The heavy rains last Wednesday didn’t just disrupt traffic. The stormy weather did its work and only a few hundred people showed up in Ramallah for the ceremony marking the seventh anniversary of the death of former Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat.
The organizers, who understood that stormy weather was expected, decided to hold the event this year in a basketball arena in a youth sports center in the al-Tira neighborhood. Fatah leaders stood there to hear PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's successor, quote the date of November 23 for his summit meeting with the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Meshal. At this point, it appears that the two will agree to hold parliamentary and presidential elections in May 2012 and the appointment of a prime minister who is not Salam Fayyad.
Abbas refrained from addressing his political plans on Wednesday, but in light of past statements that he does not intend to run in the next presidential election, we can assume that Abbas, 76, will ask to retire after seven years in office.
Quite a bit has been said about the comparison between Abbas and Arafat. While Israel claimed that Arafat could reach peace but did not want to, Abbas, it has been argued, cannot reach peace. After gaining some strength and status in the West Bank, Abbas turned in the eyes of the current Israeli government to "not wanting and not able" to reach peace.
Even more so, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman made Abbas into the great enemy of the peace process. Lieberman unintentionally strengthened Abbas in the eyes of the Palestinians. It may be too early to eulogize Abbas politically. He is tired and worn out and has made clear that he does not want another term as president but, in light of Fatah's problematic political situation, one can assume that great pressure will be placed on him that may change his position and turn him into the leading candidate for the presidency.
Various sources, both in Fatah and in Egypt, emphasized this week to "Haaretz" that Abbas is not going anywhere yet. And yet, Abbas is known as a man who sticks to his decisions. Obstinate, for better or worse. This was the case in the statehood appeal to the UN and also on the matter of resuming talks with the Israeli government. Only in recent weeks has it become clear that Fatah is preparing for elections and that Abbas does not intend to run for the presidency. The implications of such a decision may not be simple for Israel.
Bank of names
The variety of scenarios that could occur in democratic elections without Abbas does not bode well. First of all, it is not clear if Israel will permit the holding of elections, particularly in East Jerusalem. If Israel prevents elections, it will absorb harsh international criticism. But if elections are held, there is always a chance that Hamas will win, not just the parliament but also the presidency. It is not clear what Israel would then do - we're indeed speaking about the democratic decision of an entire people.
Hamas' chances to win parliamentary elections are not great right now. Polls show that Fatah has the advantage, even after the completion of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange deal. Still, the momentum that began with the release of the first 477 prisoners out of the 1,027 will only accelerate after the completion of the deal and the three rounds of Egyptian parliamentary elections.
It can be presumed that a significant achievement for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, after the victory of the Al-Nahda party in Tunisia, would be cast on Hamas in Palestinian public opinion and create the sense of a new era in the Middle East. The Arab Spring would turn into the "Islamic Winter".
The most acute problem for Fatah is on the matter of its candidate for the presidency. For now, there is no consensus candidate other than Abbas. The most likely scenario is that the leadership of Fatah, realizing that negotiations with Israel are at a stalemate (at least until the U.S. presidential elections on November 2012), will support the most popular candidate – Marwan Barghouti, "Prisoner Number One".
According to associates, Barghouti plans to run in any event, even if Abbas runs for another term. The chances for the former Tanzim leader to be elected are good, assuming that he is Fatah's consensus candidate against Hamas PM Ismail Haniyeh. But this will be an oppositional candidacy only, meant primarily to bring about the release of Barghouti and not to promote Palestinian interests or shorten the path to statehood. It can be speculated that in the event of a Barghouti victory, Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will do everything possible to prevent his release. In their eyes, Barghouti is a convicted murderer who in the past often expressed support for acts of terrorism.
The problem is that Abbas, who has denounced violence, is viewed by Netanyahu and Lieberman as the biggest obstacle to peace. In between, there are several less likely options. For example, an agreement of all movements within the Palestine Liberation Organization, in particular Fatah, on one candidate - current PM Salam Fayyad. But given all the resentment towards Fayyad within Fatah, this is scenario does not seem particularly likely.
Another possibility is that Fatah leaders will find an agreed upon candidate, like after the death of Arafat. The chairman of the Palestinian Olympic committee and soccer association Jibril Rajoub may be one candidate and the group will give him all the support and infrastructure to be elected. But the practice that worked in the 2005 elections, when Hamas did not present a candidate against Abbas, could fail this time if Haniyeh is a candidate.
Drizzle in Gaza
This week, the first shipment of a furniture factory in the Gaza Strip was supposed to be exported abroad via Israel. On Monday, someone set fire to the furniture factory causing much damage. Quite a few elements in Gaza are not happy with the relative quiet with Israel nor with the Israeli defense establishment's efforts to improve the Gaza economy. These elements are interested in escalation and this continued to be evident this week, including a drizzle of rockets fired at southern Israel. One of the rockets fell in a kindergarten at a kibbutz in Sha'ar Hanegev. One can guess that if children had been there at the time, the incident would have received greater consideration from the decision makers in Israel's defense establishment.
Islamic Jihad seems to be the organization leading the effort to cause escalation. IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz spoke at the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday and succeeded in causing a small storm. Gantz said what many understand.
"Recent rounds of escalated violence and the injury of both lives and the daily routine of citizens of Israel's south are leading to a reality in which the IDF will have to take significant, aggressive action in the Gaza Strip," he said. "This process needs to be initiated and orderly."
Gantz said that the next operation in Gaza would be shorter than Operation Cast Lead, but more violent. Also last November, on the verge of release from the IDF, Gantz said in an interview with "Haaretz" that he believed that Gaza would be the arena of Israel's next conflict.
It seems that Gant's words were meant for Hamas leaders, trying to let them know that they could pay the price for Islamic Jihad's unruly behavior in Gaza. According to various intelligence estimates, Islamic Jihad currently has a significant supply of rockets, some of which can reach central Israel.
According to information in Israel, Islamic Jihad also has Fajr missiles. But unlike Hamas, which also has a significant arsenal of rockets and missiles, Islamic Jihad has no interest in maintaining the quiet in Gaza and to some extent is interested in causing escalation with Israel, especially in light of Iran's desire for a violent conflict.
It should be emphasized that Israel has not yet made decisions regarding Gaza. An IDF operation in Gaza is not a simple matter. Gantz may have a plan for a shorter operation than Cast Lead but no one can guarantee that this will be the end result of a massive ground operation in Gaza, certainly not if rockets fall in the Tel Aviv area.
Major General (res.) Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's political-security branch, gave a speech on Monday at Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center and said that it has been years since Israel's security situation was so good. Gilad was quick to qualify his statement, however, explaining that there were never so many thick and heavy clouds on the horizon.
Gilad also discussed the situation in Syria. He described Syrian President Bashar Assad's attempts to get through the revolution attempt as a man moving forward with a machete while cutting his fingers off. That description is indeed appropriate for Assad's situation. Assad, who believed that he could survive the "Syrian Spring" by brutally and violently repressing opponents, is only creating more and more opponents, except in the Alawite sect, and is "shrinking himself to ethnic dimensions", Gilad said.
Developments this week illustrate this. Several armed opposition groups stormed an Air Force intelligence base firing anti-tank rockets and light weapons. This is another step in Syria's civil war and it seems that no action taken by Assad's loyalists can turn back the clock. It is no longer a question of "if", but rather "when" Assad's regime will collapse and a number of people in Syria will be killed before that happens. Gilad said that Assad still controls the army, but that it is not the same level of control as before and that the number of deserters grows every day.
Gilad talked at length about the Iranian threat and recommended that the threats of the Iranian regime to destroy Israel be believed. Gilad also presented his take on the desire of the Muslim Brotherhood to take control in the region and expand the organization's influence. He noted, however, that Palestinian security forces operate with great determination against Hamas and its terrorist infrastructure.
Gilad reiterated that there are heavy clouds on the horizon, but at least on some things, unlike the weather, Israel has the practical ability to influence.
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