(photo credit: AP)
In a move that has surprised many Palestinians, Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert, in his victory speech on Wednesday morning, appealed to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to enter negotiations over the permanent borders of Israel.
There are two main reasons why the Palestinians, including some of Abbas's top aides, were caught by surprise. First, because Olmert's call came less than a month after his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, depicted Abbas as "irrelevant."
"The responsibility for Abu Mazen's powerlessness lies with Abu Mazen," Livni said, referring to Abbas. "It is not always Israel's fault - it mainly depends on the man's actions and shortcomings."
Her remarks came in response to Abbas's denunciation of the IDF raid on the Jeriicho prison and the arrest of the assassins of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi.
The second reason why many Palestinians appeared to be surprised by Olmert's statement is because of Hamas's landslide victory in the January 25 parliamentary election. Abbas's powers [and credibility] have been seriously undermined, as Hamas now controls both the PA cabinet and Palestinian Legislative Council - two key decision-making bodies that are likely to foil the PA chairman's attempts to reach any deal with Israel, let alone hold negotiations with the Olmert government.
"The Israeli government is once again talking to us in two voices," a senior PA official said after listening to Olmert's speech. "How can you appeal to someone to negotiate with you when you have already determined that he's irrelevant and powerless, and when you know that Hamas is now in power?"
Olmert and his new government will soon discover that the PA is not the same body that Israel has dealt with until now. The contradictory reactions of Palestinian leaders to the results of this week's election reflected the new reality in the PA, which now speaks in two voices - expressing the positions of both Abbas and Hamas.
While Abbas, who on Tuesday was in Khartoum for the annual Arab summit, expressed hope that the new government in Israel would resume talks with the Palestinians on the basis of the road map plan for peace in the Middle East, Hamas leaders took a more tough approach, saying they saw no difference between Kadima and other parties.
As Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar put it, "There's no difference between Olmert and the other candidates. "They have all committed crimes against the Palestinian people."
However, both Abbas and Hamas seemed to agree that Olmert's plan for unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank is bad for the Palestinians. In separate statements, Abbas and his new prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, warned that the plan, if implemented, would escalate tensions in the region and jeopardize the peace process.
"We want negotiations, not unilateral solutions," Abbas told reporters upon his return from Khartoum.
Employing harsh and uncompromising rhetoric characteristic of Hamas, the Islamic movement's representatives condemned Olmert's statements as "racist" and "hostile."
"I believe, regardless of who had won in the elections, the Zionist position altogether, particularly that of the three parties (Kadima, Labor and Likud), is hostile toward Palestinian rights and insists on liquidating it and wiping it out," Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal told The Associated Press in Damascus.
Mashaal said all the top Israeli parties refuse the following Palestinian demands: to give up Arab parts of Jerusalem, to withdraw to the borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, to grant Palestinian refugees the right of return, and to dismantle main Jewish settlements.
"Consequently, the Zionist position, be it that of Kadima or others, is one that buries the peace process, negates its existence and does not give it a chance. That position is a declaration of war against the Palestinian people," he added.
Taysir Umran, a top Hamas official from Nablus, condemned Olmert's speech as "radical," saying it reflected the "racist nature of Zionist occupation." Olmert, he added, "Will soon discover that he's living in the illusion of Zionist dreams, because the steadfastness of the Palestinians will soon force him to recognize our rights."
GENERALLY SPEAKING, many Palestinians did not seem to care about the election, which took place on the same day that the new Hamas cabinet won the approval of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Reactions on the Palestinian street ranged from total apathy to expressions of fear as to what awaits the Palestinians under the Hamas regime.
In the past, the Palestinians used to display huge interest in Israeli elections because of the major differences between the political agendas of the Right and Left. Now, they said, they could hardly see real differences between the platforms of Kadima, Labor and Likud, especially with regard to the future of the West Bank.
"The three big parties agree that Israel will continue to hold on to big settlements in the West Bank and that there will be no withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders," noted Ala Khairallah, a political analyst from Tulkarem.
"The Palestinians believe that Israel wants to impose unilateral solutions by creating new facts on the ground and drawing its borders without having to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority. The fact that Hamas is now in power provides the Israelis with a good excuse to pursue their plans. The West Bank will soon be turned into small cantons and the Palestinians can forget about having an independent and viable state."
For now, the most important question that many Palestinians are asking is not whether Avigdor Lieberman or Amir Peretz would join Olmert's new coalition, but what will happen in the wake of Hamas's rise to power. They fear that international sanctions against Hamas's "video-conference" cabinet [it's called so because it will never be able to hold an ordinary, full meeting due to travel restrictions on the cabinet ministers] would further escalate tensions and drive a large number of Palestinians toward further extremism.
Abbas and some Fatah officials may be sincere about their desire to return to the negotiating table, but the sounds emerging from the parliament chamber on Tuesday, during the vote of confidence, do not seem to offer any hope, at least not in the foreseeable future.
"Jihad [holy war] is our path and the Koran is our constitution, Allahu akbar!" was only one of the battle cries sounded by dozens of defiant Hamas legislators and ministers.
Abbas did appear, earlier in the week, to stand firm against the new Hamas cabinet's political program, warning that he would block any cabinet that does not recognize agreements that were signed with Israel. Initially, some Palestinians took Abbas's threats seriously, predicting that they would create an unprecedented crisis with Hamas. But within a few hours, even the Hamas leaders discovered that Abbas's threats were actually meant to appease Washington and some European governments.
Olmert, like the rest of the world, will have to decide which authority he must deal with - the "irrelevant" one led by Abbas or the "video-conference" Hamas government, whose West Bank ministers and leaders are, for the time being, using public transportation to commute between cities and villages.