Adam Keller of Gush Shalom and The Other Israel spoke to Solidarity about the political situation after the death of Yasser Arafat.
Abu Mazen has a good standing in the White House and the Americans are interested in the success of the Palestinian elections (all the more because they will coincide with the Iraqi elections in January). Palestinian elections which the Palestinians feel are OK may (at least Bush may hope) radiate some legitimacy on the Iraqi ones. I think Sharon will try to avoid any action which the US will interpret as direct sabotage of the elections or undermining Abu Mazen, such as a new invasion of the Gaza Strip. Even if there is some pretext Bush would nevertheless tell Sharon to restrain himself.
Still, the main strategic aim of Sharon remains to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and a token part of the West Bank, and halt there. Any negotiations would automatically put wider issues on the table, so he would try to perpetuate the “there is no partner” myth. If Abu Mazen is elected, the line will probably be “Abu Mazen is well-meaning but weak, unable to fight terrorism, so he is no partner”.
Meanwhile, the question of what Arafat died of remains a potentially disruptive factor. Many Palestinian believe that Sharon poisoned him. Some Palestinians say that if Israel killed him that excludes any possibility of a peace process or even cease-fire.
It seems unlikely that Hamas will field a presidential candidate against Abu Mazen, which means that Abu Mazen will be elected, but on a very low voter turnout, which will cast doubt on the legitimacy of the whole process.
Hamas does want, however, to contest the parliamentary elections, which is a major change from the 1996 elections, when they boycotted the Palestinian Legislative Council on the grounds that it came out of Oslo and therefore was illegitimate. Last I heard there was a debate between Abu Mazen and Hamas because they want the parliamentary elections on the same day as the presidential while Abu Mazen wants them later, presumably because he wants first to establish his position as president and only later to contest with Hamas the parliament. I think that having the parliamentary elections on the same day would make for a very lively campaign and voter turnout because there would be many candidates in each constituency representing various local interests and issues as well as national ones, and each candidate will make considerable efforts to mobilise voters. That would be even more so if municipal elections are also held that day.
Who would the government want to take over the Gaza Strip? Officially it is left unclear, since the “disengagement” is supposed to be unilateral.
Unofficially they often talk of Muhammad Dahlan, who was the Palestinian Security Chief when Abu Mazen was Prime Minister, who has a power base in the Gaza Strip. This talk on the Israeli side has very much damaged Dahlan and made him perceived as a collaborator, so the government officials now try to downplay this idea.
There had been also the idea of the Egyptians sending “advisers” to train the Palestinian security forces. At least some parts of the Israeli establishment would like to go back to the pre-1967 situation of Egyptian rule, on the assumption that “the Palestinians have proven incapable of ruling themselves”. But these ideas have so far snagged on the problem that the Egyptians demand guarantees that after the withdrawal Israeli forces will not conduct ground raids or aerial bombardments in any area where Egyptian personnel will be stationed, and Sharon is so far unwilling to give such guarantees.
There is also the idea of stationing international troops in the Strip, especially Europeans. Shlomo Ben Ami, who was Barak’s Foreign Minister, is outspoken in favour of this idea, and there are rumours that Blair is interested in having British involvement.
But the present government seems opposed to the idea, since “it would hamper Israel's ability to fight terrorism” (i.e. conduct raids into the Strip after the withdrawal).
I suppose that in the near future we in the Israeli peace movement will be dealing very much with the various issues coming out of the Palestinian elections. In fact we have been trying over the past two years to call for Palestinian elections which require pulling the army out of the Palestinian cities. Until the death of Arafat nobody wanted to hear of it. We were totally unable to get it on the agenda.
For example, we met with Arafat and he told us that he wanted to hold new elections. The papers did not publish it and instead published the commentaries of the pundits that Arafat the tyrant was stifling the desire of his people for democratic elections.
The fact is, as long as Arafat was there the US was totally opposed to elections which would confirm Arafat in power.
But there is the major issue of the prisoners. That Barghouti and the other prisoners should be released and allowed to take part is an idea so far totally unaccepted by Sharon (although Interior Minster Poraz — politically a relative liberal but also an extreme supporter of Thatcher-style free enterprise — expressed a moderate support for releasing Barghouti). There is the related issue that the army should restore the Palestinian control of their cities, let the Palestinian security services carry arms and refrain from raiding the cities each night to arrest more Palestinians.
These things were done during and in the immediate aftermath of the Arafat funeral (i.e. permission for Palestinian security to carry arms, and no raids into the cities) but after three days they were rolled back. I have a feeling there was a power struggle inside the establishment and the hawks won at least for the time being.
For the slightly longer term, our big challenge is to make the Gaza withdrawal not the end as Sharon wants it but the beginning of total withdrawal from all the occupied territories.