Hope and the devilish details

Palestinians have been looking at and analyzing the French ideas on two levels. One is the positive fact that a European country, or maybe Europe in general, is finally coming out with an initiative or idea on the Middle East independent of the American framework. The second consideration is the content of these ideas–on one hand new, genuine and worth examining and on the other hand producing mixed reactions among Palestinians.

This initiative arrives in the context of growing European frustration with the American approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That approach is seen by Europeans as increasingly biased towards Israel, to the extent that it is crossing certain “red lines” in the Middle East, including the undermining of the Palestinian Authority and its president, which Europe has helped to anchor and build.

In addition, Europe is frustrated because the United States administration is going about diplomacy in the Middle East independent from any serious consultations with Europe. A useful example of this was the way the US tolerated Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s undermining of the Mitchell Committee report, an effort Europe contributed to significantly.

In the last few months, one must remember, the United States and Israel have managed to sew up an almost unanimous international consensus blaming Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians and placing them under increasing international pressure. When the Americans went so far as to utilize this consensus by allowing–if not encouraging–Israel to further punish the Palestinians and nearly paralyze the Palestinian leadership, at that very moment arrived a European push supporting the Palestinian Authority, criticizing the United States’ exaggerated bias towards Israel and introducing independent ideas for calm, in preparation for a revival of the peace process.

Still, the official and public Palestinian attitude to these ideas is necessarily a bit more complicated. These ideas are originally two, the first calling for the organization of elections in the Palestinian territories “based on the theme of peace,” and the second calling for recognition of a Palestinian state.

Most Palestinians would welcome the idea of elections because they have been frustrated by not being able to exercise their democratic rights and continue the elections process as scheduled. In some ways, Palestinians blame the lack of elections thus far on internal shortcomings.

But despite the warm welcome for new elections, most Palestinians will still find it difficult to understand how this election will contribute to the chances of peace between Israel and Palestinians. At the same time, there are those Palestinian politicians who believe that new elections would effectively counteract the vicious Israeli campaign of de-legitimizing the Palestinian Authority and its president.

The final outcome of the elections, surprisingly, seems not to be worrying Palestinians, including officials. President Arafat and Fateh’s chances of winning appear to be high, not only in their own estimation, but in that of many analysts. Recent polls showing an increase in support for opposition factions and a decline in support for Arafat’s camp does not mean he and Fateh would lose. Some of that support for the opposition is an expression of frustration and a vengeful spirit against Israeli aggression.

Indeed, while the current popularity of opposition groups is an expression of support for their resistance against Israeli actions, in formal elections, other factors–economy, society, women’s rights–become important alongside the immediate political and military fight against occupation. Too, one must remember that Palestinian society is largely secular in nature. As such, fears that the peace camp might lose the elections should probably be lain to rest.

In as much as these elections are intended to serve the goals put forth in the French proposal, the first objective (“to trigger the psychological effect that could justify ending the Intifada”) does not make sense to most Palestinians. They understand the Intifada to be a result of occupation. They expect people to tell them how they might trigger the psychological effects necessary to end the occupation, which is the cause of the Intifada, not the other way around.

Too, a state that does not have defined borders will not make much sense if the borders of 1967 are not included in one way or another. In addition, a state that does not include any part of Jerusalem is likely meaningless for most Palestinians and will be difficult to market to the public.

But more important than all these caveats is this: the declaration of a state may not end the current violent confrontations, whether the Palestinian resistance to occupation or Israeli violence intended to maintain the occupation. That is because some of the Palestinian territories will remain under occupation and there will be no answer to the other rights Palestinians are fighting for, such as the problem of the refugees. An approach depending on a declaration of statehood could be useful if it is part of a package assuring Palestinians that at its end will be the end of occupation.

A major concern Palestinians have is the lack of an implementing mechanism. Without that, the most likely scenario is that Israel will use the same tactical argument that it used with US proposals– that Palestinian elections and freedom of movement are only possible with a complete Israeli- acknowledged ceasefire. That, of course, gives the extremists in Israel and Palestine the final veto against any elections–and any progress.

Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

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