Palestinians, Israelis on explosive collision course

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — The issue of Hamas’ participation in Palestinian parliamentary elections seems set to put Israel and the Palestinians on a potentially explosive collision course. And Tuesday’s statement by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the issue only served to provide both sides with support for their respective positions.
At a news conference in New York on Tuesday after a meeting of the Quartet members on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Rice reiterated the US view that there was a “fundamental contradiction” between Hamas’ armed activities and its plan to run in January’s legislative polls.

That has already been seized upon by Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom as support for Israel’s position opposing Hamas running in the elections. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had, during his visit to the US this past week, angered Palestinians by suggesting that Israel would not aid Palestinian elections in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in terms of freedom of movement and an easing of checkpoints should Hamas run. On Wednesday, however, Shalom solidified that position further and told Israel Radio that “we will not allow the Hamas to take part in the elections.”

“From our standpoint, there will be no assistance and no aid [granted to the Palestinian Authority during the elections] if Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel, which still refuses to recognise the existence of Israel, participates in the elections.”

But Rice went on in her statement, something the PA will focus on.

“We understand that the Palestinian political system is in transition, that it is in transition towards a democratic system and that that has to be a Palestinian process… I think we have to give the Palestinians some room for the evolution of their political process,” the chief US diplomat said.

Palestinian officials had already dismissed Sharon’s statements about Hamas as “unacceptable interference” in internal affairs, in the words of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Information Nabil Shaath on September 18, and President Mahmoud Abbas expressed a similar sentiment in a meeting with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on the same day.

In reaction to Shalom’s comments yesterday, Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri told The Jordan Times that “Palestinian elections are an internal Palestinian affair and neither Israel nor anyone else has any right to interfere. We reject any external interference and these Israeli statements against Hamas.” Indeed, continued Abu Zuhri, any attempt to prevent Hamas from running would not only “not weaken Hamas, but would strengthen the armed resistance.”

The Israeli position puts the PA in a very tight spot. Hamas were vocally opposed to the delay in parliamentary elections that were supposed to have been held in July. Any attempt at delaying elections again or preventing Hamas from running could have serious repercussions for the current ceasefire.

While a disunited Fateh faction might welcome a further delay in elections, in which it is widely predicted to only just come out on top against its rival, it could never be seen to in any way go along with such a proposal. Abu Zuhri, pointedly, said Hamas expects a “strong national position to back its own.”

Furthermore, Abbas has consistently rejected prodding by the international community to act to forcibly disarm Hamas or any of the other factions, arguing that such a move could lead to civil war and an end to the ceasefire. While he has said that there can only be “one authority, one gun,” his position is predicated on bringing Hamas into the fold rather than confronting it.

But Israel’s position, according to analyst Gerald Steinberg of Bar Ilan University, is a matter of “core principles,” even if he acknowledges that preventing Hamas from running could lead to an end of the current calm.

“There is no room to negotiate over this, it’s a black and white issue. The idea that Hamas can remain an armed organisation and a state within a state and also become part of the mainstream is not tenable. Either Hamas maintains its status or it disarms and accepts the concept of legitimacy that Abu Mazen framed in terms of one authority and one gun.”

But legitimacy is exactly what the Palestinian side will tout as the reason to bring Hamas into the fold via elections.

“Israel cannot claim to stand for democratic values and be the `only democracy’ in the Middle East and then at the same time go against the very essence of democratic principles,” said analyst Hisham Ahmed of Birzeit University. “Israel wants democracy only insofar as it tallies with its interests.”

Indeed, the Israeli position, “if and when” parliamentary elections are held, “will only serve to make Hamas more popular, says Ahmed, predicting a protest vote for Hamas even from people who do not support the Islamist parties.

It is unlikely that there will be any softening of the Israeli stance at least as long as Sharon is facing primaries in his own party, the Likud, and his own political future is uncertain. Similarly, Abbas will find it very difficult to postpone elections again or in any way act to prevent Hamas from running, even if he wanted to. The issue thus is at an impasse that could prove very damaging in the next few months.

“This is a very serious matter. If Israel takes action on the ground to prevent elections this could have very serious ramifications for the prevailing calm and even for Palestinian attitudes towards holding elections in general,” said Ahmed.

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