01/23/2006, 00.00
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Israel's power in Palestine's elections

by Arieh Cohen
Whatever the outcome of the elections, the future of the region is in the hands of Israel and an international peace conference. From our correspondent.

Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) – Next Wednesday's Palestinian parliamentary elections show above all that Palestinians want democracy. Like the 1996 ballot and the 2005 presidential elections, they are an example for the dictator-ridden Arab world. Among the various contenders, Fatah, main heir to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and Hamas, a violent extremist political movement, are vying for power. However, whatever the results for each party, the elections won't have much impact in practical terms.

The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) does not in fact have effective control over the situation. The territory under its formal control remains subject to Israel's hostile occupation since its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. For all intents and purposes, the fate of the population is largely in Israeli, not Palestinian hands.

Such as they are, the PNA's own powers are limited by Israel and depend on the good will of Israeli military commands. The situation that follows is one that is inherently unstable and unsettling marked by regular waves of intense violence.

It is Catch-22 situation. One the one hand, Israel wants the PNA to act against armed Palestinian groups for carrying out deadly attacks behind the Green Line. On the other, the PNA cannot legitimately justify to its population actions against armed Palestinian groups as long as occupation and Israeli settlement activities continue on Palestinian territory. The upshot is that its territory is further carved and fragmented and life for the civilian population is made even more miserable.

For Israel, the PNA's failure to tackled armed groups has made the latter a decreasingly legitimate partner in peace talks, and Israel's government has gone so far as to dub the PNA "a structure in support of terrorism".

For Israel, repression of armed groups is a precondition to peace negotiations. Failure to act on this demand has meant that Israeli forces have had to intervene on a daily basis directly inside Palestinian "autonomous" territory in search of alleged terrorists. In turn, this has enflamed Palestinian public opinion.

This vicious circle has lasted for years and Palestinian elections won't make any substantial difference. Buckets of money are being poured into the elections to spread Fatah's and Hamas' opposing views. Each side seems to have winning arguments.

None the less, it is also clear that if occupation and especially settlement activities are harmful, Israel does have a legitimate point when it says it has the right to defend itself against horrific terrorist attacks launched from areas under the formal control of PNA security forces.

And should Hamas achieve a significant breakthrough in the elections, Israel might do what it says it will do in such a case, i.e. refuse to sit at the peace table with a partner that harbours "an organisation considered terrorist by both the United States and Europe".

Yet, for all its success in the media war in Western chancelleries and among Western public opinions, Israel cannot achieve much on the ground. Instead, the situation will continue to fester and favour more clashes and terrorist attacks.

The only way out is for Palestinians and Israelis to go back to peace talks to hammer out a peace treaty. Despite their respective leaderships' manipulative discourse, a majority of public opinion on both sides of the divide is committed to this path.

To reach the light at the end of the tunnel—and crossing the tunnel itself—requires a robust framework: an international peace conference. One already exists since the 1991 Madrid Conference was never formally brought to a close and could just be reconvened.

Since then, the chances of a good outcome have improved thanks to some positive developments. The historic resolution adopted by the Arab League in 2002 calling for peace with Israel is one such development. Another is the UN Security Council resolution to reiterate and update the UN 1947 plan for the creation of two states (one Jewish, one Arab) in the Holy Land. In fact, except for Jerusalem and surrounding areas, it is clear that the boundaries laid out by the 1947 United Nations plan have been superseded by the international recognition of the armistice lines created by the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948-49.

This said, one cannot disregard the role Hamas will play in the future Palestinian state. Here, as was recently the case in Iraq (and in the early 1990s in Algeria), democratic elections have favoured theocratic ideologies that are essentially antithetical to liberal democracy.

This is a problem that must be faced, but in the present situation, it is of limited importance. It can however take centre stage when the long-awaited international peace conference starts again.

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