The Right to Intervene

It is true that most of the Israeli public supported Sharon, Abu Mazen stated, "but if we had sat and negotiated, the Israeli public would have kicked out Sharon as it kicked out Netanyahu, because it would have discovered that Sharon has nothing substantive to offer."

"Did you notice that there were very few supporters of the Israeli right at the memorial gathering for Yitzhak Rabin?" This was one of the arguments adduced by the Jordanian publicist Mahmoud a-Rimawi in a trenchant article he published alongside a piece by another publicist, Abd al-Wahhab Badrahan, in which they examined the new political direction Israel may take with the appearance in the arena of Amram Mitzna, the newly elected leader of the Labor Party.

These debaters, like their colleagues in the majority of the Arab media, are always equipped with statistical data taken from the latest opinion polls in Israel and offer subtle observations about the behavior of the country's politicians. The major thrust of the disagreement between them is no longer whether Mitzna, as head of Labor, is different from every other Israeli leader. It is about how far he will be able to realize his vision. From their point of view, he is a hope that requires proof. Not as a person or even as a leader, but as a litmus test for Israeli society.

It might have seemed that in a routine zero-sum game - in which what's good for Israelis is bad for Arabs - the Palestinians should be keeping silent at a time like this. In fact, it is hard to think of a demand that shows less understanding of the situation than that which insists that the Palestinians not intervene in the Israeli elections. Because if there is an opportunity to stop the intifada and move to the negotiating table, quiet cannot have a role. The possible consequences of the Arabs' bear-hug of Mitzna does not worry the Palestinians more than their melancholy plight. "When the Israeli public is the prisoner of slogans and when our situation is beyond collapse, there is no more room for political manipulations concerning how and when to speak," says a senior figure in the Palestinian Authority. "If Mitzna is the hope, we have to say so aloud."

Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), considered the No. 2 figure in the Palestinian Authority, second only to Chairman Yasser Arafat, could not have been more pungent or more clear last week when he spoke to young Fatah activists in Gaza: "We must say enough [to the intifada], to ask what we have accomplished in these two years ... How can we say that the nation is standing firm when people in Gaza demonstrate because they don't have food to eat?"

He also sharply attacked the participation of Israel's Arab citizens in the intifada: "They have particularly harmed the right of return. After all, the Israelis will say: We don't want more Arabs like these." They have the power to elect governments and topple them, Abu Mazen said, and if they had turned out properly in the last elections they would have had between 15 and 18 Knesset members.

Abu Mazen and the majority of the Arab publicists are trying to build on what Israel has long since forgotten. They are trying once more to draw a line of separation between the leadership and the public in Israel. It is true that most of the Israeli public supported Sharon "to the point where he became the most important Zionist leader since Herzl," Abu Mazen stated, "but if we had sat and negotiated [instead of launching the intifada], the Israeli public would have kicked out Sharon as it kicked out [Benjamin] Netanyahu, because it would have discovered that Sharon has nothing substantive to offer."

It is unlikely that Abu Mazen's remarks will have any impact on the elections in Israel. His speech may yet end up as part of an election broadcast by the Likud or the Tekuma party, as evidence of the success of the policy of force. Israel's propaganda victory in portraying the entire Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian public as terrorists has eliminated any possibility of paying heed to other voices among the Palestinians.

It is also doubtful whether Palestinian terrorist groups will be influenced by Abu Mazen's words. The attack in Beit She'an on Thursday was further proof of the fierce internal debate between those organizations and the current that Abu Mazen represents. It would appear, though, that the Palestinians (and the Arabs in general) are now adopting a new-old rule: with Israel becoming a binational state, part of which is occupied and part liberated, they, too, have the right to intervene in the Israeli election campaign and try to influence policy that affects them.