

The reaction among Palestinians and many Arabs ranged between disappointment and anger. The arguments of US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were not at all convincing. They tried to argue that the United States is not opposed to the content of the resolution, i.e., it does not support settlement expansion, but that it is opposed to bringing the issue of settlements to the United Nations.

This argument is deceptive because it purposefully neglects the fact that Palestinians, supported by Arab states, brought the issue of settlements to the United Nations only after the US declared that it had failed in convincing Israel to stop its settlement expansion policy, a prerequisite to resuming bilateral negotiations. Our appeal to the United Nations came after 18 years of bilateral negotiations over ending the occupation, during which illegal settlement construction managed to double the number of settlers in the occupation Palestinian territories.

It is unacceptable that the United States would at one and the same time continue its inaction vis-a-vis settlement expansion and also prevent the world body for resolving conflict from proposing ways of solving this problem.

In the period between now and September, the Palestinian Authority will continue to encourage the international community to play a more direct collective role in helping to end the Israeli occupation in order to allow for the emergence of an independent Palestinian state on the borders of 1967. In parallel, the Palestinian Authority will also continue to develop internal conditions that are more conducive to independence and statehood. These measures include continuing the development of state institutions and other reforms, but also resuming the democratization process. Having an active legislative council is an essential aspect of readiness for statehood.

That's why Palestinians are also busy looking for ways to reconcile their political factions and conduct legislative and presidential elections. The dilemma is that conducting elections without reconciliation will contribute to consolidating the existing political division, while waiting for reconciliation before holding a vote will leave the democratic rights of the people hostage to the will of political groups.

That's why there has been a push recently to try to combine reconciliation with elections. A national vote could be both an incentive and a tool for reconciliation.-Published 21/2/2011 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Dealing with the legitimacy issue
 Ron Pundak
Recent months have witnessed the ongoing success of Palestinian diplomacy. Initiatives taken from the playbook of non-violent struggle have borne fruit in the form of growing international recognition of a Palestinian state and, in parallel, growing support for the Palestinian position as against that of Israel.

This campaign was supposed to reach a new level last Friday with a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the settlement policies of the government of Israel. An American veto, reflecting the dominance of domestic policy over foreign policy in Washington, halted the Palestinian string of victories.

Activism in the international arena has to some extent enabled the Palestinian leadership to rebuff critics who accuse it of doing nothing against occupation and the settlements. The leadership's reply to a second level of criticism--that it is doing nothing to strengthen democracy and legitimacy--took the form last week of a declaration regarding municipal elections in July and elections to parliament and the presidency by September.

To the casual observer it might seem--even if in Ramallah they deny this--that in a different reality it would be more convenient for the Palestinian leadership simply to forget about elections. The "temporary" government appointed in mid-2007 "for the shortest possible duration" has ruled with great success for more than three and a half years without a functioning parliament. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who leads a tiny parliamentary faction, is convenient for all sides, works well with President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and is respected by the donor nations, which trust only him to administer the public coffers. And he has succeeded as a professional administrator to present a new national agenda, to project credibility and integrity and to realize countless urban and rural projects. All in all, he is a credit to the Palestinian people, even if he isn't a member of Fateh.

Still, the protest wave that is sweeping the Arab world threatens the West Bank as well. Clearly something has to be sacrificed, if only to show that "we too are democrats, attuned to the public will, so first we'll hold municipal elections and then we'll move on to parliamentary and presidential elections." Yet when you get down to brass tacks, it emerges that reality is far more complicated than mere declarations and that actually holding elections is problematic.

The polls indicate that Fateh is not growing stronger, while in both the West Bank and Gaza Hamas is not very popular either. If, as matters now stand, Hamas does not participate in elections, it is likely to do everything in its power to prevent them from taking place or at least to void them of any legitimacy. Hamas will not be prepared to forego democratically the near-dictatorial power it has accrued in Gaza, where it is already entrenched. From Hamas' standpoint, democracy will again be relevant when its victory is assured. Since this is currently not the case, the Hamas experience in Gaza has to be defined as one-time democracy.

If Hamas will neither support nor participate in elections, then perhaps the entire purpose of the elections exercise is to weaken it. Abu Mazen's declaration that without Hamas there will be no elections already places the burden of proof on Hamas. There are those in Ramallah who believe that if Hamas avoids elections in Gaza then the public there might rise up against its rulers, just as in Tunisia and Egypt the public took to the streets in the cause of democracy.

On the other hand, a decision to hold elections only in the West Bank encounters the legitimacy issue, which is controversial. Will a new government, emerging from limited elections, be more or less legitimate and successful than the current one? The answer is apparently negative. Yet the present situation is no better. Hovering over this debate is the question whether it will be possible for Fayyad to return as prime minister. Assuming that this time around, like last time, he fails to lead a large parliamentary contingent, then the next prime minister will probably come from the ranks of Fateh.

Apropos Fateh, what will be its electoral agenda or message? The public will no longer buy the old slogans of "ending the occupation, peace, economic development, one gun and one law". This time around, the line will apparently be more nationalistic, more inward-looking, less addressed toward Israel and more toward the significance of events in Egypt and Tunisia. Will that suffice? Apparently not.

Complicated? This is only the tip of the iceberg, since no one, including apparently the man himself, knows whether Abu Mazen will run for another term. A presidential succession struggle will weaken existing coalitions and generate further fragmentation, leading ultimately to a weaker Palestinian political system. All this will come together in September 2011, the deadline for the historic achievement of an independent Palestinian state. All this--against the backdrop of a right-wing Israeli government that fears the wave of instability sweeping the region and that does not welcome any real progress toward a comprehensive solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.-Published 21/2/2011 ©

Ron Pundak is chairman of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum.

Learn the lessons
 Saleh Abdel Jawad
"Too little, too late"--this expression has gained a new reputation in the last 40 days. Events in Tunisia and Egypt and other countries in the Arab world have confirmed the validity of the expression. Arab leaders like Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, eager to calm the protests against their rule, tried to give up minor concessions to the opposition. But it was, as we all know, too late.

Compared with the tired "old guard" leadership (the leaders of Muslim, liberal and leftist parties including the Muslim Brotherhood), the "new guard" generation is not satisfied because it is seeking real change and not minor cosmetic reforms. This applies to the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that is nowadays experiencing--silently but steadily--the aftermath of the Mubarak regime earthquake.

The Palestinian cabinet's decision to hold municipal elections at the end of July of this year; the dissolution of Salam Fayyad's government ten days ago; the resignation of Saeb Erekat as chief Palestinian negotiator; and the PLO executive committee's decision to hold legislative and presidential elections by September 2011 are all part of maneuvers and a "strategy" meant to overcome and respond to the new situation in the Arab world and the al-Jazeera leaks scandal.

However, Mahmoud Abbas' and Salam Fayyad's strategy will not succeed--not only because it is "too little, too late"--but because it is irrelevant. First, all political Islamic parties and movements (Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizb al-Tahrir) oppose it. As a matter of fact, the opposition to holding legislative and presidential elections is unanimous among the factions save some Fateh circles (considered the "Power Party").

Political parties other than the political Islamists and independent forces without political affiliation (which make up more than 30 percent of the Palestinian political map) and observers consider holding an election before ending the division between Fateh and Hamas as an internalization and reinforcement of this division, which is not only between the two factions but also between Gaza and the West Bank, thus compromising if not ending the Palestinian state national project.

But there are other deeper concerns: all those who are not pro-Palestinian Authority, including the new young Facebook generation, consider elections an attempt by the PA to regain eroded legitimacy at a time when not only is it in question, but also the legitimacy of PLO institutions and the PLO's very capacity to lead the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The leaked documents by al-Jazeera promoted anger but also proved the uselessness of the negotiations process.

International and regional changes (the weakness of the United States, Israeli intransigence, the rise of the "rejection front", and the fall of the Mubarak regime as a main ally of the PA) are all weakening the PA and the current PLO leadership.

Only changes like the election of a new Palestinian National Council (the highest body in the PLO) would set new rules for the game. Ending the political division and rethinking the negotiations are considered a minimum offer to be accepted by the PA.

Most Palestinians today want to return to a situation in which Palestine is considered an entity under occupation, where the right of self-determination and the right to resist are guaranteed. Hard-liners are even announcing the demise of the PA.

This state of mind was strengthened by last week's US veto in the United Nations Security Council. People who thought that the US would reconsider its policies in the region after what happened to its allies know today that the US is crippled by its own internal politics and in the long run will harm its own interests. Unfortunately for Arab dictators, we also have a situation like that of Tunisia and Egypt: leaders incapable of facing the truth and learning the lessons.-Published 21/2/2011 ©

Saleh Abdel Jawad is a political scientist and dean of the Faculty of Law and Public Administration at Birzeit University.