It is still early to accurately predict or analyze the impact of this new Israeli government on relations between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly the prospects for peace during its tenure. The main question that Palestinians will wait to have answered is whether this new government will continue with what was the main feature of the governance of Ariel Sharon: doing everything possible to tilt the internal balance of power in Palestine against the Palestinian peace camp. Sharon fastidiously used every opportunity to dismiss and belittle moderate Palestinian leadership as personified in Mahmoud Abbas, and to create a political and economic atmosphere conducive to the growth of extremism and radicalization.
On the face of it, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made several statements as acting prime minister that seemed to distance him from Sharon’s usual politics. In the very least, he left the door open for bilateral negotiations, rather than committing immediately to a unilateral approach. The composition of his cabinet is different from that of Sharon; it is dominated by Kadima, which is a mixture of right and left, as represented by former members of Likud and Labor. The leadership of the Labor Party, Olmert’s other major coalition partner, may be markedly different under Amir Peretz, who previously pursued negotiations toward a political settlement with Palestinians, and who recognized Palestinians as a party for talks.
Nor did Olmert’s speech at the Knesset swearing-in offer adequate indicators whether or not he will pursue a path of bilateralism or unilateralism. There is no doubt, however, that if his desire is to pursue his predecessor’s strategy of avoiding any dealings with Palestinians, the existence of a Hamas-led government in Palestine provides Olmert with an additional excuse. The dangers of the radicalization of Palestinian society, as materialized in the recent parliamentary elections, should encourage any Israeli strategically keen on reaching peaceful agreements with Palestinians to try to redesign the Israeli approach to the conflict and Israeli treatment of Palestinians so as to help reverse this change in Palestinian public opinion.
There are three steps required of the new Israeli government in order to reverse the previous government’s actions, which were largely responsible for the change in Palestinian public opinion and the election results. The first is to recognize the Palestinian Authority as led by President Abbas as a party to peaceful negotiations on the basis of the roadmap plan. Second, this government should halt practices such as Israeli-controlled restrictions on movement, construction of the wall on Palestinian land, and incitement of the international community against financial support of Palestinians. These practices are responsible for economic deterioration, increasing poverty, and growing unemployment, which are strong factors in the transformation within Palestinian society toward religious fanaticism, extremism and the tendency to violence. Third, Israel should put an end to the strategy of separating Gaza from the West Bank, gradual disintegration of the West Bank, expanding the settlements, and separating East Jerusalem and its surroundings from the rest of the West Bank, all of which jeopardize the future of a viable Palestinian state.
These three steps alone would certainly contribute to reversing the process of radicalization within Palestinian society, weaken the arguments of Hamas and its government officials, and lend credibility to the hope that Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian peace camp can lead the Palestinian people through peaceful negotiations to ending the Israeli occupation and attaining independence and economic prosperity.