Vote Generates Mix of Hope, Wariness
Edna Bar-Or wants to be optimistic about the prospects for peace after this week’s Palestinian elections, but like many Israelis, she is not sure she can.
“I very much hope it will bring good,” said Bar-Or, 55, surrounded by stacks of laundry and hangers full of pressed shirts at her dry cleaning shop. “I want to be optimistic, but I don’t think anyone knows what will be.
Israelis followed news of the Palestinian Authority elections Sunday, pausing to listen to radio and television news broadcasts and to read newspaper front pages plastered with large photographs of Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen. Yasser Arafat’s former deputy won the vote by 62 percent and will become the next president of the Palestinian Authority.
The low-key, silver-haired Abbas, who has repeatedly spoken out against the armed struggle of the intifada, appears to be a leader Israel might be able to negotiate with. Abbas’ moderate comments give Israelis a measure of hope that his election could be a historic turning point, but they know an uphill effort lies ahead for Abbas.
“I’m not jealous of him at all; he has so many problems to handle,” Bar-Or said.
Israelis, like the Palestinians, are keenly aware of the tall order that lies ahead for Abbas: uniting security forces to crack down on extremist Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, renewing peace efforts with Israel in an effort to achieve the Palestinian goal of independent statehood and instituting reforms to quash corruption within the Palestinian Authority.
Israeli officials said it was in Israel’s interest for the Palestinian elections to go as smoothly as possible. Army bulldozers removed roadblocks throughout the West Bank to ease freedom of movement for voters, and international observers said movement was relatively unfettered.
The army also stopped operations across the West Bank with the exception of the villages in the area where an Israeli soldier was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting and four others were wounded over the weekend.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Israel hoped for a smooth election process “so that starting from tomorrow, the new Palestinian leadership will be able to do what it is required to do.”
Shalom said in comments broadcast on Israel Radio, “I think that the leader who is elected will have to wage a genuine struggle against terror immediately,” adding that Israel expects a “new, different Palestinian leadership that will be prepared to move in the direction of peace.”
But some Israelis remained unmoved by the potential for change following the death of Arafat two months ago.
“Do you really think these elections will mean something?” asked David Weinberg, a Tel Aviv lawyer as he walked past the memorial marking the spot where Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was slain in 1995. “Anyone with half a brain can see this is the same group of terrorists. Maybe some people see change, but Abu Mazen says he will start talking; he is not saying he will actually do anything.”
Weinberg also said he had little faith in the new Israeli unity government set to take power this week.
“I only see more of the same continuing, and maybe even worse things to come,” he said.
Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya, doesn’t expect Abbas to be able to make a breakthrough peace deal with Israel. Karmon views Abbas as an ideologue like Arafat, who will not press for major changes.
“I think only a younger leadership that grew up in the West Bank and Gaza will be able to reach a compromise with Israel,” Karmon said.
But Abbas could be a partner to short-term progress in such moves as a coordinated Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, according to Karmon.
Israel also will have to take stronger action against Hezbollah, which is carrying out an increasing number of anti-Israel attacks from the West Bank and Gaza, Karmon added, if Abbas is to have a chance of helping forge a more peaceful period.
David Ohana, a professor of Israeli history at Ben-Gurion University, sees in Abbas a Palestinian leader with whom Israelis finally can imagine negotiating.
“Arafat was a myth and Israelis could not speak with myths,” Ohana said. “Arafat symbolized the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians in black and white, so it was easy not to see the gray.
“The most important thing about Abu Mazen,” he added, is that “he is not a picture or myth but he is a human being.”
Abbas also dresses like a European leader, and looks like someone who could be a neighbor, he said.
Ohana said Israelis are about to face the first challenge.
“I think this is a test case for us first of all, not the Palestinians. If we want to solve the problems, we have here an opportunity,” he said.
Afu Badawi, 48, an Israeli Arab from Nazareth, works at a falafel stand making pita bread. Working the pita dough, his hands covered with flour, he said Abbas will have to make some tough choices if he wants to succeed.
“He needs to do the right thing for his people, to focus on rights, the economy and make sure everything is free of corruption,” Badawi said. “Otherwise, he will just be a continuation of Arafat.”
Golan Shiri, 30, who works at a different falafel restaurant, is skeptical that Abbas will be able to do anything at all.
“Abu Mazen can want to make changes all he wants, but does that mean he will really be able to make a difference?” Shiri said. “It’s not so much up to him. It’s the warlords who really control things, not the officials.”
Shlomo Tenami, a 58-year-old office clerk, also has little hope that an Abbas victory will lead to a revolution in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
“I hope, but I don’t have a lot of hope, because we have tried so many times before,” Tenami said. “Every time we give them land the violence just continues.”