Wednesday, March 01, 2006

What the P.L.O. Has to Offer

By SAEB EREKAT
Op-Ed Contributor
The New York Times
March 1, 2006

MANY have argued that Hamas's winning of a decisive majority in the Palestinian Parliament provides yet another setback for peace and democracy in the Middle East. Some have even suggested that it vindicates Israeli unilateralism. I, however, think the opposite is true: A negotiated and lasting peace may now be closer than many of us could have imagined just weeks ago.

The parliamentary elections could be seen as a referendum on the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas, who came to office a year ago after winning nearly two-thirds of the popular vote. Mr. Abbas ran on a platform of job creation, internal security and a negotiated resolution of the conflict with Israel based on two states living side by side in peace.

Many people believe that Mr. Abbas did not deliver. Today, there are fewer jobs, not more; security for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the occupied Gaza Strip is worse, not better; and negotiations, like the two-state solution, are stalled.

Mr. Abbas, however, is not ultimately to blame. When he called on Israel to lift restrictions on Palestinian movement and trade within and between Palestinian areas, Israel refused — despite similar calls from the World Bank, the United Nations, the European Union and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The restrictions translated not just into more poverty but also into less security, for Mr. Abbas could not even move police forces within Palestinian territory.

President Abbas did deliver, and largely maintained, a "tahdia" — a "period of calm" between the Palestinian factions and Israel. And he was able to do this despite scores of Palestinian deaths and several thousand military raids and arrests that Israel conducted in violation of its agreement not to undertake such activities. Israel also tightened its control over key territory, resources and markets — primarily occupied East Jerusalem — that we will need to build an economically viable state.

So, President Abbas, the leader of the Fatah party, made a set of campaign promises; the opposite came to fruition; therefore, Palestinians elected the only alternative: Hamas.

In reality, however, the vote was neither a rejection of President Abbas and his peace program nor an endorsement of the Hamas charter. According to recent polls, nearly 70 percent of Palestinians still support Mr. Abbas as president. And 84 percent of Palestinians still want a negotiated peace agreement with Israel. Even among Hamas voters, more than 60 percent of those polled support an "immediate" resumption of negotiations.

The apparent contradiction between Palestinian support for peace and Hamas's electoral victory is most easily explained by popular anger at the perceived corruption of the never-before-challenged Fatah. Whereas Hamas will now have to accept that the majority of its own voters reject its core ideology, Fatah must now undertake a long-overdue housecleaning to eradicate corruption and regain the trust of the electorate.

While most Palestinians remain committed to peace, they have become disenchanted with a process that has brought them no closer than they were in 1993 to their dream of freedom and independence. In the 12 years since the Oslo process was initiated, Israel has become more entrenched in Palestinian land than ever before. And the international community acquiesced all the while. The electorate punished us all for allowing conditions to deteriorate to this level.

Israel's accelerated colonization of the occupied West Bank — through which it has routed 80 percent of its wall — isn't helping. Christian and Muslim Palestinian communities are being destroyed to the absolute detriment of any prospect of a two-state solution.

Recently, Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, announced his plan to determine unilaterally the final borders of Israel, while keeping control of strategic parts of the occupied West Bank: East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and three major illegal settlement blocs — a plan that would result in the effective end of our state-building project.

Israel's disingenuous pronouncements that it has "no partner" to negotiate peace, and that Mr. Abbas is "no longer relevant" should be seen in that unilateralist light. The Palestine Liberation Organization, which Mr. Abbas also leads, is the sole representative of Palestinians everywhere and therefore the only real negotiating partner. Its mandate remains unaffected by the parliamentary elections.

If Israel continues to exploit the Hamas victory to claim that it has "no partner" for talks and avoid negotiations — and if the international community remains indifferent — the conflict can only deteriorate.

This would be an unforgivable loss for peace. While Palestinian democracy poses no challenge to the resolution of the conflict, Israel's "no partner" mantra and the political cowardice of the international community do.

The Hamas victory cannot be allowed to obscure the reality: the Palestinian people want a negotiated peace, and in Mr. Abbas they have a Palestinian Authority president and P.L.O. chairman who shares their view, enjoys a mandate to act and has the ability to deliver. For those committed to reaching a two-state solution, public support on both sides of the conflict likely provides the last opportunity to see our vision materialize. Now we all have a duty to respond immediately to our peoples' demands for a negotiated peace.

Saeb Erekat is the chief negotiator of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

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