Support for Hamas soars


A new poll shows growing support for the Islamist Hamas movement in both the West Bank and Gaza. If the elections were held today, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would beat Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

The poll, by veteran pollster Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, found that 48 percent of the electorate in both the West Bank and Gaza would vote for Haniyeh, and 45 percent for Abbas. Just three months ago, a similar poll predicted a victory for Abbas, with 51 percent support over Haniyeh’s 40 percent. The poll showed Haniyeh as the most popular he has been since 2008.

“It’s a moment of happiness and popularity for Hamas, and a moment of challenge for Abbas,” Bassem Ezbidi, a professor of political science at Birzeit University told The Media Line. “Hamas is using its 'victory' in its recent war with Israel to enhance its status.”

Last month, Israel and Hamas fought for eight days during which Hamas launched hundreds of rockets at Israel and Israel responded with punishing airstrikes. The fighting ended with a cease-fire that has so far been observed by both sides. Hamas has said it proved itself as equal to Israel despite the Jewish state’s vastly larger military.

Abbas has focused his efforts on the diplomatic track. Last month, the United Nations General Assembly recognized “Palestine” as a non-member observer state, which allows membership in various UN committees. Ezbidi says this achievement pales in the face of what many see as Hamas’s military achievements.

Israel is also punishing the Palestinians for the decision to go to the UN. Israel is withholding $100 million in taxes and customs revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, and is using it to pay Palestinian debts to Israeli companies such as the Israel Electric Company. That money is usually used to help pay the salaries of more than 150,000 Palestinian civil servants.

“More than two-thirds of these civil servants have bank loans for their houses and cars so the banks are also getting nervous,” Ezbidi says. “We are really in a mess here in Ramallah. Hamas is being perceived as strong, and Abbas as very weak.”

For the first time in many years, Hamas held demonstrations in the West Bank to mark the anniversary of its founding. Thousands of Palestinians waving green flags came out, in yet another show of strength for Hamas.

Israeli officials are watching the internal developments among the Palestinians with growing nervousness.

“The support for Hamas is over-rated, and Hamas has not gained anything for the Palestinians,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Media Line. “But the confrontational approach is gaining ground, and nobody is interested in negotiations with Israel.”

The results of the poll also raise the question of Palestinian “reconciliation”, bringing an end to the bitter division between Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas. In 2007, after a mini-civil war, Hamas violently took over Gaza. Since then, there has been almost no contact between Hamas and Fatah and the Palestinian parliament has been unable to meet.

Polls consistently show that Palestinians want the rivalry to end, and for national elections to be held. But most analysts say they doubt that either side is ready now for reconciliation.

“Each side is playing up its victory – Hamas on the military side and Abbas on the diplomatic side – and neither wants to compromise,” Ezbidi said. “I think support for Hamas will continue to grow.”

Nation & World Briefs


Jewish Man’s Murder Angers Parisians

At least 1,200 people demonstrated in Paris on Sunday to show their anger at the murder of a Jewish man. Ilan Halimi, 23, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. His body was found last week at a train station outside Paris. Halimi apparently was lured into a trap by a woman of North African origin who came into a Paris store where Halimi sold mobile phones. The demonstrators at Sunday’s protest shouted slogans and carrying banners that read “Justice for Ilan” and “Avenge Ilan!”

The French government is considering Halimi’s murder to be an anti-Semitic act. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said Monday night that the minister of justice had ordered that Halimi’s death be considered “premeditated murder motivated by religious affiliation.”

Villepin spoke at the annual dinner of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, or CRIF, the umbrella organization of secular French Jewish groups. In addition to pledging that the government would do its utmost to find Halimi’s killers, Villepin pledged that the French government would fight anti-Semitism throughout French society. The dinner, which was attended by some 800 ministers, elected officials, ambassadors and religious officials included Muslim representives from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Mauritania, Pakistan and Tunisia.

Holocaust Denier Sentenced

An Austrian court sentenced David Irving to three years in prison for denying the Holocaust. Irving, a British historian who pleaded guilty to the charges at the opening of the trial earlier on Monday, looked stunned in the crowded courtroom after the jury and three judges returned the sentence. Holocaust denial is a crime in Austria, a country once run by the Nazis. Irving was arrested in November when he came to Austria to give a lecture. The charges against him are based on a speech and interview from 1989 in Austria, in which he denied that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz. After he arrived at the court, Irving told reporters that he had changed some of his views since 1989 and now recognized that gas chambers had indeed existed and that “millions of Jews died, there is no question.”

Israel Cracks Down on Hamas

Israel decided to impose sanctions on the Palestinian Authority as soon as Hamas takes over its government. Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Cabinet voted Sunday to stop the monthly transfer of tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority, to step up scrutiny over crossing points into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and to prevent entry into Israel by members of Hamas. The measures go into effect when Hamas, which won last month’s Palestinian Authority elections, forms the new government.

“It is clear that, given Hamas’ majority in the Palestinian Parliament and the fact that Hamas will form a government, the Palestinian Authority is effectively becoming a terrorist authority,” Olmert told fellow ministers.

The measures were not as tough as had been expected, especially after the Defense Ministry recommended a halt on entry to Israel by Palestinian workers. Israel has been under Western pressure to not impose sanctions severe enough to boost Hamas’ standing and increase pan-Arab and Iranian support for the Palestinian Authority.

Jewish Skater Earns a Silver

Jewish ice skater Ben Agosto and his partner, Tanith Belbin, earned a silver medal in ice dancing at the 2006 Olympics. Agosto and Belbin finished second to Russians Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov in the ice dancing competition, which concluded Monday. Agosto’s mother is Jewish and his father is Puerto Rican.

Zionist Congress Election Faces Low Turnout

The Feb. 28 deadline to vote for U.S. representatives to the World Zionist Organization’s (WZO) 35th Congress of the Jewish People is fast approaching, but the majority of American Jews seem largely disinterested. Of the estimated 5 million to 6 million Jews in the United States, less than 100,000 are expected to cast ballots by the deadline in an election that will choose 145 delegates from 12 groups that range from the Russian American Jews for Israel, to Religious Zionist Slate to the ARZA/World Union, the Reform movement’s slate.

If registration trends continue, it appears that fewer Jews will participate this year than in 2002, when nearly 89,000 voted. Five years earlier, almost 108,000 Jews cast ballots. Participation has drifted downward, despite an extensive media campaign by the American Zionist Movement (AZM), the WZO’s U.S. wing, to educate American Jews about the organization and to get the vote out. The WZO, which has an annual budget of $12.5 million, was founded in Switzerland by Theodor Herzl to support the creation of a Jewish homeland and now works to improve Disapora relations, combat anti-Semitism and to strengthen Jewish identity and education around the world, among other initiatives.

In addition, WZO members account for half the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which encourages Jews to immigrate to the Jewish homeland and helps them resettle there. The projected low turnout in the current WZO election might reflect, among other things, a diminished emotional link to Zionism among younger American Jews, said Chani Monderer, election manager of the American Zionist Movement.

The 35th Congress meets in Jerusalem June 19-22.

Individuals 18 and older who accept Zionism can register and vote through the AZM at www.congressofthejewishpeople.org. Registration is $7 for the general public and $5 for students. –Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Anti-Israel Rally in Rome

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators burned Israeli and American flags during a march Feb. 18 through Rome, sponsored by several left-wing groups. Protesters chanted anti-Israel slogans and carried banners equating Israel’s security barrier to apartheid. At one point, three protesters, two of whose faces were hidden by kaffiyehs, burned and spat on an Israeli flag.

Bank Admits Nazi Ties

Germany’s Dresdner Bank helped finance the crematoriums at Auschwitz, according to a study commissioned by the bank. During the Nazi era, Dresdner was part of a construction company that built the crematoriums at the death camp in Poland, according to the report, which was released last week after seven years of research. The company also financed Nazi weapons plants and did business with Nazi-linked authorities in Eastern Europe.

“We accept these truths, even if they are painful,” said Wulf Meier, a Dresdner board member.

New Cartoon Furor in Russia

Russian human rights activists criticized the decision of provincial authorities to close down a newspaper that published a controversial cartoon of religious leaders. The Moscow Bureau on Human Rights said the decision to shut down the Gorodskie Vesti newspaper in the southern city of Volgograd was a show of “incompetence” and epitomized the inability of local officials to deal with interfaith issues. Last Friday, city authorities in Volgograd annulled the license of Gorodskie Vesti, which published a cartoon depicting Jesus, Moses, Buddha and Mohammed in front of a television showing two groups of people about to start a fight. The caption read: “We did not teach them to do that.” The decision to shut down the paper came despite the fact that no local religious community in Volgograd said it was offended by the cartoon. The officials stated the closure of the city-owned paper was needed to avoid “incitement of ethnic hostilities.” According to the Moscow Bureau on Human Rights, a group that monitors anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Russia, Volgograd officials never paid attention to another local newspaper, Kolokol, that over the years has consistently published anti-Semitic and xenophobic articles and published “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an anti-Semitic forgery.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

 

Suicide Voters


All those people who say “Munich” reaffirms the universal truth that “violence begets violence” should think hard about the

Palestinian elections, where violence begat an electoral sweep.

So much for universal truths.

Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind,” and in the long run, who knows, he may be proven right.

But in the near term, Hamas, an organization whose existence is rooted in hatred and terror, has proven one of my personal universal truths: The craziest guy in the room usually gets his way.

The analysts say Hamas won because it had better schools, better clinics, better community centers than the corrupt-to-its-core Palestinian Authority under the late thug Yasser Arafat’s ruling Fatah Party. That’s half true.

Perhaps Hamas administered aspirin without a message, but its schools taught a poisonous hatred of Jews and Israel, and its community centers lionized suicide bombers. Just before the elections it launched a new television station, Al Aqsa TV, which broadcast the same anti-Semitic propaganda as Hezbollah’s station al-Manar.

Whether the medium is a textbook, an after-school club or a TV station, the message is the same: Hamas wants Jews dead.

To say Palestinians didn’t realize this when they voted last week is to look truth in the eye and blink.

“Palestinians voted for a movement for whom means and ends are identical,” Yossi Klein HaLevy wrote in The New Republic. “The suicide bombings are mini-pre-enactments of Hamas’s genocidal impulse.”

Remember Ariel Sharon? The dying Israeli prime minister gave an exit interview, as it were, to Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, who turned it into a sterling profile in the Jan. 23 New Yorker. The piece is shot through with melancholy. That’s due to the lion-in-winter nature of the subject, as well as to Sharon’s abiding sense that, at the end of the day, the conflict between Arab and Jew in the Middle East is intractable.

“‘The conflict isn’t between us and the Palestinians,’ he said, ‘The conflict is between us and the Arab world…. The problem is the profound nonrecognition by the Arab world of Israel’s birthright.'”

Sharon said talking was better than war, withdrawal better than an unsustainable occupation — but no one should have any delusions.

If the conflict is ever resolved, he said, “It will be a very long process.”

The Hamas election results, coming just a week after the Sharon article appeared, only buttress Sharon’s point.

It is doubtful even he could have predicted the results, in which Hamas won 76 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. The day of the election, before the ballots were tallied, Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon happened to be in Los Angeles. At a meeting with members of the Pacific Council on International Policy, he downplayed the chance of a Hamas victory, but he underscored the threat it would pose.

“This is a group that gets millions of dollars from Iran,” he said.

So do the math: Iran on the verge of a nuclear weapon, bent on destroying Israel, plus a new government in the Palestinian Authority, bent on destroying Israel. Combine that with an ideology of suicide bombing, and it’s no wonder even Ayalon didn’t want to contemplate what a few short hours later would be a fait accompli.

Some people are blaming President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice for encouraging the democratic elections that brought Hamas to power. Some blame Israel for not interfering — something Ayalon said was the subject of intense Cabinet debate. And yes, it’s true Israel had a hand in strengthening Hamas years ago as a counterweight to Arafat, and that the cruelties and injustices of Israeli occupation have led people to defer to the craziest guys in the room.

But it is the Palestinians who voted child-killers into office, and it is Palestinians who will live with the consequences, as the dream of a free, safe land in which to raise their children fades even more quickly from view.

 

Hamas Win Brings Mixed Reaction


Two days after the terrorist group Hamas swept last week’s Palestinian elections, Rabbi Steve Jacobs ended Shabbat services at Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills with this striking comparison.

“Mr. Begin was a terrorist, Mr. Shamir was a terrorist, Mr. Sharon was a terrorist,” Jacobs said to his Reform congregation. “History is replete with negotiations that took place with terrorists. Two days ago, Hamas didn’t have to worry about paying civilians and creating an infrastructure.”

Jacobs’ branding of three Israeli prime ministers as onetime terrorists was jolting, even upsetting, to some in the audience. But Jacobs’ point was clear: The Hamas victory did not necessarily spell doom to a negotiated peace between Israel and Palestinians.

Elsewhere in the Jewish community, reaction to the Hamas election sweep included concern, bewilderment and even some I-told-you-so’s from activists who last summer protested against Israel’s forced withdrawal of settlers from the Gaza Strip.

Jacobs couched a message of cautious optimism in his reference to Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, who were resistance fighters — and labeled as terrorists — against the British occupation of Palestine prior to Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Jacobs’ comments came before a more diverse audience than a typical Friday night Shabbat service. His shul was hosting an interfaith dialogue with several Muslims, including two from the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). Also present were Rabbi David Baron and congregants from the independent Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills.

The Hamas elections created an undercurrent of tension at Kol Tikvah’s interfaith event, with Baron issuing a polite but firm demand that the shul’s Muslim guests denounce Hamas.

“Hamas has won a major election in Gaza and the West Bank,” Baron said. “Now is the time we want to see every American Muslim rise up and say to Hamas, ‘Put down your weapons. Amend the charter that calls for the elimination of the State of Israel.’…. We need to see not just words of conciliation but real actions that give us strength in the belief that dialogue is meaningful beyond the moments we spend together, that the friendship we create is real.”

“We ask for and plead for positions, protests, demonstrations and open and direct confrontation by Muslims, American Muslims, of their brothers who are of the more extreme bent. I know we did it during the days of Rabbi Kahane,” said Baron, who was referring to opposition in the Jewish community toward the late Meier Kahane, who promulgated stridently anti-Arab views.

CAIR’s Southern California public relations director Ra’id Faraj did not respond directly to Baron’s challenge: “As far as the issue of suicide bombing, again, that is a very, very difficult situation. And that’s why I wanted to focus on the fact that Muslims and Jews have lived for hundreds of years together, side by side…. What is happening today is a new phenomenon.”

One notable reaction occurred even before the Palestinian elections. Israeli politician Natan Sharansky, who was visiting Los Angeles, predicted a stronger Hamas.

“What I see is exactly what I was afraid of,” Sharansky told The Jewish Journal in a telephone interview. He said he had warned Sharon against his unilateral withdrawal from occupied Gaza. He said he told Sharon “that one-sided concessions never can strengthen moderates — they will strengthen only extremists.”

That sentiment was echoed by Jon Hambourger, founder of the anti-withdrawal SaveGushKatif organization. Hambourger and his group spent thousands of dollars last summer on flyers and newspaper advertising warning that the pullout would strengthen Palestinian terrorists.

“And that’s what happened,” Hambourger said. “Every single thing that we said would happen happened.”

Orthodox community activist Daryl Temkin said he still is asking the question: “What has been the value of the Gaza disengagement? The negatives have been just glaring. This organization [Hamas] is so clear about its desire to wipe Israel off the map.”

Simon Wiesenthal Center founder and dean Rabbi Marvin Hier said in a statement that Hamas members must decide between peace or terrorism: “You cannot be a bank teller by day and a bank robber by night. You cannot be a parliamentarian and a terrorist at the same time. This is a moment for them to choose their uniform.”

At the UCLA Hillel, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller said he has noticed students appearing worn down.

“They’re hit from both sides,” Seidler-Feller said. “There is uncertainty in Israel regarding the future government and the Palestinian situation has been turned upside down.”

The Palestinian elections results presented nothing truly different, said UCLA computer science professor Judea Pearl, whose son, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was kidnapped and murdered by Pakistani terrorists in 2002.

“My friends in Israel say, ‘So what’s new?'” Pearl said. “There is no change of mind. There is only a change of tactics. What happened was just a removal of the veneer.”

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, said in an interview that Jewish causes beyond Israel — such as stopping the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region — are being pushed aside by fear over an empowered Hamas.

“That’s understandable. What hurts your people takes priority,” Schulweis said. “When it’s my child, my wife, it gains my total attention.”

 

Olmert’s Conversion From Pol to Leader


As far as personality goes, Ehud Olmert is not my kind of guy. He comes off like he thinks he’s God’s gift to humanity, riffraff that we are.

I remember several years ago when as mayor of Jerusalem, he came to view the damage to a local Conservative synagogue that had been firebombed. He didn’t walk through the blackened sanctuary, he sauntered through in a stately way, his head in the air. Wearing a very expensive-looking suit and shoes, he was the picture of an aristocrat, of someone who’s always known he’s entitled to power and all its perks. He didn’t light up one of his big cigars, but he might as well have.

This was before the intifada. In those days, and even earlier, I couldn’t bear Olmert. In both personality and politics, he was offensive. He seemed the ultimate sleaze, a cynical pol thoroughly mobbed up with every conniving businessman who had a hand in Israeli politics.

As mayor, he sold himself to the capital’s haredim. Worse, he was the government patron of the radical settler movement in Arab East Jerusalem. Worst of all, he was the prime mover behind the Netanyahu government’s crazed decision to open the Western Wall Tunnel in 1996, which ended with 16 Israeli soldiers and about 80 Palestinians dead.

This is a lot to put aside when judging Olmert today as the interim prime minister and as the man very likely to be confirmed for the post in the March 28 election. But, finally, political leaders shouldn’t be judged on personality, because they’re all full of themselves to a greater or lesser degree. And, unfortunately, Olmert’s attraction to money and the moneyed makes him fairly par for the course among his peers; he’s probably no worse than Ariel Sharon was on that score.

You have to judge politicians, especially those running for prime minister, without sentiment. And if they’ve changed direction, you have to give more weight to what they’ve done lately than what they did before. Unless the candidate is a truly malevolent character, you have to judge him or her on two things: leadership ability and political direction. And on that basis, I think Olmert is better suited to be prime minister than anybody else around.

My opinion of him began to change during the intifada. As Jerusalem mayor, he did a solid job of bucking up a public that was reeling from the suicide bombs. He didn’t talk empty slogans; he didn’t use bombast. Instead, he showed empathy for people and urged them not to heroism or patriotic fervor but to a kind of head-down, workaday, human-scale resilience. I don’t know if it’s better to say he rose to the occasion or bent to it, but this “prince” proved himself an inspirational leader of ordinary people during a long, agonizing ordeal.

Maybe more than anything else, that trial by fire prepared Olmert for the emergency role he just assumed.

The other reason he’s the best suited to be prime minister is his political turnaround, which has been more emphatic and far-reaching even than Sharon’s. As Sharon’s vice premier and closest political ally, it was Olmert who gave the first signal of the disengagement plan to come in his ground-shaking interview with Yediot Aharonot’s Nahum Barnea in December 2003.

Without laying out a map, Olmert made it unmistakably clear that he wanted unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank interior and even from the outlying Arab neighborhoods and villages of Jerusalem. This, from the fellow who came up with Binyamin Netanyahu’s 1996 campaign slogan, “Peres will divide Jerusalem.”

The reasons Olmert gave weren’t moral, they were pragmatic. He argued that if Israel didn’t unilaterally narrow its borders, the world, including the United States, would force it back to even narrower ones. He also warned that if Israel didn’t separate itself from millions of Palestinians, it would stop being a Jewish state and become a binational one.

“We didn’t fight here for 100 years, we didn’t spill our blood to lose the Jewish state,” he said.

Very soon afterward, Sharon unveiled the disengagement plan. It was not easy overcoming the resistance within the Likud, let alone that of the settlers, and the most important soldier in the fight, after Sharon himself, was Olmert.

Cliche or not, he really did show vision and courage. He, too, is a transformed politician. Last week he didn’t hesitate in saying East Jerusalem Arabs would be free to vote in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. The old Olmert would have called such a decision national suicide.

Also to his credit: His worst political enemy is Netanyahu. They can’t stand each other. Enough said.

But one final point: Since 2004, I’ve been writing that Amir Peretz, because of the strength of his leadership in the cause of economic decency — something this country needs desperately — should become prime minister. I changed my mind during the current campaign and before Sharon had his stroke.

To be Israel’s prime minister, it’s not enough to show the way to raise up the poor — you’ve also got to show the way to fight Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc., and to end the occupation. Peretz has shown only that he doesn’t have a clear way in mind. He gives hardly a clue about how he’d handle the Kassams coming out of Gaza.

As for ending the occupation, Peretz promises to sit down with Mahmoud Abbas and reach a final agreement in a year. Hasn’t he noticed that Abbas isn’t exactly running the show over there?

Peretz acts as if running the State of Israel will be a piece of cake, as if that’s supposed to inspire confidence in him. And when he declares “Oslo is alive and well,” it sounds like the intifada made no impression on him; that the last five years hasn’t affected his thinking at all.

I’d probably feel enthusiastic about Peretz becoming prime minister if we were living in a country whose overriding problem was poverty, one that was not surrounded by enemies — say, Brazil. But we are not Brazil.

Still, if Kadima goes into Election Day with an insurmountable lead over Labor and Likud and is guaranteed to end up running the government, then I’ll vote for Labor. I want there to be a strong voice for economic change, and on that issue, Peretz is by far the best.

But if it’s a close race, and it’s not certain which party is going to form the government, then I’m going to vote for the one that has the best candidate for prime minister. That party is Kadima.

Times have changed dramatically and for the better, and Olmert was out in front when they did. I believe he’s got further changes along those same lines in mind. I still wouldn’t feel entirely comfortable buying a used car from him, but as prime minister of Israel, I trust him.

 

Will Violence Again Flare Up in 2006?


Will the Palestinians start the new year with a renewal of violence?

That has been the question asked by many nervous Israelis in the final weeks of 2005, as the “truce” declared by Palestinian terrorist groups early last year came to an end.

True, there was never a complete cessation of violence. Islamic Jihad, which did not join in the truce, carried out several suicide bombings during the pact’s nine-month stretch.

But the relative lull helped Prime Minister Ariel Sharon engineer the Gaza Strip withdrawal and is credited by the Shin Bet with a 60 percent decrease in Israeli casualties from terror during 2005.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who coaxed terrorist groups into observing the cease-fire he declared with Sharon last February, appealed for an extension.

“I think it is our interest that the truce continues, in order to have the opportunity to reconstruct our country and to make things take their ordinary course,” he said last week during a fundraising trip to the United Arab Emirates.

Hamas, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and smaller factions have so far resisted the call.

According to last week’s Shin Bet report, arms smuggling into Gaza has skyrocketed sixfold since Israel left during the summer. In the West Bank, terrorists have already test fired a rocket in a bid to emulate the tactics of their Gazan comrades.

But there may be a grace period in the works before the dreaded resurgence of violence comes. Hamas is running in Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections on Jan. 25 and has sought a more mainstream political profile. It is seen as unlikely to resort to major terrorism before the votes are in — assuming, of course that the vote is not postponed.

Further complicating matters for the Palestinians is the speedy deterioration of Gaza into anarchy. Six foreigners have been kidnapped by gunmen there in recent days, belying Abbas’ pledge to turn the coastal strip — post-Israel — into an orderly prototype for a future Palestine.

All of this means that the U.S.-led “road map” for peace could soon end up in tatters.

Sharon may be preparing for that eventuality. According to a front-page report in Ma’ariv, the prime minister has sent Israeli officials to propose to the United States that, following the Palestinian Authority election, the road map should be abandoned in favor of unilateral action.

Sharon wants President Bush’s endorsement for Israel declaring a border that would include some West Bank land, while allowing for the creation of a temporary Palestinian state beyond, the newspaper said Monday.

“A wave of Hamas terrorism will thwart any hope” of progress in peacemaking, wrote Ma’ariv’s editor in chief, Amnon Dankner, and its senior political correspondent, Ben Caspit.

The road map, they added, “looks like a dead end, which in effect provides Sharon with a fig leaf to cover up the new diplomatic path being planned in Jerusalem.”

There was no immediate U.S. response, and a senior Israeli political source dismissed the article as” speculation.”

But Sharon, who looks set for re-election in March, has made no secret of planning to settle the conflict with the Palestinians during a third term in office — whether or not Abbas is a partner. Bush has already given his tacit approval to Israel’s intention to hold on to major West Bank settlement blocs, making their eventual annexation a formality.

Which leaves the question of whether the Palestinians will launch a new terror war or make do with what territory they get, hoping for economic revival and some domestic stability.

In a rare vote of confidence for potential progress, Turkey plans to take over the Erez industrial zone on the Gaza-Israel border, a move that would provide employment opportunities to hundreds of Palestinians. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is due in the region later this week to sign the deal.

The Jerusalem Post reported that Ankara sees the initiative as a chance to boost its pull in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and has been undeterred by Gaza’s recent cross-border violence.

Hamas Adopts New Tactic: Political Role


 

Hamas, the Muslim fundamentalist movement and Palestinian terrorist organization, may soon become a decisive force not only in the struggle against Israel but in the Palestinian political establishment.

For the first time in Palestinian political history, Hamas will participate in parliamentary elections scheduled July 17. All political analysts predict that the party will make an impressive show of force.

Hamas candidates may win between 30 percent and 50 percent of the seats in the next Palestinian Parliament, predicted Matti Steinberg, a former adviser on Palestinian affairs to two heads of Israel’s General Security Service. If Steinberg is right, it would amount to a political revolution.

Hamas is heading toward electoral success using tactics that demonstrate its ability to act both as a terrorist organization and as a political party that seeks to influence the Palestinian political agenda. On the one hand, it flexes its muscles toward Israel, warning that the present “calming down” period could end at any time; on the other, it maintains the cease-fire for now, realizing that this is what the street wants.

In the last two weeks, Hamas has proudly raised both the militant and pragmatic flags.

Hamas was a major player in last week’s Temple Mount demonstration protesting the desire of devout Jews to visit the site, which is the holiest site in Judaism and also an important Muslim shrine. Hamas also took part in a mortar barrage aimed at Jewish settlements in Gaza, reacting to Israel’s killing of three Palestinian youths involved in arms smuggling across Egyptian border.

Hamas has threatened to drop out of the “calming down” agreement, but at the same time, it maintains the tense cease-fire for now.

Though Israel killed many of its leaders during the intifada, Hamas has retained its popularity — primarily because of the ineptitude of the ruling Palestinian Authority and corruption and infighting in the dominant Fatah Party — and wants to use that momentum to propel itself forward.

Several weeks ago, Hamas candidates scored landslide victories in municipal elections in several Gaza towns.

“On the one hand, people want a political process headed by [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas], as was indicated in the presidential elections [in January],” Steinberg said in an interview with Bitterlemons.org, a Middle East Web site. “But on the other hand, people want clean stables, the end of corruption and personal security, and these are connected with Hamas.”

The July elections would be the first for Parliament in the Palestinian territories since 1996, and the first since Abbas succeeded the late Yasser Arafat as Palestinian Authority president in January. Arafat postponed elections that had been set for 2000.

Hamas boycotted the earlier elections, saying they were an outgrowth of the Oslo accords, which it vehemently opposed, because they implied recognition of Israel. Hamas is dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

Fatah, Abbas’ party, now controls most of the 88-member Palestinian Parliament. There is growing concern among Palestinian opposition forces that Fatah will defer the elections, because Fatah seems likely to lose many seats. Palestinian legislators are introducing amendments to the electoral law, hoping to postpone the elections.

The Central Elections Commission recently said that it would need three months from the time the law is approved before it can hold elections. Three months from July 17 was last Sunday — and no amendments had yet been passed. The issue was to be discussed sometime this week.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said that if elections can’t be held as scheduled, the group would have to rethink its commitment to an informal cease-fire with Israel. Hamas agreed to the de facto truce on the understanding that Abbas would pursue reforms in the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas has said concerns about electoral manipulation are unfounded.

“We have no intentions or desire to delay these elections,” he told reporters at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah.

However, it’s not clear how much say Abbas has even in his own Fatah ranks. Abbas radiates political impotence, something President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon discussed at their meeting last week at Bush’s Texas ranch.

Hamas’ decision to move toward power sharing largely is due to the shift in Palestinian public opinion since Arafat’s death. A poll taken by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion after the Feb. 8 Sharm el-Sheik summit showed that about 60 percent of Palestinians were satisfied with the summit’s results. Approximately 70 percent said they were worried about the diffusion of weapons in Palestinian society, and wanted one central authority that could maintain law and order.

Without at least the appearance of a move toward moderation, Hamas risked being marginalized by a Palestinian public increasingly fed up with the terrorists’ efforts to draw Israel into confrontation. Hamas violence and the resulting Israeli retaliation has caused severe suffering among ordinary Palestinians during the intifada.

In addition, some changes in Israeli policy contributed to Hamas’ own change in tactics. They included the release of hundreds of prisoners, the disappearance of helicopter gunships from Palestinian airspace, the end of targeted killings of leading terrorists, a slowdown in arrests of suspected terrorists, a growing sense of personal security in Palestinian areas and the beginning of Israeli withdrawals from some Palestinian cities.

The group’s rhetoric remains nearly as belligerent as always, but the political consequences are different. A Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Al-Zahar, said his movement wants to join the Palestine Liberation Organization, the main umbrella body for Palestinian groups, “to consolidate the resistance option in its capacity as the strategic option toward the liberation of Palestine.”

Zahar reacted to growing concern among secular Palestinians that Islam and democracy can not go together. The issue recently has been raised by Ghassan Khatib, the P.A. minister of planning, in an article on Bitterlemons. The Web site has dealt at length with Hamas’ growing power.

Secularists question whether Islamists who take power by democratic means are committed to maintaining democracy, Khatib wrote.

Fatah would be expected to rally its forces to face the challenge from Hamas. But Fatah, the ruling party, is preoccupied with an internal crisis that is developing mainly along the rift between the so-called old and new guards.

“Today in the eyes of most of the population, Fatah is identified with corruption and the disfunctionality of the P.A., whereas Hamas is considered clean by comparison,” Steinberg said in the Bitterlemons interview.

 

Some See Signs as Pointing to Peace


 

With Palestinian terror groups generally committed to a lull in the fighting with Israel and Arab countries debating normalizing ties with the Jewish state, some in Israel see signs that the 57-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict finally may be winding down.

However, despite a hesitant optimism, certain factors suggest that an end to the conflict still appears far off:

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• The current cease-fire is fragile and could unravel at any moment.

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• The terrorist Palestinian organization, Hamas, which opposes peace with Israel, is getting stronger.

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• Most Arab countries still oppose normalization until Israel withdraws from all of what the Arabs consider “occupied territory.”

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• Israel insists that the Palestinians fulfill their promise to disband terrorist groups before the peace process advances, a commitment the Palestinians show no inclination to meet.

On the Israeli side, opponents of withdrawal, both within Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party and further to the right, are trying to torpedo the disengagement plan.

The lull — or tahdiya, as the Palestinians call it — was announced March 17 in Cairo, after a meeting under Egyptian aegis of all the main Palestinian militias with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The bottom line is that the terrorist groups say there will be no more terror attacks against Israel, at least until the end of 2005.

But the truce is heavily conditional. For the quiet to continue, the Palestinians demand that Israel meet a number of conditions:

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• Halt assassinations or arrests of wanted terrorists.

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• Release Palestinian prisoners.

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• Refrain from building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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• Stop “Judaizing” eastern Jerusalem.

A six-point document released after the Cairo parley also reiterated the Palestinians’ strategic goals: Establishing a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and securing a right for Palestinian refugees to return to homes and property they abandoned in Israel more than half a century ago. The document makes no mention of a Palestinian state coexisting peacefully next to Israel and offers no hint of compromise over the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.

If the strong, heavily conditional wording was designed to get Hamas and Islamic Jihad to come aboard, it succeeded. But it also gives the militias a range of pretexts for returning to violence whenever they see fit.

The Israeli assessment is that the lull probably will hold until after this summer’s planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, despite the possibility of intermittent rogue attacks.

What happens next is anybody’s guess, Israeli analysts say. It will depend to a large extent on how the new relationship being forged between Abbas’ secular Fatah movement and the powerful fundamentalist groups plays out.

In the long term, Israeli analysts say, the fact that the radicals have decided to join the political process is even more significant than the lull in violence. Hamas boycotted the last Palestinian parliamentary elections in 1996, but now the group says it will run in elections scheduled for July.

Hamas already has had some significant successes in municipal and university balloting. In local elections in January, it won 70 percent of the councils it contested. Last week, it won 25 of 41 seats in student elections at Hebron University.

Both Israeli and Palestinian pundits predict a strong showing by Hamas in July parliamentary elections. They say Hamas never has been stronger, and that the election could well be fought over socioeconomic issues, rather than political, with Hamas picking up a strong anti-establishment vote that works against Fatah.

Writing in the Yediot Achronot newspaper, Alex Fishman maintained that Hamas could win enough seats to virtually dictate the Palestinian political agenda.

“Central Fatah people are really concerned about the Hamas momentum: They say that ‘unless something dramatic happens, 70 percent of the delegates Gaza sends to parliament will be Hamas people. Abu Mazen will have to dance to their tune,'” he wrote, using Abbas’ nom de guerre. Danny Rubinstein, chief Arab affairs analyst for the newspaper, Ha’aretz, takes a similar view.

“East Jerusalem people say the public is angry at Fatah activists who have not been serving the public but rather handing out perks to cronies,” Rubinstein wrote. “The way to punish Fatah, they say, is by voting Hamas.”

If Hamas does gain a good measure of political power, the question is how it will use it. Will it become more moderate and responsible, accepting the need for a two-state solution with coexistence with Israel and a practical solution to the refugee issue? Or will it radicalize the entire Palestinian movement, rendering peacemaking virtually impossible?

Those could be the key questions in Israeli-Palestinian politics for years to come.

Israeli generals and politicians envisage more immediate problems. The military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, is suspicious of the motives behind the lull.

“The militias want the lull, but see it as a time to regroup and rearm before the fighting resumes, without waiving their strategic goals,” he recently told businessmen in northern Israel.

Sharon has described the lull as a “positive first step,” but added that for “progress in the diplomatic process, the terrorist organizations will not be able to continue existing as armed militias.” In other words, Sharon insists that Abbas fulfill the Palestinian commitment to disarm terrorist groups, while Abbas prefers to try to co-opt them politically. The result could be deadlock.

In an attempt to break the looming logjam, Jordan’s King Abdullah is proposing some bold, out-of-the-box thinking. The normal Arab sequencing in peacemaking with Israel should be reversed, Abdullah says.

Until now, Arab proposals have insisted that Israel withdraw from occupied territory before the Arabs normalize ties, but Abdullah argues that if the Arabs first normalized ties, Israel would feel secure enough to withdraw from territory. Not only that, he believes that if the Arabs made such a collective gesture, there would be enormous international pressure on Israel to pullout of Arab territory.

Behind the scenes, some Arab and Muslim countries appeared ready to buy into Abdullah’s ideas. But Egypt, Syria and the Palestinians were instrumental in preventing the proposal from being raised at an Arab League summit in Algiers in late March.

The key to a breakthrough in peacemaking therefore remains what it always has been: progress on the Palestinian track. And despite the lull in violence, political differences between Israelis and Palestinians seem as acute as ever.

For example, where Sharon sees the “road map” peace plan leading to an interim Palestinian state, Abbas wants to move straight to full-fledged Palestinian statehood and a final territorial settlement with Israel. Even if Sharon were ready to make that leap, would an empowered Hamas allow Abbas to make the offer?

Sharon and Abbas are due to meet separately with President Bush in the United States next month. After those talks, perhaps the way forward will become a little clearer.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report