Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 January 2006
Issue No. 778
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Deciding about Jerusalem

Israel will allow Palestinians to vote next week in Jerusalem, but it is unclear how many will avail themselves of the offer, writes Graham Usher in East Jerusalem

On Sunday Ehud Olmert took his first real decision as Israel's acting prime minister. The Israeli cabinet ruled that Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem would be able to campaign and vote for the Palestinian Authority (PA) parliamentary elections on 25 January. However, "under no circumstance will we permit Hamas to enter Jerusalem and carry out electioneering," said Olmert. He had authorised the police to remove all "traces" of the Hamas presence in the city.

They quickly obliged. Within an hour of the cabinet decision police raided a Hamas election office near the Old City's Damascus Gate and arrested Sheikh Mohamed Abu Tir, the number two man of Hamas's national list. Over the next days, officials from Israel's Jerusalem municipality combed East Jerusalem, ripping down every Hamas poster they could find. The PA protested the ban; Hamas activists vowed to defy it. Such moves will only benefit Hamas, says PA Planning Minister Ghassan Khatib.

"Discriminating against Hamas and opposition candidates or preventing campaigning in Jerusalem because Hamas is taking part in elections simply serves to single out Hamas and thus increase its public support. Second, the fact that the PA hasn't been able to guarantee the right of its citizens to participate in elections in Jerusalem has been portrayed as a sign of weakness," he wrote on the Bitterlemons Web site on 17 January. "This can also be expected to be unfavourable to moderate parties."

It is not the only consequence. The only sure thing about the Palestinian suffrage in East Jerusalem is that the turn-out will be extraordinarily low. One reason for this is fear. Israeli police have already said videos will be used at the five balloting post offices inside East Jerusalem, raising anxiety that voting will be paid for in rights.

But there is another reason: the enormous alienation East Jerusalem Palestinians have toward the PA. Rightly or wrongly many feel the current banes of their lives -- the loss of land, the revocation of permits and the choking wall that severs them from the West Bank -- are the indirect results of decisions taken in Ramallah. There is also a sense of political abandonment, with the PA by its inaction complicit in a void left unfilled since the death of Faisal Husseini and the closure of Jerusalem's de facto Palestinian Authority Orient House in 2001.

"We are going bankrupt but the only time you see PA ministers is during elections," says one Palestinian businessman, who refuses to be attributed. "But it is not difficult to raise money for Jerusalem in the Arab and Muslim world. The PA simply lacks the will. It has given up."

He shrugs his shoulders when asked whether he will vote. Others are more forthright. "No," says a shopkeeper, "Not this time, not for this Authority." Former PA parliament member for Jerusalem, Hanan Ashrawi, admits the combination of fear, alienation and apathy is going to be hard to break. "It's difficult to convince people that an exercise in democracy is not an exercise in futility," she says.

The result is that those Palestinians who do vote in East Jerusalem on 25 January will likely do so for the opposition lists, above all, Hamas. It is a script being written across the occupied territories. According to a poll released on 14 January by Birzeit University's Development Studies Programme (BUDSP), Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement would win 35 per cent of the vote against 30 per cent for Hamas, "the closest the race has been between the two," says Nader Said, BUDSP director.

He also points out that this forecast reflects only national preferences, and that Hamas often does better at the district level, where half the next parliament's seats will be decided. No serious Palestinian analyst now rules out the possibility that Hamas could win 45 per cent of the parliamentary vote. Hamas campaigners are confidently predicting 50 per cent or more and forming the next PA government.

What such an outcome would mean for the next Israeli government is anyone's guess. There is less discussion over who will form it.

Ten weeks before the Israeli elections all parties are converging on the centre ground currently held by Olmert and Ariel Sharon's Kadima Party. Likud leader and former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is championing his new parliamentary list as a model of "reason" and "centrism". Labour Party leader Amir Peretz is saying the same about his list, dulling the radical thrust of his initial policies on peace and social justice.

None of this appears to be hurting Kadima in the polls. On the contrary, it is gaining strength. This is because the "centre" in Israeli politics was defined by Sharon and rests on two basic pillars: that the chaos in the PA rules out negotiations with a "Palestinian partner" anytime soon; and that, under the fiction of a commitment to a peace process, Israel will proceed quietly to determine "defensible borders" in the West Bank, which, in Olmert's case, includes within occupied East Jerusalem.

This is his electoral message, "the legacy of Sharon". None of Israel's main political parties are now contesting this legacy. They are rather positioning themselves to be junior partners in the next government that implements it. (see p.6)

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