In the title of this post, you have crystal clear picture of everything that’s wrong with Israeli politics. The Palestinians plan to hold elections in January. Abbas is assiduously courting Hamas to participate and the latter has expressed readiness to do so. Abbas’ view is that including Hamas within the Palestinian polity will eventually reduce its need to turn to armed resistance.
In addition, we all know George Bush is on a democracy kick when it comes to the Mideast. So he certainly wants to see successful Palestinian elections that could advance the possibility that Palestine will join Bush’s “march of progress” toward democracy. I’m not sure where this places Sharon. He should want a democratic Palestine because a nation in which all responsible political players are represented will be a more stable society and neighbor. And he certainly knows that Hamas is a major player in Palestinian society which must be represented politically in order to have a real democracy.
So why is Sharon making such bellicose statements about Hamas’ participation?
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed Friday to withhold Israeli cooperation from Palestinian legislative elections in January if candidates from the militant group Hamas take part.
“We will make every effort not to help them,” he said at a meeting with journalists in New York. “I don’t think they can have elections without our help.”
Mr. Sharon said Israel could choose not to remove roadblocks and checkpoints that would block Palestinians from the polls and make it hard for Palestinians in Jerusalem to vote, among other steps, if Hamas, which calls for Israel’s destruction, takes part.
—New York Times
One could argue that Sharon doesn’t really care what happens in the Palestinian elections. In fact, perhaps he wishes to sabotage them so the Palestinians will never appear as potential responsible partners for negotiations. But the more likely answer is that Sharon is jockeying for position within his party for the upcoming party leadership primary in which he faces Bibi Netanyahu, the anti-Palestinian flamethrower. Though Sharon is now expected to win (that was by no means assured as recently as two weeks ago), he probably wants to win by as large a margin as possible to reinforce his mandate to govern and propose further stratagems (like the Gaza disengagement) to advance a peace agenda. So Sharon’s statement can be seen as red meat for the party faithful standing to his right. He’s trying to pull the rug out from under Netanyahu by out Palestinian-baiting him.
It’s a long and respected tradition within Israeli politics. This doesn’t make it any less shameful. Such bellicosity scores points within one’s party perhaps. But it further sours those Palestinians you will eventually need to make peace (and how much more sour could they be?). In effect, Sharon is saying to them: “let me deal with this problem on my right flank and I’ll get to you later.” This of course makes the Palestinians an afterthought, if they are a thought at all in his mind.
Such grandstanding may be good political tactics in the short run for Sharon but they are disastrous in the medium to long-term. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires a leader, not a grandstander.
Sharon’s statement puts the Bush Administration in an awkward position. How can it vocally disagree with him when the U.S. has Hamas on its international terrorism list? But it has to know that a failed election–in which Israel frustrates the will of tens of thousands of Palestinians to cast their vote–will be disastrous for prospects for peace in the region. Perhaps Condi Rice and Bush are hoping this is mere political grandstanding that will blow over after the upcoming Likud primary. But they do have to take into account that this might also become a real line in the sand position for Sharon from which he will not back down. This of course would be a potential nightmare. I urge Bush to make clear privately or publicly to Sharon that this position is a non-starter which will be rejected firmly and publicly if he pursues it further.
UPDATE: Condi Rice must’ve been reading my mind (that’s meant as a joke!) as according to the NY Times, she released a statement yesterday calling for Israel to allow the Palestinian election to proceed unimpeded (though her statement was relative milquetoast):
“This is going to be a Palestinian process,” Ms. Rice said…, “and I think we have to give the Palestinians some room for the evolution of their political process.
“We hope that the elections can go forward and that everyone will work to make those elections go forward.”
I characterize this as the schoolmistress rapping the ruler on the blackboard on the first day of school when class gets unruly. She wants to get your attention and she understands that students want to have some fun on the first day of school. But she also wants to put you on notice that if the shenanigans continue you’ll have hell to pay.
Let’s hope that Condi’s mildness won’t be repaid later on with Israeli defiance.