Reasons for Optimism
Gershon Baskin and Khaled Duzdar
Monday, November 29, 2004
There suddenly seems to be a lot of reasons for optimism on the Israeli-Palestinian front. As the last four years have provided so few opportunities for any optimism, it is important to jump on the current opportunities and to highlight them.
The first reason for optimism is the very smooth transfer of government in the Palestinian Authority following the death of President Arafat. IPCRI for one, was not surprised by this smooth transition as we have been speaking about the post-Arafat era for years in terms of at least two periods – an interim period where the Old Guard leadership would smoothly take over (with or without formal elections); and later a second period where the young guard would position itself in the lead.
It is clear that the Abu Mazen – Abu Ala partnership has worked well in creating a sense of stability. They have worked quite successfully in engaging all of the Palestinian factions and parties in a dialogue aimed at ensuring calm, leading to the elections on January 9, 2005.
The most volatile problem on the Palestinian street is the potential for infighting between the various parts and forces within Fatah. Even here Abu Mazen and Abu Ala have consolidated the support of the Fatah Central Council, the Fatah Revolutionary Council, the Fatah prisioners and even Marwan Barghouti for the candidacy of Abu Mazen for the position of President of the Palestinian Authority and the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO. Now it seems quite clear that Abu Mazen will win the elections with a definitive victory.
The first round of Palestinian municipal elections for more than 20 local governments will go ahead as planned on December 23, 2004. It now seems quite likely that Legislative elections will take place in the Spring of 2005 and that the Sixth Fatah Congress, the first held in sixteen years, will take place in August 2005. Palestine is heading towards real democracy.
The “death squad” unit of the Preventative Security Force in Gaza has been officially disbanded, making this the first real step towards Palestinian security reform. A British run security operations room is functioning in Gaza and working with the Palestinian security. Abu Mazen has already stated that illegal and unregistered weapons will not be tolerated and that the Palestinian Security Apparatuses will be the only people authorized to carry weapons in Palestine.
Sheikh Hasan Yusef one of Hamas’s leaders from the West Bank, recently released from Israeli prison, has begun to speak about the possibility of a 10 year Hudna with Israel as well as taking part in Palestinian political life. He speaks about a new generation of Hamas as part of Palestinian democracy, even being engaged in negotiations and peace making with Israel “willing to live side-by-side with Israel”. Talal Sidr, formerly a member of Hamas has declared his candidacy for the position of President of the Palestinian Authority. It seems that even though Hamas is officially boycotting the elections, it is expected that many Hamas sympathizers will actually vote as an act of giving their voice in support of Palestinian democracy. Perhaps the winds of peace blowing in Damascus also have lead to new music being sounded within Hamas.
News reports are abounding with a new kind of “courting” between Prime Minister Sharon and the new Palestinian administration. Everyday there are reports of quotes of people on both sides speaking about meetings, coordination, and moving back into the Road Map. Sharon is speaking about coordinating the withdrawal and disengagement with Abu Mazen after the Palestinian elections. Abu Mazen is speaking about speeding up the time table and getting back immediately into the Road Map - making the disengagement part and parcel of Phase I of the Road Map together with the reforms and unification of the Palestinian security apparatuses.
Foreign Ministers and dignitaries are back in the region shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah. The most important of these are the visits of the Egyptian officials, particularly Minister Omar Sulieman and the upcoming visit of Steven Hadley the incoming National Security Advisor in the White House. They are talking about assistance for Palestinian elections, for Palestinian security reform, and assistance for renewed Israeli-Palestinian security coordination.
Things are moving forward. There is sudden talk about imminent improvements in the Palestinian economy. Israel is preparing a series of actions to enable Palestinian free movement leading up to the elections.
It is now time for both sides to take positive steps to strengthen these new trends. Israel should remove check points throughout the territories. Palestinian laborers should once again be given permits to work in Israel. Palestinian businessmen and merchants should once again be granted free movement. Palestinians should once again be allowed to use the Ben Gurion airport for international travel which has been closed to Palestinians since March 2004. Israel must immediately allow the Palestinians to reopen the elections registration offices in East Jerusalem in order to allow them to register to vote. Israel should reopen security contacts at the field level to coordinate the eventual Israeli redeployment out of Palestinian towns and cities (areas “a” and “b”) for the elections and if this is successful, Israel should begin to redeploy in positions held prior to September 28, 2000, in accordance with Phase I of the Road Map.
The PA must also continue with the positive steps that have begun in the security reforms including the removal of all illegal weapons. The PA should also immediate remove all forms of incitement on official Palestinian television and radio. Palestinian factions and political parties, in addition to Fatah, should also begin their internal reforms and democratization processes. The PA must conclude the legislation processes of amending the Elections Law and the Political Parties law which are essential for Palestinian democracy prior to the elections.
These local steps must be supported with robust international involvement and engagement. The international community must back the positive developments with a real willingness to provide financial and technical support for the rebuilding of a peace process. The international community must also help to facilitate the rebuilding of the Israeli-Palestinian political process by providing umbrellas and opportunities for real re-engagement.
Both publics need now to regain their trust and confidence in the possibility of peace. This can only be done by both leaderships taking decisive steps towards rebuilding that trust and confidence. It is not time for empty declarations, now is the time for action.