From question marks to exclamation points:

The role of Palestinian and Israeli societies in the coming weeks

 

Brig. General (Ret.) Dr. Yossi Ben Ari

 

January 17, 2006

 

The political realities in the Israeli Palestinian internal arenas were never as ambiguous as they are today, a week, to several weeks, before the parliamentary elections on both sides. There are huge question marks as to what we have to expect in almost every field within the two systems, and of course, in between them. Breaking the "foggy" situations into questions, might clarify the picture:

 

Let us look first in to the P.A.: the Palestinian people are only one week before the elections, but nothing is yet clear. Both President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leaders clearly stated the great importance of conducting the elections on time as scheduled for January 25, 2006. But, since there are pressures to postpone them (especially from the Fatah, “old guard"), is it obvious they will really be conducted as scheduled, on January 25th?  Can the P.A. run free democratic elections while there's almost complete chaos everywhere? Will warlords' gangs hold to an "honor charter" that completely prohibits carrying weapons in and around the ballot stations? What will make them obey and accept the judgments of the special elections courts nominated by the P.A.? Can the elections be considered legitimate if violence over takes some of the ballot stations or if political candidates will be shot by their opponents? What if some of the international observers especially brought here to help the elections will be threatened or even hurt by gunmen? Can the votes be counted properly, if there are violent interferences aimed at distorting the final results?

 

Assuming that the election process will be properly implemented, the "one million dollar question" is still, who will win them? Will it be, as the polls lately show, the Fatah movement?  If that is the case, how will it be accepted by Hamas? Will Hamas be really ready to take part in a Fatah led government? How will its political participation, even if only within the Parliament affect the Palestinian positions towards Israel? Is there, under such circumstances, a chance for the renewal of political process between the two entities? Will the new Fatah led government be ready to stand the challenge of actively confronting violence and enforce the "one gun -  one authority" policy, so that the overall security situation will be improved and all parties can be back on track of the "road map"?

 

And what if Hamas wins? Will Fatah "allow" it? How would it influence the nature of the Palestinian society - will it tend to be an Islamic one "Iranian style"? How will such a revolution impact the attitude towards Israel? Will Hamas be really ready - as Mohammed Abu Tir, a senior Hamas candidate stated - to negotiate with Israel? Shall we all be surprised by a responsible-moderate political approach aiming at achieving a "Hudna" agreement with the new Israeli government? Or, on the contrary, do we have to expect the breakout of a third Intifada, probably more aggressive than the two previous ones?

 

Let's take a look at the Israeli side: Ariel Sharon's stroke drove the whole Israeli political system into a week of freeze. Though it's quite obvious that Sharon will not be politically active again, little is clear as to the nature of the Israeli future political system: Will the new acting P.M., Ehud Olmert succeed in running his transitional government? How will he react to external political-security-military challenges that might be imposed on Israel's agenda in the coming weeks? What influences will his personal image have on the public attitude towards him and the "Kadima" party through the short time left until the Election Day?  As for "Kadima": it seems that the new born party is doing well after Sharon's political disappearance. But, will the wide support that Olmert got in last week polls (44 Knesset seats) stay the same through coming weeks? Can we already absolutely exclude the possibility that Binyamin Netanyahu (or Amir Perez), will be the one who opens the bottles of champagne, early morning of March 29th?

 

Assuming that Olmert wins the Knesset elections; will his perception of the Palestinian issue remain the same as it was before Sharon's hospitalization? Will he stay the same important moderate "engine" he was next to Sharon, advocating "painful concessions" on the way to achieve an agreement?  Will he stick to Kadima's "principles for a political program", or will he come with a different surprising political agenda? How much of those leadership skills needed for historical decision taking does he possess? (When the future of the West Bank and other delicate issues are at stake - perhaps the most difficult decisions an Israeli P.M. ever had to take) will he have the political wisdom, sensitivity and maneuverability needed to establish a political coalition to advance such historical moves? Will he, like Sharon, through the disengagement, enjoy public support for doing so?

 

As shown, the questions only emphasize how complicated the current situation is. When instability is "the name of the game", the societies on both sides have to do their utmost to strengthen the systems, either to help to create more internal stability or to avoid future deterioration in the bilateral relations. It was Mahmoud el Zahar, one of Hamas leaders, who said lately that if the internal Palestinian security chaos continues, "the people will create a human shield for the elections and will hurt anyone that tries to disrupt them". El Zahar understood that even if the Palestinian people were have avoided confronting the anarchy until now, its time now to defend life and the democracy of Palestinian society. Last week’s relatively calm situation maybe prove he was right. Both sides must continue to demonstrate maturity which includes military restraint. Both societies have to behave in a responsible manner so that internal stability can be sustained that can lead the way back to a fruitful political dialogue.

 

 

Dr.  Yossi Ben Ari is the Israeli Co-Director of IPCRI’s Strategic Affairs Unit – [email protected]