Palestinians insulted by Mitt Romney’s comments

Just eight weeks before the American presidential elections, Palestinians are furious over comments by Republican candidate Mitt Romney. The private remarks were made in May to wealthy donors but released only now.

Palestinians are “committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel,” Romney said, adding that prospects for a two-state solution of an independent Palestinian state next to Israel were dim.

“You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this going to remain an unsolved problem, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that, ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.”

According to Mother Jones magazine, which posted the video clip of Romney’s comments on its website, the former Massachusetts governor made the remarks at a $50,000-per-plate fundraiser at Boca Raton, Florida. Boca Raton has a wealthy Jewish community, although it was not clear how many Jews were at the Romney fundraiser.

“It’s political illiteracy – has he even ever read a book about Palestine?” Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the president of the PASSIA think tank in east Jerusalem fumed to The Media Line. “On one level Palestinians are laughing at this, but on another level it will be very serious if this man has any say in our future.”

The comments come as the latest polls show a close race between Romney and President Obama. Although American Jews account for only two percent of the population, they represent significant voting blocs in important swing states like Florida. Polls show that more than two-thirds of Jews who plan to vote will cast their ballot for President Obama, although many believe he is not as supportive of Israel as were some of his predecessors.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, the putative seat of Palestinian government, Palestinians reacted angrily to Romney’s comments.

“He’s buying votes,” 27-year old Morad Al-Siory told The Media Line. “How can you judge Palestine if you haven’t seen both sides? I’m right here and I see it with my own eyes.”

Al-Siory said he had come to Ramallah to visit his family. His father, Mohammed, who owns a falafel stand, agreed with his son’s comments.

“How can you swim if you don’t get wet?” he asked. “I’d love to see American policy in the Middle East change.”

He also said, however, that he was frustrated with President Obama’s policy and that there was only a slight chance that he might do something different than Romney if re-elected.

“In the last four years he’s done nothing” Al-Siory said. “He fooled the Arabs and the Muslims with his speech in Cairo.”

He was referring to the speech that President Obama made in Egypt soon after taking office in which he called for “a new beginning” in relations between the US and the Arab world. It was seen at the time as an effort to reach out to the Arab world.

Palestinian officials also responded angrily to Romney’s comments.

“No one stands to gain more from peace with Israel than Palestinians and no one stands to lose more in the absence of peace than Palestinians,” chief negotiator Sa’ib Ariqat told the Reuters news agency. “Only those who want to maintain the Israeli occupation will claim the Palestinians are not interested in peace.”

But other Palestinian analysts said the statements had to be seen in context — as part of the election campaign, where Jewish donors and voters play an important role.

“Palestinians have learned through experience not to take statements made during election campaigns seriously,” Ghassan Al-Khatib, a professor of contemporary Arab studies at Bir Zeit University told The Media Line. “When you compare what we hear during the campaign and what presidents do in the future, you don’t see the connections.”

At the same time, Khatib said the statements further reinforced previous Palestinian attitudes toward the Republican candidate, who is perceived to have little foreign policy experience.

“This is not a surprise for the Palestinians,” Khatib said. “The impression is that Romney has been extraordinarily hostile and negative towards Palestinians all along.”

VIDEO: Jewish voters targeted in ‘push polling’ — RJC fesses up

Joelna Marcus tells JTA she was the target of a push poll because she is Jewish. A caller, pretending to be a pollster, tried to insinuate Barack Obama is pro-Palestinian.

The Republican Jewish Coalition has admitted it sponsored a negative poll about Barack Obama. reported Tuesday evening that the RJC took responsibility for the phone poll in swing states, which asked voters their response to negative statements about Obama. Those statements included reported praise for him from a leader of the Palestinian terror group Hamas and a friendship early in his career with a pro-Palestinian university professor.

RJC executive director Matt Brooks told the publication that his organization conducted the poll to “understand why Barack Obama continues to have a problem among Jewish voters.”

Brooks denied that the poll was a “push poll” meant to influence Jewish voters, and said it was a traditional survey meant to gauge the opinions of Jewish voters.

A top Jewish Obama supporter slammed the RJC. “Peddling lies and hateful distortions to scare Jewish voters is reprehensible and deeply disrespectful to Jewish Americans,” said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.).


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.”


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.


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.


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, 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:


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


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


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


• 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:


• Halt assassinations or arrests of wanted terrorists.


• Release Palestinian prisoners.


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


• 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


U.S. Faces Tough Policy Challenges


With Sunday’s elections, the Bush administration got something it demanded from the Palestinians: the beginnings of a democracy. Whether that produces a real, functional democracy remains to be seen — and as that drama plays out, the administration faces some tough decisions and some big policy snares.

Mahmoud Abbas won the battle to replace the late Yasser Arafat as undisputed Palestinian leader, after a campaign that included both examples of his vaunted “moderation” and statements suggesting that he isn’t so different from his predecessor, after all — such has his insistence that he will never abandon the demand for an unlimited Palestinian right of return, a guaranteed deal breaker.

Peace process supporters in this country say that was just an acknowledgment of the political realities he faces; critics say it’s the same old Palestinian line in a new package.

All of this will create some huge challenges for the Bush administration in the months ahead. Here are a few of the big questions officials here will face:

How Much Democracy?

When, exactly, will the Palestinians have achieved enough democratic reform to justify a serious, new U.S. peace push, not just feel-good talk about Palestinian statehood?

Abbas will probably be a big improvement over Arafat, but he will be setting up his government in a society seething with undemocratic forces and in a region where democracy is regarded as toxic by autocratic leaders.

The transition will be uneven and incremental, providing the perfect excuse for those here and in Israel who want to use the democracy demand as a way to bar any new peace negotiations or any new U.S. pressure on Israel.

Finding a realistic democratic threshold that encourages the Palestinians to move forward and strengthens Abbas, without letting him get away with just the trappings of democracy, will be one of the toughest tasks for the administration in the next few months.

What About Hamas?

In recent municipal elections, the terror group decided to engage in the electoral process and did much better than analysts predicted. It boycotted the presidential election but did nothing to interfere, and has promised to cooperate with Abbas.

What will the U.S. attitude be if Hamas involvement grows, especially after parliamentary elections in June?

Will the Bush administration make the judgment that these groups are moving toward peaceful coexistence with Israel, and that participation in the emerging Palestinian democracy could accelerate the process? Or will it react according to its post-Sept. 11 view of a world sharply divided between terrorists and their uncompromising opponents?

A lot of that will depend on how Hamas leaders respond. Softening their rhetoric, curbing attacks and indicating a willingness to accept Israel’s existence will make it easier for the administration to give a cautious yellow light to their political involvement, or at least not to regard it as the poison pill of Palestinian democracy.

The Corruption Conundrum.

International donors have met in recent weeks to discuss a big infusion of aid to help a Palestinian population mired even more deeply in poverty, and President Bush has given $20 million in direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, with promises of more to come.

But this time, international donors are demanding mechanisms for accountability and transparency to make sure that the money doesn’t end up lining the pockets of P.A. officials or financing new weapons. But financial responsibility — not exactly the norm in the Arab world — won’t come overnight, and the need for an infusion of aid is immediate and overwhelming.

Just how accountable do the Palestinians have to become before they get the aid that’s been dangled before them? Without aid, the plight of ordinary Palestinians will not improve, spawning new terrorism and dimming hopes for new negotiations. But throwing more money at corrupt officials could undermine the Palestinian experiment in democracy.

Dealing With Sharon.

With Abbas’ election, there is a widespread assumption that the administration will become a little firmer in pressing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to fulfill his part of the Mideast “road map” peace plan, including freezing settlements and rooting out illegal outposts. But Sharon is also in the middle of a ticklish Gaza disengagement plan, which the administration has incorporated into its road map.

Just how hard can Washington push without creating a domestic backlash in Israel that will make it harder for the premier to get out of Gaza quickly?

Too often in the past, Sharon has used the specter of domestic opposition to turn aside prodding from Washington, but with settlers in open revolt and the threat of virtual civil war looming, there’s little question he faces an unprecedented domestic challenge.

Pressure is a matter of fine tuning that will test the talents of incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Too much pressure could topple Sharon’s shaky coalition and derail the Gaza plan; too little could damage U.S. credibility in the region.

What About Europe and the Arab Nations?

How can the Bush administration encourage these countries — too often the willing enablers of corrupt, reckless Palestinian leaders — to play a more constructive role?

Without U.S prodding, these nations could lapse back into their unhelpful role, but too much prodding will only play into the reflexive anti-Americanism that leads many to oppose almost anything America proposes, with especially disruptive results in the Middle East.

That will require nuanced diplomacy, not the brute-force approach to international relations that characterized the first Bush administration.


Peace ‘Map’ Fears

Israel backers are raising numerous concerns about the latest version of the U.S. "road map" for Middle East peace.

Analysts and Jewish leaders say the latest version, currently being hammered out in Washington, diverges from President Bush’s June 24 speech, in which he called for new Palestinian leaders and said a Palestinian state could be created only after significant institutional reforms. They also say Israel has not been consulted enough in the preparation of the document.

Also of concern is the fact that the State Department, which is considered to be softer on the Palestinians, is working on the plan, rather than the White House, whose views on the conflict are considered closer to Israel’s.

"The concern is that some of the key players credited with crafting Bush’s speech are now focused on Iraq," said one official with a Jewish organization. "Some of the other folks in the State Department have moved to fill the vacuum."

Israel has complained that it learned about the revised road map only from news reports. Housing and Construction Minister Natan Sharansky raised some of Israel’s concerns during a visit to Washington last week.

Conceived in conjunction with America’s "quartet" partners — the United Nations, European Union and Russia — the road map has been under revision for more than a month, addressing concerns raised by all sides.

It is expected to be released when quartet leaders meet in Washington on Dec. 20. Israeli officials want the release postponed until after Israeli elections on Jan. 28.

The road map calls for a three-stage approach leading to an interim Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip next year, and the creation of a permanent state by the end of 2005.

In the first stage, the plan demands the appointment of a new Palestinian Authority Cabinet and the creation of a prime minister’s post. It also demands that Israel improve humanitarian conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and dismantle any settlement outposts created under the Sharon government.

Later, it would require the Palestinians to write a constitution. It also calls for a monitoring system led by the quartet to ensure that the two sides meet their commitments. In addition, the road map calls on Israel to withdraw troops from all areas occupied since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000 and to freeze all settlement activity.

The second phase, which would run through the end of 2003, begins with Palestinian elections in January and an international conference to form a provisional Palestinian state. The third phase, due in 2004 and 2005, calls for a second conference and negotiations toward a final peace agreement.

The new version does not address some of the fundamental concerns that Israel raised last month. Specifically, Israel is concerned that the road map does not repeat Bush’s demand for a change in Palestinian leadership and does not set standards that the Palestinians must meet before the sides progress from stage to stage.

Israel wants the steps to be performance-based, not dictated by a timeline that runs regardless of how well the Palestinians honor their commitments, as was the case under the Oslo peace accords.

"We’ve had very negative experiences with timelines in the past," an Israeli official said.

Israel is also not happy that quartet members — three of whom it considers biased toward the Palestinians — will serve as monitors, playing a role that until now has been filled by the United States.

The new version speaks of moving through the process with the "consensus" opinion of the quartet — essentially giving the United States veto power — but Israeli officials argue that isn’t enough. They want any monitoring to be left solely to the United States.

Several analysts say that, unlike Bush’s June 24 speech, the road map essentially allows Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to remain in power. Bush also said that no Palestinian state could be created until the Palestinian leaders "engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure."

Israel has complained that the security steps the plan demands of the Palestinians are too vague.

"The road map is not faithful to Bush’s June 24 speech, which makes crystal clear that removal of Yasser Arafat is a prerequisite of any American diplomatic initiative," said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Also of concern is the lack of consequences for Palestinian noncompliance.

If the road map is released next month, it will come during national elections in Israel, where Haifa’s dovish mayor, Amram Mitzna, will lead the Labor Party. The Likud leadership was to be decided in a Nov. 28 primary, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a heavy favorite to defeat his challenger, Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli officials have been asking for the release to be postponed until after the Jan. 28 national elections. Sharansky made the request in Washington last week, but so far the United States has resisted.

"We haven’t made any decisions in terms of announcements or anything," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said last week.

Releasing the road map during the election campaign would be seen as a gift for Mitzna, who has said he will meet with any Palestinian leader, including Arafat. Sharon has refused to meet with Arafat because of Arafat’s ties to terror groups.

However, Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said Monday that postponing the release would be as much an act of interference in Israeli politics as releasing it. He also suggested that Sharon would not be hampered by the road map.

"He needs to show the Israeli electorate not only that he can fight terrorism, but that he has a way out of the process," Indyk said at a forum at the Brookings Institution, where he is a senior fellow. "He needs to support it."

Indyk also said that based on the fate of other peace plans presented over the past two years, Sharon knows there is little chance the road map will be implemented. Therefore, Indyk said, he has little to lose by supporting the plan.

Makovsky speculated that the United States may be insisting on releasing the document quickly to strengthen U.S. attempts to woo Arab support for a potential attack on Iraq.

"Introducing the document at such a sensitive juncture, very little can be accomplished," he said. "It makes me wonder if Arab states are seeking to insist upon the quartet’s passage of the road map as a prerequisite for their acquiescence to the American actions in Iraq."

Palestinians Spin Speech

Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat chose to view President George W. Bush’s speech in the most positive light, rejecting the call for his ouster and focussing instead on the promise for a state.

On Wednesday, the Palestinian Authority announced plans to hold presidential and legislative elections in January, municipal elections next March, and to overhaul the Palestinian Finance Ministry.

Yet even before President Bush called for replacing the Palestinian Authority leadership, there were growing indications that Palestinians were doing some soul-searching.

One indication was a June 19 petition against suicide bombings, signed by Sari Nusseibeh, the PLO’s top official for Jerusalem; Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian legislator; and other Palestinian intellectuals. The petition, which was published twice as an advertisement in eastern Jerusalem’s Arab press, was the most impressive public move against the current wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks in recent months.

"We would like to believe that those who stand behind the military operations, whose targets are civilians in Israel, will reconsider their acts, because we do not see that they lead to any results, except for more hatred and animosity between the two peoples," the petition read. The petition was signed by 55 Palestinian personalities. It was followed by another advertisement a few days later with even more signatures.

To be sure, the writers of the petition carefully chose their words to stay within the Palestinian consensus. They did not call suicide bombings "terrorist attacks," for example, but "military operations." In addition, they did not say that the attacks against civilians were immoral per se, simply that they weren’t useful to the Palestinian cause.

In any case, the petition coincided with a rally in the Gaza Strip in which hundreds protested over deteriorating economic conditions, demanding work and food rather than armed struggle. Some demonstrators told reporters that they wanted to know what had happened to relief money from overseas, little of which had made its way from the Palestinian Authority to the people.

With outside pressure mounting to overthrow Arafat, he may understand that his only chance for continued popular support will be an improvement in the Palestinians’ economic situation.

Israel is unlikely to reopen its gates to Palestinian workers in the foreseeable future, and significant economic aid from the United States will depend on a cessation of violence — as Bush indicated in his speech this week.

Now, with Bush having come out strongly against the Palestinian leader — on Monday he called "on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror" — Arafat is likely to intensify his efforts to hang on to his image as the only leader able to rally the Palestinian people behind him.

Indeed, for nearly a decade of the Oslo peace process, even as evidence mounted that he was in gross violation of his peace commitments, Arafat maneuvered to stay in power by presenting himself as indispensable.

Curiously, in his initial reaction, Arafat described Bush’s speech as "a serious effort to push the peace process."

The next day, however, he joined other Palestinian officials in saying that only the Palestinians would choose their own leaders. Bush’s call for new leadership was "not acceptable," said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat. Indeed, the present Palestinian Authority leadership is well aware that Arafat’s removal may also mean the end of their political careers.

"Yasser Arafat was elected in democratic elections, and President Bush and others must respect this," Erekat said. Israeli legislator Ahmed Tibi, who previously served as a top adviser to Arafat, said Bush had surpassed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as the person Palestinians hated most.

"Arafat will remain head of the Palestinian Authority, and American pressure to replace him will only increase the violence," Tibi warned. Sensing the writing on the wall, Arafat will try to drive a wedge among the United States, the European Union and the Arab world by adopting a seemingly "peaceful" strategy and warning against "renewed Israeli occupation" of the territories, analysts said.

He also will take actions that appear to restrain Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as he began to do this week. In an interview last week with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Arafat sounded too good to be true. During an interview in Arafat’s battered Ramallah headquarters, he accepted former President Clinton’s outline for a peace settlement, complimented Sharon and said he could make peace with him, adopted the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s declaration of "no more war" and quoted Bush that "enough is enough," regarding violence.

He also criticized Israel for targeting the Palestinian Authority, rather than Hamas or Islamic Jihad — and announced that he was putting the leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmad Yassin, under house arrest.

Indeed, Palestinian police encircled Yassin’s residence in Gaza early this week and arrested at least 17 low-level Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists.

The arrests were followed by intensive contacts between Palestinian police and leaders of Hamas, raising suspicions that the seemingly tough hand was yet another case of the Palestinian Authority’s "revolving door" security policy, in which suspects are arrested and, when pressure eases, quickly released. Few in Israel took Arafat’s purported moderation seriously. Indeed, Arafat’s best displays of verbal moderation come when he feels the screws tightening. One example was the aftermath of the June 2001 terrorist attack at Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium disco that killed 21 Israeli teenagers.

Arafat quickly announced a cease-fire to forestall Israeli retaliation. But violence resumed once enough time had passed that an Israeli attack would seem less like retaliation than provocation.

Now, following the Bush speech, Arafat has even more reason to appear moderate.

However, it was clear that the speech could speed up local pressure on Arafat to step down.

Last week, Edward Said, a former Arafat crony and one of the most influential Palestinian intellectuals in the United States, issued a call for "elections now."

Writing in the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram, Said wrote, "A new basis of legitimacy has to be created by the only and ultimate source of authority, namely, the people itself."

Said stressed that this should not be done in response to outside pressure, but rather because of internal Palestinian demand for accountable and responsible government.

Said criticized Arafat for having "made a deal with the occupation through Oslo," the same argument that led to a rift between the two men several years ago. Some Palestinians believe the Oslo accords were unfair because they obligated the Palestinians to cease violence against Israel — an obligation that was ignored, in any case — while not assuring them that Israel would meet all their demands in negotiations.

Yet in a roundabout way, Said also recognized that the Palestinians needed to abandon terrorism.

"Who else but the Palestinian people can construct the legitimacy they need to rule themselves, and fight the occupation with weapons that don’t kill innocents and lose us more support than ever before?" Said asked. "A just cause can easily be subverted by evil or inadequate or corrupt means. The sooner this is realized, the better the chance we have to lead ourselves out of the present impasse."