As this issue of Crescent goes to press, and barely two months after the Palestinians elected Hamas to power in the parts of occupied Palestine in which they have a degree of political autonomy, the people of Israel are going to the polls to elect a new parliament and government. The elections were called by Ariel Sharon late last year, in an attempt to legitimise his populist plan to unilaterally impose a ‘peace settlement’ on the Palestinians on his own terms. The nature of the elections was completely changed, however, when he suffered a massive stroke on January 4; he has been in a coma since and will never return to front-line politics, even assuming he comes out of his coma, which appears unlikely.
In his absence his deputy, Ehud Olmert, has taken over Kadima, the “centrist” political party that Sharon founded to supplant the traditional Likud and Labour parties shortly before his death. A former mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert is regarded as a hard-liner in Sharon’s mould, albeit one without -- as yet -- Sharon’s bloody history. Assuming that he wins enough seats to head a coalition government (no Israeli party ever wins outright power) with either Likud, Labour or a coalition of smaller parties, he is expected to pursue Sharon’s vision of formalising Israel’s annexation of large tracts of the West Bank while offering the cosmetic withdrawal from minor and insignificant settlements in return.
Although Olmert and other Israeli politicians have taken a hard stance in response to the electoral victory of Hamas, they know that they will have to deal with the Palestinian Islamic movement sooner or later. The entire object of the Israeli war on the Palestinians since the al-Aqsa intifada of 2000 was to break the Palestinian spirit, and make the Palestinians realise thatIsrael’s military force and political power -- both courtesy of the world’s sole superpower and the international community that it dominates -- were too strong for the Palestinians to resist. Yasser Arafat’s leadership of the Palestinian Authority, during both the period of the peace process in the 1990s and after the al-Aqsa intifada, was based on the assumption that it was better to deal with the Israelis and the Americans than to resist them. Throughout this period, Hamas offered a principled opposition to this stance, insisting on the right to resist. Hamas’s election confirms that Palestinians reject the conciliatory approach and favour the direction of Hamas, and thus that Israel’s hopes of imposing a settlement are bound to fail.
For all Sharon’s and Olmert’s bombast about a unilateral settlement, the fact is that, whoever wins the Israeli elections, Israel and the West will have to deal with Hamas and heed the Palestinians’ demands if any sort of settlement is to be reached. Beyond electoral politics, that is the reality that will define the future course of the Palestinian struggle.