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Elections in Israel & Palestine:
Dynamics for Peace
|by Sujata Ashwarya Cheema|
The Palestinian and Israeli political lives have been inextricably linked since the beginning of the occupation in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967. The various ramifications of this relationship have never been more apparent than in the past few months. For the first time in history, Israelis and Palestinians are going to the polls almost around the same time early next year. The Palestinian Legislative Council elections scheduled in January 2006 and the earlier-than-scheduled Israeli general elections in March have brought this merger between Palestinian and Israeli political realities to an apex. The trends and outcome of the two elections can create new dynamics for peace between the two adversaries locked in a vicious cycle of violence since the beginning of the second Intifada five years ago.
Implications of Israeli Election
Two major political bombshells that precipitated the Israeli election season, namely, Ariel Sharon's departure from the Likud Party and the elevation of Amir Peretz as the head of the Labor party, have the potential to dramatically realign Israeli politics and bear upon the prospects of peace. On November 21, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon left the Likud Party and formed the National Responsibility Party, also known as Kadima. Peretz was able to defeat Shimon Peres, on the perception that the Labor party was losing out to the Likud on various domestic and foreign policy issues, especially the 'peace with Palestinians' agenda.
Last year, Peres had managed to convince the Labor bosses that the party's assistance to Sharon was crucial in order to generate a broad political base for disengagement from Gaza. With Labor's support Sharon was able to successfully counteract the rebels within his own Likud Party who opposed the withdrawal. However, with disengagement complete, Peres failed to provide any further justification for remaining in the 'National Unity' government. Peretz's decision to pull the Labor Party out of the ruling coalition precipitated Sharon's decision to break from the Likud. While Sharon's decision to leave Likud was probably driven by his desire to fashion himself as the chief architect of the future borders of Israel, Peretz's election as Labor leader was an important factor in Sharon's decision.
The Likud split could possibly make way for the alignment of Israeli political parties to more closely reflect the views of the Israeli public on the issue of relations with Palestinians. Currently, two-thirds of Israelis support a two-state solution with the Palestinians. A percentage of this fraction belonged to the Likud Party and was represented by Sharon. Likud is primarily backed by 'Greater Israel' and 'security-minded' supporters who oppose Palestinian statehood and can be grouped as hardliners. The Land of Israel people advocate annexation of Palestinian territories and establishment of Jewish settlements in all of Israel/Palestine. The security people advocate continued occupation because of the supposed strategic value of the settlements. Thus, Likud is more ideologically eclectic than the Labor Party, nearly all of whose members support a two-state solution. In event of another national unity government after Israeli general election, Peretz would find it more acceptable to make a coalition with Kadima than with Likud.
The ideological heterogeneity within the Likud Party diluted Sharon's authority. Sharon believes he is personally responsible for attracting popular support that won forty seats for the Likud in 2003 parliamentary elections. Yet the party's more ideological activists believe that it was Likud's opposition to territorial concessions that won the ruling mandate. This segment prompted the Likud-led government to thwart any the chances of resuming negotiations during its term. Many in the Likud considered the Gaza pullout as surrender to violence. Moreover, a Likud Central Committee comprised of hawkish activists would have determined the next Knesset list, implying Sharon would not be able to ensure broad parliamentary backing for any future dealing with the Palestinians. However, Sharon understood that any new government he would form would be a repeat of the current imbroglio. The right wing would continue to oppose rational policies regarding the Palestinians.
There are signs that Peretz would try to demonstrate that he is similar to Sharon when it comes to supporting Israeli control of settlement blocs, largely adjacent to the 1967 ceasefire lines. Outgoing housing minister Isaac Herzog announced on November 22 that he consulted with Peretz about building 350 units inside Ma'aleh Adumim. Peretz is considered a 'dove' on the question of peace with the Palestinians and in the past has supported the Peace Now movement that opposes Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. However, Peretz is aware of the previous Labour leader Amram Mitzna's disastrous showing against Sharon in the 2003 elections, when the former general stressed his 'dovishness'. Therefore, the question is how he will move more to the middle, coming close to mirroring Sharon's position on the Palestinian issue.
These developments in Israeli politics have the potential to bring on serious electoral competition that could lead to real change in the composition of the government and enhance the prospects of future peace negotiations.
Implications of Palestinian election
In the light of the shift to the centre among the Israeli electorate, it appears likely that moderate Palestinians, who advocate peaceful settlement of the conflict, might succeed in recruiting additional public support in the upcoming Legislative Council elections. The results of the latest poll conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip between December 6-8, 2005, showed that 50 percent of the Palestinians will vote for the moderate ruling Fateh as compared to 32 percent for Hamas; 9 percent would vote for other factions and groups including independents, and 9 percent remain undecided. In addition, concessions and gestures by Israel on sensitive issues such as the modalities of the Gaza crossings, and release of political prisoners could also encourage a dovish Palestinian vote.
The participation of the primary Islamic opposition, Hamas, in the elections in Palestine, would not only strengthen the Palestinian Authority, but also the peace camp. This is the second election within the framework of the Oslo Accords; the first was held in 1996, which was boycotted by political Islamic groups. The more inclusive such an election is, the more comprehensive the acceptance of the vision and spirit of Oslo and thus must be considered as a step forward for peace.
The Intifada years have seen two developments of far-reaching importance in Occupied Palestine. These developments have had detrimental effects on the course of the peace process and carry the possibility of disrupting the same in the future. The first development is Israel's continued and relentless onslaught on the Palestinian people and indeed the peace process itself: superimposing unilateralism over bilateral negotiations, building of the West Bank separation wall, economic strangulation of Gaza due to frequent border closure, and swelling ranks of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons. This has led to strengthening of Islamic groups, evident in Hamas' win over Fateh, the ruling party, in the municipal elections in May and December 2005, reflecting the shifting grounds of Palestinian political landscape.
A significant impact of the Palestinian elections will be the change in the nature of the Palestinian political system, shifting its source of internal legitimacy from charismatic leadership to institutions based on political participation. With the elections, the president will no longer be the Palestinian National Authority's principal pivot, which will move to the Legislative Council, expected to operate according to parliamentary norms and contain a strong opposition. This democratic transformation will not only result in enhanced internal stability for the Palestinian society but will also result in a council more secure over the negotiating table.
The result of Palestinian election is bound to influence elections in Israel. If Hamas, which opposes a two-state solution, scores what would appear to Israelis to be significant electoral gains, thereby presumably guaranteeing its greater influence over Palestinian policymaking, this will likely damage the election prospects of the Israeli left and Labour, both of which advocate renewing peace negotiations. It could also influence the Kadima platform: Ariel Sharon currently denies any future intention to carry out another unilateral disengagement, preferring to subscribe to roadmap-based two-state concept in the hope of appealing to voters from both the left and right. Sharon could conceivably feel encouraged to abandon ambiguity and state plainly that he represents the only alternative remaining for the large majority of voters: more disengagement. On the other hand, if Fateh emerges stronger in the Palestinian elections, and Hamas weaker, Labour and two-state solution supporters might improve their position in the Israeli elections. One way or another, the two elections, and the entailed coalition-building, can be expected to create condition impacting peace process in influential ways.
The proximity of the two elections has created a situation, in which the participating actors in both Israel and the Palestine must enunciate, almost simultaneously, their acceptance of the sovereign national existence of the other ' the key basis for a lasting peace settlement. Running on a platform of reconciliation and peace, the ruling Fatah Party envisions a two-state solution with peaceful relations between Israel and Palestine. As regards to Hamas, it participation in the democratic electoral process would diminish its functions as a rebellious armed force, impelling the Islamic party into accepting a negotiated peace agreement. In Israel today, there are central actors who support a Palestinian state. At least three parties, Labour, Meretz and Shinui, declare this in their electoral propaganda and Ariel Sharon's Kadima party too might include such a plank in its platform. Evident substantial changes in the political arena on both sides signal that an accord based on a two-state solution bringing lasting peace just might be conceivable.
|More by : Sujata Ashwarya Cheema|
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01/10/2006 20:35 PM
01/10/2006 20:35 PM
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