Forward to the future?

In Israel and Palestine, the two ruling parties have split. First Likud begat Kadima ("forward"), then Fateh begat Mustaqbal ("future"). These two parallel political dynamics in Israel and Palestine do not appear to have much in common, perhaps with the exception of the admission of some of the Mustaqbal founders that they drew inspiration from PM Ariel Sharon’s decision to leave the Likud and strike out on his own. Nor does it appear likely that the two dynamics will contribute to achieving a mutually agreed political goal.
In Israel, Kadima is largely a one-man party. That man, Sharon, at 78, is a very strong leader, and his new party represents the prospect of ongoing and relatively stable rule by a representative of the old guard who has a successful new idea, disengagement. True, the long-term future of such a party is shrouded in uncertainty, and Sharon’s health is now in question. But the virtual collapse of the Likud with its rotten institutions appears to be a healthy development in Israeli politics. So does the parallel emergence of Amir Peretz as leader of the "other" fossilized party, Labor. Nor does it appear likely that Likud and Kadima will get back together prior to Israel’s March 28 elections.

In Palestine, the split between Fateh and Mustaqbal appears to reflect, first and foremost, the weakness of the leader, President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). The rift reflects anarchy rather than the search for a new order: no fewer than 14 Fateh personalities appear on both lists. This seeming fiasco weakens the claim of both Fateh parties to rule, with Hamas poised to take advantage of yet another display of establishment decay. Everyone in Palestine seems to understand this; hence the frantic attempts to reunite the two Fateh factions–or at least to minimize the significance of their split, which involves primarily personalities rather than issues–in an effort to save something of Fateh’s power in the January 25 elections.

As matters now stand, and factoring in the Islamists’ dramatic gains in last week’s Palestinian municipal elections, Hamas will achieve significant influence within the next Palestinian Legislative Council.

Accordingly, its extremism will become an element of influence on the next Palestinian government, obliging it to adopt more hard line positions regarding negotiations with Israel. This will strengthen the argument of those Israelis who claim that "there is no viable negotiating partner" on the Palestinian side. In turn, it will make it easier for the next Israeli government–vis-a-vis the US administration and the Israeli public alike–to reject the path of negotiations. Sharon and his followers in any case appear more interested in an additional unilateral disengagement than in talks with Abu Mazen.

In other words, the major splits in the ruling parties on both sides of the green line–however different in nature and outcome–increase the likelihood that, in the best case, the next phase in the Israeli-Palestinian process will be phase two of disengagement rather than negotiations.

Palestinians from the Fateh mainstream and the secular left blame Sharon’s policies for weakening the Fateh-dominated polity and enhancing the power of the Islamists. There is undoubtedly some truth in this accusation: at the height of the intifada, Sharon decimated Palestinian Authority security institutions militarily without sufficient justification; he has avoided taking reasonable steps that could have strengthened Abu Mazen’s rule; and he has shunned negotiations that might enable Abu Mazen to justify a tougher stance toward troublemakers in his own camp. Moreover, lest we forget, long before Sharon’s time as prime minister it was Israel that aided and abetted the very formation of Hamas in Gaza, precisely in order to weaken Fateh and the PLO.

But these same Palestinians also have themselves to blame, and if they don’t address the weaknesses within their own society that have brought about this situation, their future will be dim indeed. The Fateh "bolsheviks" and political dinosaurs from Tunis are not holding onto power in Ramallah because of Israel; Yasser Arafat did not cultivate corruption and violence because of Israel. If Hamas exploits the current disarray among secular Palestinians in order to establish itself in power, this will reflect overwhelming regional trends, along with significant mistakes by Abu Mazen (and George W. Bush, who has supported this version of Palestinian democracy), more than any contribution by Israel.

The next Israeli government will have to find a way to move forward, despite these problematic prospects for the Palestinian future.