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Israel and Palestine after the elections of 2006

Added on October 4, 2006
President Abbas declared that Fatah's negotiations with Hamas for a government of national unity have definitively failed. The reason: At the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York City at the end of September, Abbas said that Hamas would recognize Israel. Subsequently, Hamas declared that this was not the case, that Hamas was not ready to recognize Israel.

Article added on April 4, 2006 (updated on April 7, 2006)
The 2006 Palestinian (article in French) and Israeli elections have brought major changes to the political landscape of the Middle East. Although the signs so far are not very encouraging, with Hamas not ready to recognize Israel, a suicide bomber blowing himself up and killing four Israelis, Qassam rockets regularly fired at the Negev and Israeli military forces retaliating as well as Hamas and Fatah close to a civil war. However, a crisis is always a chance to rethink past and present policies, it is a chance for change and in the case of the Middle East a chance for peace.

According to Haaretz, Hamas has so far abstained from terror attacks. It remains to be seen if they will be able and willing to hinder organizations such as the Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Fatah and "rogue" Fatah cells from attacking Israel and carrying out suicide assassinations.

Israel has withdrawn from Gaza while Kadima as well as other political forces seem ready to continue the unilateral steps of withdrawing from other occupied territories. At the same time, both Israel and the United States boycott the new Hamas government, since they are unwilling to accept the right of existence of the state of Israel.

The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) won a absolute majority of 76 out of 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament in the general election in Palestine on January 25, 2006. Therefore, the radical Islamists enjoy now an unknown legitimacy. This is almost tragic since, after the death of Arafat and the second cerebral attack of Sharon, two of the major obstacles to a durable peace had been "eliminated". And then this surprising vote, partly a protest again the corrupt Fatah and partly a deliberate choice.

Before falling into a coma, Sharon had engaged himself with a unilateral withdrawal policy that many observers interpreted as a new policy of peace. However, it is wise to be cautious. It could well have been a simple tactical maneuver, giving up Gaza in order to keep the West Bank and East-Jerusalem, to sabotage the "Middle East roadmap" as well as the peace process and the creation of a Palestinian state. That was exactly how Sharon's close adviser Dov Weissglas presented in 2004 the then prime minister's strategy. We will never if the dynamics of withdrawing would have driven Sharon to go farther than initially intended. Anyhow, it remains a fact that only a man of the reputation of "the bulldozer" was able push Israeli politics in a new direction. Today, most political forces openly declare to give up additional territories for peace, East-Jerusalem included.

Founded in 1987 from different movements and associations of the (Sunni) Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement from Egypt, Hamas denounced the 1993 Oslo Accords for peace and, until today, does not recognize the right of existence of the state of Israel. Hamas first rose to prominence during the first Intifada, after which it radicalized itself and carried out numerous suicide attacks against Israeli civilians in their territory as well as by the assassination of Palestinians suspected to collaborate with the "enemy". Initially, the Israeli government tolerated Hamas, hoping it would act as a counterbalance to the PLO and its leader Arafat.

Since Hamas advocates the creation of a state of Palestine on the territory of the historic Palestine, which includes the territory of Israel and therefore implies the destruction of the state of Israel, the Israeli authorities quickly adopted a policy of non-recognition, repression and even killing key-figures of Hamas. On March 2003 for instance, the Israeli army killed the paralytic founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and on April 17, 2004 his successor, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi as head of Hamas was also killed.

Since "the fish stinks from the head", eliminating the masterminds of unacceptable policies may have made some sense in the mind of some Israeli politicians in the past. However, Israel's policy towards the Palestinian Authority as a whole was not constructive and lacked credibility. Now that Hamas have democratically won the Palestinian elections, they have a clear mandate to govern. This is not crisis, but a chance for Hamas to change.

Under the influence of then prime minister Ariel Sharon, the US government considered Hamas a terrorist organization. This position was later shared by the European Union. In order to avoid a deadlock, both parties must change. It is evident that Hamas, which yesterday advocated the destruction of the state of Israel, cannot change its attitude overnight if it does not want to lose its credibility among its supporters. However, during the election campaign, they proved that they have a substantial influence on Palestinians to the point of being able to stop suicide attacks. Furthermore, let's not forget that some Israeli leaders of the past have carried out terrorist attacks themselves during the British mandate over Palestine. In certain circumstances, today's terrorist or freedom fighter may become tomorrow's statesman. The cease-fire and de-facto "tolerance" of the state of Israel is a first step that should not be underestimated. It remains to be seen if Hamas can control or influence other organizations such as Fatah, the Islamic Jihad or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In recent days, the attempt to push Fatah and others to disarm has failed.

The electoral victory of Hamas on January 25, 2006 reflected the Palestinians disenchantment with Fatah, whose government was inefficient and corrupt. The Palestinian Authority (PA) needs Israel in order to be able to govern Palestine, which is not a viable state. It depends on foreign aid. In 2005, the European Union gave 500 million Euros to the PA. Many Palestinians still live in refugee camps, where the unemployment rate reaches 50%. People in despair and with no perspective are easy targets for extremists. Constructive action is needed. Many Palestinians depend on Israelis as employers. In daily life, regarding water and electricity, collecting custom duties and other vital services, Palestine depends on the cooperation of Israel. They will have to find a modus vivendi. Furthermore, Hamas has to proof the following to its electorate: that it is able to make the passage from a terrorist group to a political party, that it is competent and able to improve the life of ordinary Palestinians and will be able to eliminate the omnipresent corruption under the Fatah regime.

We can only hope that after a few months of rhetorical fireworks, both Hamas and the new Israeli government (probably led by Kadima) will find constructive ways of living together. After a period of mutual tolerance, Palestinians and Israelis could reach a mutual recognition, which will offer durable peace and prosperity in the region. There is no alternative. Otherwise, Palestine risks a civil war, Israel and Palestine an open conflict with each other as well as the implication of other regional and even extra-continental forces. The Israeli elections of March 28, 2006 have shown that people are exhausted. They are ready to renounce further territories in exchange for peace. Palestinians want a viable state. This is a chance, not a crisis.

Results of the elections to the 17th Knesset held on March 28, 2006: Kadima 29 seats, Labor 19, Likud 12, Shas 12, Yisrael Beiteinu 11, the National Union-National Religious Party 9, Gil (pensioners) 7, United Torah Judaism 6, Meretz 5, United Arab List/Arab Renewal 4, Hadash 3, and the National Democratic Assembly 3.

Added on April 7, 2006: The U.S. cuts $300 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority, and the EU decided to freeze payments to the PA because the Hamas led Palestinian government has neither recognized Israel's right to exist nor renounced violence. Hamas's charter still officially calls for Israel's destruction.

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