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IDSA COMMENT

Upcoming Elections in Israel and Palestine

January 23, 2006

Two very important elections are set to take place in Israel and in the Palestinian territories - the Israeli Legislative Elections on March 28 and the Palestinian Parliamentary elections for the Legislative Council on January 25. Both events are beset with equal amounts of tension, confusion and turmoil, resulting in extremely strained run up to the elections.

Israel is bracing itself for an election in which the main contender, Ariel Sharon, will be unable to participate due to a sudden stroke, which has hurled Israeli politics in a pit of lingering uncertainty. Though Israelis are known for their resilience and are used to such uncertainties, the present situation is proving to be extremely arduous for them. Sharon, who had become a colossus in Israeli politics in the past few years, has been in the limelight ever since he decided to disengage from the Gaza Strip in mid-August 2004. The Disengagement Plan, which eventually resulted in rifts in the ruling Likud party, led to his resignation in December 2005 and pushed him to form a new centrist party called Kadima (Forward). His stroke and failing health have not only left Sharon but also the entire nation paralysed, presaging his departure from Israel's political scenario.

Who will succeed Sharon? What direction would Israel-Palestine relations take under a new leader? Will Sharon's exit from Israeli politics usher in an era of more hostility, more uncertainty or a combination of the two? Amongst these obscurities, one aspect is clear: Sharon's successor will not only have external problems to deal with but will primarily have to fill the vacuum created by his departure. The first on the list among Sharon's successors is the former Deputy Prime Minister and now acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who while temporarily replacing Sharon simultaneously faces the near-impossible demanding task of stepping into his shoes. Lacking the personal and political charisma that Sharon exuded, Olmert's main concern is about losing out to the hawkish Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

But recent polls conducted by Israeli newspapers Haaretz and Maariv found that Kadima, led by Olmert, could take 44 to 45 seats in Israel's 120-member parliament, its strongest showing so far. The polls also predicted that the centre-left Labour Party under Amir Peretz would get 16 to18, seats while the Likud led by Netanyahu would fall to third place with 13 to15 seats.

However, Israeli public opinion tends to undulate and the results of these polls can be attributed to the Israeli public's sympathy for Sharon and hence could subsequently change in course of time. As a majority of Israelis believed strongly in Sharon and saw him as the only leader who could take action suited to Israeli interests while at the same time placating the international community as well, it will take some time for them to accept a change in Israel's political leadership.
Thus, there are three political scenarios that can unfold after the coming elections. The first, as suggested by the polls, is the Kadima winning and Olmert becoming the Prime Minister. It is clear from Olmert's previous and present political actions that he will simply continue Sharon's political agenda. The second scenario could be Netanyahu taking over the leadership and subsequently implementing his hawkish policies. The third and most unlikely probability is the Labour leader Amir Peretz coming to power and reformulating the current political agenda, i.e. shifting the emphasis from security to socio-economic issues.

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Palestinians, on the other hand, are not without their share of turmoil, tension and challenges as they head towards elections this week. Even though the reasons for their predicament might differ from those of the Israelis, the rampant and raging sentiments felt by both have quite an uncanny resemblance. The main cause of concern here is the fear of outbreak of a civil war between the ruling Fatah party and the Islamic group Hamas. Hamas, which is participating for the first time in elections in the Occupied Territories, thrives not only on widespread grassroots support but has also benefited substantially from Fatah's incompetence and failure in governing and administering the territories efficiently. Fatah, which is ridden with corruption, nepotism and internal strife has lost considerable support amongst the Palestinians and is thus walking a tight rope in sustaining its credibility as the sole political force. It has to work extremely hard to revamp the party and vindicate itself as much as it can from corruption and internal problems. In addition, it faces internal divisions as the younger guard (who are also more radical) within the party registered their own list of candidates for the elections. Marwan Barghouti, who led the second Intifadaa and is currently serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison, heads the younger guard.

Hamas's popularity was clearly exhibited when it won a sweeping victory in the municipal elections in the West Bank in December 2005. The Palestinian electoral commission said that Hamas took 73 per cent of the vote in Nablus (the biggest city in the Occupied Territories), while the mainstream Fatah organisation obtained only 13 per cent. This clearly shows that Hamas has its roots strongly and deeply embedded in the West Bank as well as in the Gaza Strip and is all set to enter the Palestinian political establishment.

Fatah is not the only party that is deeply concerned about Hamas's popularity and decision to contest elections. Israel too shares the same sentiments and is highly skeptical of a terrorist group becoming part of the government. Hamas, which is on the list of terrorist organizations of many countries including that of the US, is being compelled by them to disarm and give up violence if it wants to become a legitimate political player. Hamas's decision to take part in the elections (it had refused to participate in the 1996 elections because of its opposition to the Oslo Accords) clearly represents a strategic rather than a mere tactical shift. Also, its recent decision to drop its call for Israel's destruction from its manifesto clearly indicates that it is serious about its future as a political player in Palestinian politics.

And by coupling their electoral participation with armed struggle, which it vows to continue against Israel, Hamas will create a major shift in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Thus, it is quite likely that a political infrastructure with Hamas, Fatah and smaller parties might be formed.

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However, an Israel without Sharon and a Palestine with Hamas could cause major changes not just in Israeli and Palestinian domestic politics but at the regional level as well. If Ehud Olmert wins and the Kadima comes to power then one would see the continuation of Sharon's unfinished political agenda. But if the hawkish Netanyahu - who strongly opposed Sharon's Disengagement and believes that Land can only be given to the Palestinians in exchange for Peace, which according to him the Israelis are not getting - comes to power than one is likely to witness stronger and more stringent measures imposed upon the Palestinians. Although the participation of Hamas has been troubling to some governments, most believe that their inclusion in the political process could lead to a softening of their hard line stance. Thus a Hamas versus Netanyahu scenario would be something neither the Israelis and Palestinians nor the Americans the international community would prefer. But it seems that such a scenario could become a reality soon, a reality for which Israel and the United States must get prepared for very soon.