There is symbolism in the near simultaneity of the two government crises - the Israeli one that is now at its height and the Palestinian one that is nearing its conclusion. It underscores the degree to which these two national societies, which live together in one land in a relationship of occupier to occupied, influence each other. The Palestinian uprising of October 2000, which quickly degenerated into an armed conflict between two unequal forces, united the majority of Israelis behind their government's military policies - including the imprisonment of a majority of Palestinians in their own towns and the imposition of curfews on hundreds of thousands of people. But the economic crisis sparked by the uprising, and by Israel's military policies, also finally provoked some public debate in Israel about the settlements. This development is very belated - for during the Oslo years, Palestinian representatives tried repeatedly to warn their Israeli counterparts about the grave dangers of continuing settlement construction and thereby limiting opportunities for Palestinian development.
The game of musical chairs now being played in Yasser Arafat's cabinet is a direct result of European and American pressure to reform the Palestinian regime. But sources in Arafat's Fatah movement say he has once again succeeded over the last few days in extorting a promise to vote confidence in the new cabinet from even the most critical Fatah members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). In addition to offering various kinds of personal inducements, he has done this by harping on the tune of loyalty to the "great father." PLC members from Gaza admit that they are praying Israel will not permit them to attend the session: At a greater distance from Arafat, it will be easier for them to vote in opposition to his urgings. But in the end, even if many Palestinians believe the cabinet changes are cosmetic, the true test of the Palestinian Authority in the eyes of both the United States and Israel is not the independence of the rule of law, but rather the success of the rehabilitated Palestinian security services in executing the security missions that Israel assigns them.
For this reason, said participants at a conference this past Monday on new Palestinian elections (sponsored by the PLC's parliamentary research unit with assistance from Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation), the elections that are slated to take place for the council will be far more interesting than Arafat's juggling of his cabinet. With creative people to plan the election campaign, it will be possible to use it as a tool for political and civil empowerment, a kind of nonviolent popular uprising against the Israeli occupation, and as an acid test for representatives of Fatah and the PA. Western nations who are insisting on reform will not be able to ignore the logic behind the demand to hold free elections - free not only of internal threats but primarily of intimidation by tanks and restrictions on freedom of movement. They will also be unable to ignore the demand to hold elections in East Jerusalem as well. If Israel forbids this, it is possible that the vote will be conducted via Internet centers in the eastern part of the city.
At the conference, several participants noted angrily that Arafat has never instituted changes in response to popular pressure. Long before the European criticism began, Palestinian activists both inside and outside the PLC had exposed and attacked the serious evils of the "patriarchal" regime, in which the ruler's word and the activities of the security services are above the law, and in which various types of benefits are distributed to individuals and classes in exchange for their support of the Oslo accords. Arafat, the PA and Fatah failed to prove to their people during the Oslo years that the diplomatic process heralded a concrete improvement in their lives on the road to independence. The continuation of the settlement and closure policies - even though these largely disappeared from the Israeli consciousness - are what stood at the root of the frustration and disappointment with the path of negotiations.
Between 1994 and 2000, the combination of an authoritarian-paternalistic regime at home, which relied on enticements and intimidation to preserve its power, and diplomatic negotiations that, in the eyes of the Palestinian public, failed to end the Israeli occupation, have merely strengthened the link in people's minds between the "corruption" of the Palestinian regime and "the process of reconciliation with Israel." The Hamas movement depends on this linkage and has profited from it.
Activists in the Palestine Liberation Organization thus believe there is a good chance that Hamas will participate in the upcoming elections for the PLC. The clear sympathy that this movement enjoys, especially in Gaza, feeds off a foolproof mixture of glowing promises, alongside the PA's failed promises, a willingness for self-sacrifice, the image of "clean" politicians (in contrast to the "corrupt" politicians of Fatah) and the terror attacks - which are viewed as acts of heroism and self-sacrifice. Hamas' participation in the elections, which will take place in the shadow of Israel's military policies, will present a challenge not only to Fatah but also to those in the West who are demanding Palestinian reform, and particularly the United States. Will they conclude that Arafat's tricks (and Israeli tanks in Palestinian cities) are preferable to democratic elections, without which any talk of reform is meaningless? The PA and the Western nations can only hope the hardliners in Hamas overrule the pragmatic elements and veto participation in the elections.
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