A speculative but productive exercise

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Israeli and Palestinian elections have never before been held at the same time. Currently, the simultaneous election campaigns on both sides of the green line are just getting underway. So there is little basis in terms of shared history or experience upon which to ground our thinking about ways in which the two elections might interact.

Yet interact they will. So the following is essentially an exercise in speculation, but potentially a productive one.

First, to the extent that Palestinian voters now perceive a shift to the left among the Israeli electorate–the appearance of the Kadima party, Amir Peretz’s election as leader of Labor–it stands to reason that moderate Palestinians who themselves advocate a peace process might succeed in recruiting additional public support. Some of these Palestinians, from the younger generation of Fateh, also recently threatened that if the Fateh list ultimately submitted by the leadership to the voters does not sufficiently represent them, they will take a leaf from Ariel Sharon and form a separate Fateh list.

On the other hand, internal Israeli election considerations could conceivably influence the way the Sharon government, or what is left of it, deals with the modalities of the Gaza crossings and other sensitive issues in the time leading up to the Palestinian elections on January 25. Generous concessions and gestures by Israel could also encourage a dovish Palestinian vote, while a refusal to make concessions could have the opposite effect.

Here the interaction becomes two-directional, as we witnessed with the suicide bombing in Netanya on Dec. 5. Such acts of terrorism by Islamic Jihad, with its Syrian and Iranian backers, could be intended precisely to provoke the kind of angry response Israel declared, thereby escalating matters and driving voters on both sides toward more hawkish positions. Hamas has already indicated that it intends to abandon its ceasefire commitment at the end of December, thereby theoretically leaving it nearly a month to cause this sort of mayhem. Traditionally, Israeli voters have responded to violent acts of Palestinian terrorism carried out as election day approaches by becoming more hawkish; in recent decades, the balance between left and right has more than once been tipped this way.

An even more dramatic Palestinian electoral influence on Israel’s elections could revolve around Hamas’ performance on January 25. If Hamas scores what would appear to Israelis to be significant electoral gains, thereby presumably guaranteeing it a hawkish input into future PLO/PA policies, this will likely damage the election prospects of the Israeli Zionist left, Labor and Meretz, both of which advocate renewing peace negotiations. It could also influence the Kadima platform: PM Ariel Sharon currently denies any future intention to carry out a second unilateral disengagement, preferring to declare his loyalty to the roadmap and to subscribe to a generalized, roadmap-based two-state concept in the hope of appealing to voters from both the left and the right. But if, following the Palestinian elections, it becomes obvious to the Israeli public that the moderate Palestinian camp has suffered a setback and that Hamas, which opposes a two-state solution, will from herein exerci! se greater influence over Palestinian policymaking, then Sharon could conceivably feel encouraged to abandon ambiguity and state plainly that he represents the only alternative remaining for the large majority of voters: more disengagement.

By the same token, if Fateh emerges from the Palestinian elections stronger, and Hamas weaker, Labor might benefit in the Israeli elections. One way or another the two elections, and the coalition-building on both sides that follows them, can be expected to interact in a number of influential ways. It may seem an unfair burden, but politicians on both sides must now take into account that their campaign statements and their ministerial decisions may affect more than one important election.

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