The formation of the new Palestinian cabinet was accompanied by both high expectations and heavy interference. The recent events in the Palestinian political system were characterized by fierce internal debate and struggle typical of healthy democratic life–a struggle that was inaccurately portrayed externally as a fight between two individuals over competing political strategies. The subsequent involvement of outside players and attempts to influence the course of events have unfortunately–by virtue of their emphasis–set us all up for disappointment.
During the course of the cabinet selection, different Palestinian players (and not just the president and prime minister-designate) utilized the chance to try to forward their various points of view, a debate that culminated in competition for the vote of the Legislative Council or parliament. This exercise reflected a healthy democratic system not seen in most neighboring Arab states. But instead of being described as a positive and unique discussion, the differences within the Palestinian political sphere were described by the press as an impediment to the evolution of a “reformed” Palestinian cabinet (what is “reform”, anyway, but healthy democratic debate?).
In the realm of politics, there are actually no significant differences between Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Both come from the same school of thought and in all previous internal Palestinian disputes have come down on the same side. The most recent example of that was during the discussions of the Palestinian delegation to the Camp David negotiations.
Even Abu Mazen’s remarks about the need to stop the military components of the Intifada reflect the views of President Arafat, who tried to pursue that course of action through several ceasefire declarations and statements calling to stop the violence, as well as practical attempts to carry out his objectives. Unfortunately, Israeli behavior–whether the ongoing Israeli crackdown on Palestinian security organs or the continuous Israeli killing of Palestinian civilians–manufactures Palestinian anger, extremism and the spirit of revenge.
The attempts to interfere in this internal debate from outside were not constructive and were even harmful, but in the final analysis did not prevent an outcome in harmony with the will of the Palestinian people as represented by the affirming vote of the Legislative Council. Still, because this new Palestinian government was a response to the demands of those with the power to influence the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (such as the United States), its completion created high expectations among both Palestinians and Israelis. The change also occurred after the war in Iraq, which many analysts had concluded would push United States and the Quartet in general to “do something” vis-a-vis the Middle East and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
But realists have no reason to nurse hopes due to the change within the Palestinian cabinet, simply because the obstacles to replacing the ongoing violence with peaceful negotiations are not found on the Palestinian side. Despite the danger of sounding like a broken record, it is fact that the individuals in charge of the Israeli government, including the prime minister himself, have political and ideological problems with the central notions of the peace process: ending the occupation, stopping settlement expansion and adhering to international law. These tenets also make up the basis for the Quartet roadmap. That is why, until we see a change that replaces the current government in Israel with a government that can “belong” politically and ideologically to the peace process, it is very difficult to be optimistic about a change in direction.
Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.