PNA illusions in Sharon move

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THE Palestinian National Authority (PNA) immediately reacted to the latest Israeli political upheaval on Monday, describing it sceptically but hopefully as a ‘volcano’ that might open an ‘opportunity for the peace process’ and lead in the post-elections period to a re-emergence of a peace camp in Israel.

Some 80 Israeli lawmakers voted on Monday evening to dissolve the Knesset and bring forward national elections, hours after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon split his ruling Likud party by announcing his intention to form a new centrist political movement committed to the UN-adopted ‘roadmap’ peace plan and the creation of a Palestinian state.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav said Monday evening he would accept a decision made by lawmakers to disband the Knesset and hold early elections on March 28.

In his first public address on Monday since quitting the Likud, Sharon said the party he plans to form would work to set Israel’s permanent borders.

‘We face two great challenges. First, to lay the foundation for a peace agreement wherein the country’s permanent borders will be determined, while insisting on the dismantling of terrorist organisations,’ Sharon told reporters on Monday.

Sharon however did not elaborate to indicate whether he plans to ‘determine’ Israel’s borders unilaterally or through negotiations with the Palestinians.

But he explained that the new ‘peace agreement is not a new plan, I speak of the roadmap,’ which was drafted by the Quartet of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia and later adopted by the United Nations.

However he added that the Israeli unilateral ‘disengagement’ of troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip and a tiny part of the northern West Bank ‘gave us an historic opportunity, (that) I do not intend to allow anyone to squander.’

He nonetheless reiterated that the disengagement will not be repeated in the West Bank, saying: ‘There is no additional disengagement plan.

‘The second challenge is to put our own house in order,’ he said.

Despite Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip, many observers and most Palestinians doubted Sharon’s commitment to pursuing peace in the Middle East.

The latest political upheaval in Israel was received with immediate Palestinian reaction, hope and doubt and was described by the PNA as a ‘volcano’.

‘In principle, we don’t interfere in domestic Israeli affairs. What matters for us is to see a prime minister in Israel committed to the peace process,’ said Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina.

‘The Palestinian Authority is waiting to see the political programme of the next Israeli government to see whether it will be a government of peace or a government that will continue to procrastinate and shy away from peace,’ Abu Rudeina added.

PNA Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Sha’th was slightly optimistic.

‘I think that there is slight optimism in reaction to what is going on in Israel,’ said Sha’th, who is also the Palestinian Information Minister.

‘I think that there is an opportunity for the peace process. . . . The Palestinian leadership is following carefully what is going on in Israel,’ he said.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was also hopeful and described the latest developments in the Jewish state as a ‘volcano’.

‘I’ve never seen anything of this significance. I believe this is an eruption of an Israeli political volcano, and I hope that when the dust settles, we will have a partner in Israel that is willing to re-engage in the end game, the end of conflict, in order to achieve a peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians, which, I believe, is doable,’ Erekat said.

Erekat believes that the Palestinians are at the centre of the ‘restructuring of politics in Israel’.

‘I do not think this is happening because of economic or social programme, it is happening because of us, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,’ he said.

Erekat added that Palestinians no longer view Israeli politics as a purely internal matter that has no effect on their lives. What happens politically in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, he said, has an immediate impact on Palestinians in Jericho or Gaza, or anywhere else that Palestinians live.

Separately, member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) Hanan Ashrawi said that Sharon’s political moves could free up Israeli politics from what she described as its current hardened positions.

‘Ultimately it is healthy for Israel to do this, because the Likud was essentially just a competition between the extreme right and the more extreme right,’ she said.

Ashrawi expected a ‘peace camp’ to emerge after the upcoming Israeli elections.

‘The Labour Party was almost nonexistent and co-opted by Likud. So, now, the real political map will be drawn up, and there will probably be a period of a lack of external activity, or movement on the peace process. In preparation for the elections, I think, there will be heightened rhetoric to win votes, but in a post-election era, there probably will be a re-emergence of a peace camp,’ Ashrawi said.

The anti-Israeli occupation group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), said on Monday that Sharon’s departure from the Likud shows that Israel’s politics is a failure.

‘Sharon’s resignation shows the failure of Israel’s repressive policies in subjugating the Palestinians,’ the group said in a statement to reporters.

‘The resignation is a second shake for the political map in Israel after the earthquake of Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and dismantling the former settlements there,’ it added.

Palestinians fear that if talks do not resume, Sharon will set the border on the line of the Apartheid Wall Israel is building on the occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank, which annexes 58 per cent of the West Bank area to Israel and dooms any prospect for a viable and contiguous Palestinian state, envisioned by the ‘roadmap’.

Recently Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas said Sharon was interested in a long-term interim agreement and a Palestinian state, minus Jerusalem, with temporary borders, which is rejected. The Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the PNA have both expressed fears recently that Sharon was even interested in a Gaza Strip state as a test case.

Edward Walker, former US ambassador to Israel, said Sharon was not interested in a final settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

‘He will continue to build the wall, he will continue to isolate the small Israeli settlements, to eliminate them and to turn larger chunks of land over to the Palestinians and to withdraw from parts of the West Bank – but not as a final settlement, as a holding operation for an extended period of time . . .

‘Nobody should confuse this with a willingness to walk away from Jerusalem, or with a near-term discussion of final status. That is not in his agenda.’