They Want Mitzna to Bring the Nightmare to an End

The Palestinians see Ariel Sharon as a failure, and they have no faith in their own leaders. So they foster the illusion that Labor's candidate will be elected and make a difference.

Elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council were to have been held two days ago. The date was set in the summer, at a time when the Palestinian Authority representatives were involved - under close European and American supervision - in preparations for reforms in the Palestinian Authority, of which the elections were viewed as the most important element.

The rest is history: Israel had no intention of allowing the elections to be held, the United States backed Israel, the Israel Defense Forces deployed in all the Palestinian cities and the continued policy of closure made it impossible for the Palestinians to challenge the Israeli refusal and hold elections - some say not to the great sorrow of the Palestinian leadership.

But the Palestinian public, so it seems, is taking a greater interest in the elections for Israel's Knesset than in its own chances of electing representatives to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). This interest is not new. Many Palestinians, not only political activists, have long been interested in and very familiar with Israeli politics, candidates, the results of surveys, internal disputes, almost as if they themselves had the right to vote for the Israeli Knesset.

They know who Rabbi Kadouri is, have in the past expressed their opinion on the imprisonment of Aryeh Deri and can weigh comments made by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef against those of Tommy Lapid. This is a clear indication of the extent to which the Palestinians hear and watch Israeli radio and television, far more so than they listen to and watch the Palestinian media. They are part of the Arab world, which takes an interest in Israeli politics. Thus, for example, when the Likud held its primaries, Al Jazeera broadcast direct from the election headquarters for 12 hours - the terror attacks in Beit She'an and Kenya came in addition to live broadcasts but did not detract from the broadcasts on the elections.

But this is also an indication of the conventional wisdom that hold that the elections in Israel affect the lives and future of the Palestinians more than any internal Palestinian elections. If this was true during the Oslo years, it is all the more so now, at a time when no end to the bloody conflict is in sight.

The Mitzna illusion

Almost without exception, Palestinians begin every conversation with the question: "Does Amram Mitzna have any chance of winning?"

Everyone - smiling secretaries in the offices of Paltel (the Palestinian telephone company), the greengrocer who has relatives in an Israeli village, the psychologist who treats children for trauma, a member of the Preventive Security Force who spent 15 years in an Israeli jail, the shopkeeper who bought his grocery with the money he saved in the United States. Some do not even bother to wait for an answer and respond on their own: "Isn't it logical for Israelis to vote for Mitzna after Sharon failed to bring them peace and security?"

During the days when the media was full of reports on Cyril Kern's loan to Sharo, people in Ramallah and Gaza were convinced that was that - finally the moment when the tables would be turned and everything would change.

When told in no uncertain terms that Mitzna has no chance, and that Sharon's popularity remains unchanged, they continue, disappointed: "You mean, we cannot expect a change in the near future? The closure will continue?" And then they check out the rumors making the rounds: Is it true that there will be a curfew until and on election day? Is it true that if the United States declares war on Iraq, a curfew will be imposed on all the territories, like in 1991?

"I understand that the public needs this illusion of a Mitzna victory," says a senior Palestinian journalist, "especially in the expectation that under Mitzna, the closure and siege of all the villages and towns will be called off. This closure causes people indescribable suffering. If it is removed, they are convinced that the support for terror attacks will immediately go down along with the number of attempts to harm Israeli civilians. But what concerns me is that even at the official levels, there are those who are grasping at this illusion. I have not come across a single Palestinian official who did not believe that the story of the loan to Sharon would not have a positive effect on Mitzna's chances of winning."

At the same time, Jabril Rajoub, former Preventive Security Force chief, was attempting to dispel the cloud of illusion blinding some of his Fatah comrades and make it clear to them that Sharon would be the next Israeli prime minister. Perhaps his removal from the circle of power has increased his range of vision about what is happening in Israel. When Labor elected Mitzna as its chief, the representatives of the Palestinian Authority did not hide their satisfaction, and celebrated as if he had been elected prime minister of Israel. The derisive responses from Israel taught them that Mitzna would not benefit if the Palestinian leadership openly expressed its support for him, and apparently in the past few months, the leadership has toned down its public expression of support.

Senior officials in the PA and the PLO, after they "admit" that "their candidate" has no chances, point to various and sundry Israeli opinion polls to prove that the majority of Israelis support the return of the territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state. They find it hard to believe that it is possible that the public supports Sharon, but their interpretation of Israeli public opinion makes it possible for them to hold on to the hope/illusion/calculation that ultimately, the change will come from the only possible place it can come - Israel. Some adhere to the illusion of change coming from without: Even if Sharon is elected, after the war against Iraq, he will begin to fulfill those articles that he finds convenient from the Quartet "road map."

Even if that is far off, the thought shows the extent to which the Palestinian Authority is still holding on to the illusion that the situation can be reversed in a way that would assure the status of its officials and reinstate the Oslo process.

Arafat's phobias

Arafat is currently haunted by two phobias, says the senior Palestinian journalist. One is that "the Palestinians will pay the price of the war in Iraq." Arafat talks in obscure terms, but is spreading this fear. "Perhaps he is thinking about himself, his own personal fate, but for him the fate of the Palestinians and his own fate are one and the same."

The second fear spread by Palestinian Authority figures is that Sharon will carry out some kind of military escalation in the days just before the election in order to increase his support on election day.

This assumption even reached a fifth grade in a Ramallah school. Ten-year-old "L" says her math teacher told the class that next week, "Sharon will kill a senior Palestinian Authority figure." The teacher, says the girl, was quoting from a newspaper. And it will happen, says the girl, "so that Sharon would win in the elections." The girl did not seem particularly frightened. She admits: "I was more interested in the second thing the teacher told us - that next year there would no longer be any bananas, or that they would be very expensive."

The widespread hope that Mitzna will be elected prime minister may indicate that the Palestinian public does not buy the position of the Palestinian opposition, especially the Islamic one, that there is no difference between the large Israeli parties, Labor and Likud.

But it shows, in particular, just how much people need to hold on to their illusions and outside factors, and do not believe that any change can come from within Palestinian society, Palestinian politics or the ways in which the Palestinian Authority is contending with the Israeli occupation.

The need for illusion is an indication of the sense of helplessness and passivity of the public and the Palestinian Authority compared to individuals who are not passive: the Islamic organizations. In Gaza, for example, the security apparatuses dare not arrest Islamic leaders, who continue their belligerent cries against Israel and the U.S. Any attempt to arrest them would lead to riots and anti-PA protests. There is no political life at present in the Palestinian Authority. The National-Islamic Committee (the umbrella organization of all the political organizations calling for intifada political action) planned to hold a series of protests three days ago against the war with Iraq. But when the organizers realized there was no possibility of organizing a reasonable number of demonstrators in each city, the initiative fell apart.

The Palestinians know, says a journalist, they have no influence on Palestinian politics, in contrast to the Israelis, who are able to replace the Israeli political leadership. The Palestinians know that they have no influence at all on the Palestinian leadership.

"They have given all they can and all they are getting out of it is one catastrophe after another. As a result, all they have left is to dream."