Why Palestinians Fear Sharon's Departure

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How do Palestinians view the departure of Ariel Sharon from the political stage?

The Palestinian political class fears that the Sharon's departure will not freeze, but will actually kill any hopes for progress toward a peace agreement in the near future. None of the Israeli leaders who could succeed Sharon would have the courage and initiative to take the steps that Sharon has taken, to say "we have to create a Palestinian state" and then set about making that happen. Sharon wasn't popular among the Palestinians, but his leadership is well respected. Sharon promised things that other Israelis did not promise.

Sharon had a vision, whether we like it or agree with it or not. His decision to withdraw from Gaza was the best example: He left because he saw it as the best political option for Israel, and he had the courage to face down the challenge from the hotheads in his own party and society who labeled him a traitor. This is leadership. A leader is the one who takes unpopular decisions. Who is going to be this kind of leader in Israel after Sharon? No one, as far as I can tell now.

Israel will be caught up in internal political struggles and its next government is likely to be based on a very fragile coalition, in which everybody has to be accommodated. We won't see a leader who will mobilize Israelis behind an initiative. So, I think the Palestinians will suffer because of a lack of leadership in Israel, and a lack of leadership among themselves—Israeli mistrust of the Palestinians will grow because the Palestinian leadership has failed to enforce law and order, and stop the growing chaos in its own territories. And that will discourage Israelis from seeking a deal with the Palestinians, because the Palestinians will appear incapable of implementing the promises they make. The "peace strategy" of President Mahmoud Abbas will not bear fruit, because the strategy of peace requires making unpopular decisions on the Palestinian side, as Sharon did on the Israeli side. And Palestinian leaders have been unwilling to do that. Now, Israel, too, may less willing to take bold steps.

President Mahmoud Abbas faces a tough decision over whether to proceed with the January 25 Palestinian legislative election. His own Fatah party looks set to suffer a drubbing at the polls, further weakening his already tenuous political authority, but postponing the vote could have the same effect. So what will he do?

The "Old Guard" of Fatah, those who surrounded Yasser Arafat and now Mahmoud Abbas, are against holding the election. They don't want to lose ground to Hamas, and even more immediately, they don't want to lose their own control over the ruling party to the younger generation of Fatah activists who will eclipse them if the vote goes ahead. For the same reason, the younger generation of Fatah leaders, grouped around the imprisoned West Bank leader Marwan Barghouti, want the election held on schedule, as do the other Palestinian groups. Hamas wants to use the election to make a show of its political strength—they want to share power with Fatah and use that position to clean up the Palestinian house, fighting corruption. This is the reason Fatah is scared to death of Hamas: The people on the street who will vote for Hamas don't necessarily support its political program and an Islamic state, but they see it as a vehicle for fighting corruption. No more than 20 percent of Palestinians support the political program of Hamas, but up to 60 percent may vote for it as a way of protesting against the corruption of Fatah.

If the vote goes ahead, what results do you anticipate?

The recent municipal elections in major West Bank towns were swept by Hamas, largely as an expression of protest by traditional Fatah supporters against the corruption of the leadership—Nablus, for example, used to be a Fatah stronghold; Hamas won 11 of the 13 seats on its local council. We may see a similar phenomenon in parliamentary elections. I would break down the likely vote in this way:

  • 5 percent of voters will go to the polls to express their support for the Popular Front, Democratic Front and other organizations of the Left;
  • 20 percent of voters will go to the polls to express support for Hamas;
  • 20 percent of voters will go to the polls to punish Fatah, probably by voting for Hamas and independents;
  • 15 percent of voters will turn out to express support for Fatah; and
  • the remaining 40 percent of voters will stay at home, because they have become very pessimistic about Palestinian politics in the face of so much violent chaos in the West Bank and Gaza.

    Would an election advance prospects of peace with Israel?

    Unlikely. With Hamas occupying a large number of seats, the Palestinian government that emerges from an election will be paralyzed in dealing with Israel. That's why Abbas is deeply depressed, according to sources close to him. He has disappointed the Americans and Israelis, and even on the Palestinian side he feels that everybody is against him. That is why he keeps repeating his threat to resign.