There were advances and setbacks in the Middle East peace process this past week, punctuated by a new Egyptian-Israeli trade agreement, a terrorist attack that killed five Israeli soldiers, and a call for an end to violence by the frontrunner in the race for Palestinian president. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon continued efforts to assemble a new coalition government by the beginning of next week. That would enable him to pass the nation’s $60 billion budget by Dec. 31 and to carry out his planned withdrawal of Israeli citizens and troops from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements.
Mahmoud Abbas, the favorite in the Jan. 9 election to be president of the Palestinian Authority, told the London-based Arabic newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat that the “uprising should be kept away from arms because it is a legitimate right of the people to express their rejection of the occupation by popular and social means. … The use of arms has been damaging and should end.” Abbas has said this before, but it was the first time he has made such comments since the death Nov. 11 of Palestinian President Yasir Arafat. Although Abbas has been criticized for such comments in the past, they appeared to have greater resonance now in light of a poll this month that found 52 percent of Palestinians oppose “military operations” against Israel — nearly double June’s poll.
Last month, Abbas reportedly instructed the Palestinian media to refrain from broadcasting incitement against Israelis. Groups that monitor Palestinian broadcasts, including the Middle East Media Research Institute, report a noticeable change. Instead of Islamic clerics calling for Palestinians to wage war against Israelis, they now call for avoiding violence.
Abbas’ remarks against violence came two days after Hamas terrorists detonated explosives in a tunnel they dug beneath an Israeli checkpoint on the Israeli-Egyptian border in the Gaza Strip, killing five soldiers. Israel had a measured response, wary of doing anything that would influence the upcoming election.
Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said the attack demonstrates that “Hamas is still very strong, particularly in Gaza, and in a lot of ways is a threat to Abbas.”
He pointed out that Hamas is calling for Palestinians to boycott the election, which if successful could undermine Abbas’ legitimacy if he is elected by only about 40 percent of the electorate.
“The hopes of some sort of Palestinian reform and democratic government are still very tenuous,” Steinberg said. “If [Abbas] is going to be the president in a government that will be controlled by the elected leaders, he has to find a way of disarming them and this attack is a clear indication that Hamas is not going to make that easy for him.”
Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Herzliya Conference on Israeli National Strength and Security this week that Israel should demand a democratization of Palestinian society prior to peace talks. He was quoted as saying that the disengagement plan would be ineffective without real regime change.
But Steinberg said he fears Abbas will insist that Hamas disarm only when he believes he has the power to do so. His immediate goal, Steinberg said, is to maintain the “economic and political structure” of the Fatah party.
“Only secondarily is he interested in governing Palestinian society,” he said. “Listen to the speeches [Abbas] has been making to the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. He is using Arafat’s language in speaking of the right of return. He is not backing down from Arafat’s extremist positions.”
Steinberg said Abbas is “running for election and not negotiating with Israel, and the two are inconsistent. … We have not had the experience of him as a leader to find out what his policies are likely to be. [But] it is difficult to see him being pragmatic and able to compromise with Israel and disarm Hamas. That is wishful thinking at this stage.”
But on a positive note, the Egyptian-Israeli trade accord signed Tuesday would allow Egypt to import goods duty free to the United States from newly created joint industrial zones in Egypt provided 35 percent of each product was created from cooperation between Israeli and Egyptian companies within the zones and that 11.7 percent was made in Israel.
The Egyptians forecast the deal will create of 250,000 new jobs and Israelis believe it will increase Israeli-Egyptian trade to $70 million annually from its current level of $44 million. Although there has been a warming of Israeli-Egyptian relations in recent months — including suggestions that Egypt’s ambassador to Israel will soon return after a four-year absence — new U.S. textile import regulations that take effect Jan. 1 are believed by some to have been the real impetus for the accord. Without it, Egyptian leaders were quoted as saying Egypt would have lost $479 million in exports and 200,000 jobs.On the Israeli political front, Sam Lehman Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, gave Sharon only a 60 percent chance of being able to put together a new coalition government.
“[Sharon] has got a lot of balls in the air here, and it’s not going to be easy to walk between the raindrops,” he said, noting that failure would result in new elections.
“This is not the usual kind of coalition bargaining,” Lehman Wilzig explained. “Usually the prime minister has a number of options. Sharon has painted himself into a corner, he’s got nowhere else to go. … The real nut to crack here is Shas.”
Shas’ spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has come out against the disengagement plan and is said to be unafraid of new elections, believing it will gain seats.
But another political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, Eytan Gilboa, pointed out that the only reason Sharon is negotiating with Shas is because of pressure from some Likud members opposed to disengagement. He noted that the Labor Party, which Sharon is most anxious to have join his government, has said it will oppose Shas’ entry into the coalition unless Rabbi Yosef changes his position on disengagement.
Sharon needs at least 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset to win approval for his budget. He now has only 41. But Labor would bring him 21 more seats and United Torah Judaism, which is also expected to join the coalition, would give him another 5 seats. Shas’ 11 seats would then not be necessary.
As the negotiations with Labor continued this week over which, if any, ministerial posts it would get in return for joining the government, Gilboa said that Sharon doesn’t necessarily have to present his new government next week. He said Sharon actually has until March 31 to pass the budget.
The negotiations with Labor are complicated by the fact that the three key ministerial posts — the foreign ministry, finance and defense — are not open. Labor is said to want the ministries of education, internal security, interior and infrastructure. “What they have been offered are insignificant portfolios and if they are not given a better offer, they would join as ministers-without-portfolios,” Gilboa said. “But Sharon wants them to be a full partner and not there for just one issue [support for disengagement]. He wants that to make sure the government is long lasting. And if there was a problem with disengagement, Labor could easily get out and elections would then occur.”
In the end, Gilboa said, Sharon and Labor Party leader Shimon Peres will have to meet and hammer out an agreement and then sell it to their members.
Israel correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report.