For the second time in seven months, Palestinians have a new government. On November 12, the Palestinian Legislative Council approved Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qureia’s cabinet. While the US and Israel have stressed that progress on the US-backed road map initiative depends on the new Palestinian leadership, the question remains whether Qureia will fare any better than his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas.
Qureia’s cabinet must simultaneously address Israeli and US demands, meet the Palestinian public’s expectations, and negotiate the parameters of power between the prime minister and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. These tasks are interrelated and none will be achieved without concrete changes on the ground. Key to Qureia’s potential success, and to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is Israel’s response and US pressure.
Qureia’s government will have no legitimacy with the Palestinian public unless it secures substantive indications that Israel intends to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the campaign of human rights abuses it employs to maintain its control. Without popular support, Qureia’s authority will be undermined and meeting US and Israeli demands will be impossible.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has repeatedly argued that Israel is prepared to make “painful concessions” for peace, but that the process cannot move forward until there is a complete cessation of Palestinian violence. However, Sharon’s policies of brutal repression of Palestinian civilians have not brought Israel security. During Sharon’s tenure, the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs has documented over 100 Palestinian attacks on Israelis (both soldiers and civilians), compared with 21 from 1994 to Sharon’s rise to power in February 2001.
Sharon has also argued that there is no Palestinian partner for negotiations, but last month’s release of the “Geneva Accords”, negotiated by Israeli and Palestinian teams headed by former Minister of Justice and Labor Party leader Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Minister of Cabinet Affairs Yasser Abed Rabbo, highlights the spurious nature of this contention.
In between these claims, the Sharon government has continued its territorial expansion. Despite the road map’s call for an end to settlement activity, the Sharon government continues to expand West Bank settlements. In late October, the Israeli government issued a call for tenders to construct over 300 new homes in Israeli-only settlements, including some deep inside the West Bank.
Concurrently, Israel continues construction of its separation wall. According to a report covering the first and second phases of construction by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 89 percent of the wall’s approved path encroaches upon Palestinian territory in the West Bank. Approximately 30 percent of the Palestinian population will be directly harmed as a result. In late October, the UN General Assembly declared that the wall violates international law and demanded that Israel stop and reverse its construction.
The wall’s clearly political nature prompted the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz on November 11th to declare it the “fence of folly,” arguing that “(u)nder the guise of granting security to Israel, the prime minister apparently means to implement in stages his anachronistic vision of a carved-up patchwork Palestinian state. Hopefully, he will come to his senses and retreat from this foolish plan.”
The impact of Israel’s policies was highlighted in late October when Israeli armed forces chief of staff Moshe Yaalon spoke out. Referring to the humanitarian crisis in the occupied territories, Yaalon told the Israeli press that Israel’s military policies had brought daily life for Palestinian civilians to a standstill and were creating intense levels of hostility. Yaalon blamed the Sharon government’s unwillingness to alleviate restrictions on Palestinian civilians for undermining former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and contributing to the stalling of the road map process.
This is the environment Ahmad Qureia’s government enters. Only time will tell whether his government will suffer a fate similar to Abbas’s. But while the advent of a new Palestinian leadership may spark renewed Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic engagement, those talks are unlikely to bring security to either of the two peoples if the Sharon government continues with business as usual.