You cannot sit in Des Moines or Los Angeles or Washington for that matter, and think you know the streets of Ramallah, Gaza or Jerusalem.
In 2006, I wrote an op-ed suggesting that Hamas would win the Palestinian election by virtue of having studied the women of Gaza and the West Bank. Predictions that Hamas would "finish strong" in the polling were commonplace, but few, if any, shared the assessment that the faction would win outright. The women were a clear barometer, speaking openly and urgently against Fatah corruption and their reliance upon and respect for Hamas's social services.
At the time, the Bush administration was pressing hard in favor of facilitating elections, even though many analytical voices cautioned that there was a better-than-even chance that the result could complicate rather than improve the situation on the ground.
Now, the issue of elections is again before the Palestinian public: this time coming with Fatah and Hamas unambiguously bifurcated; the election date pushed-off to an as yet undetermined time; Mahmoud Abbas threatening not to stand for reelection; and leaders are openly suggesting that since the Palestinian Authority isn't accomplishing anything, it might as well be disbanded. So what's changed?
For one thing, the Fayad plan is resonating among Palestinians and throughout the international community. On the domestic front, frustration born of unfocused goals and unfulfilled expectations is showing signs of waning as hope replaces despair on the strength of the two-year timetable that seems both reasonable and within reach.
Economically, Salaam Fayad has brought a glimpse of hope to the Palestinians, built largely on the potential of private-sector entrepreneurs who are investing vast sums in projects that at once provide encouragement and complete the list of needed infrastructure and institutions Fayad has put into play. The absolute focus on a seemingly permanently-stalled peace process that is incapable of generating anything but despair is slowly being replaced by a cautious sense the prime minister described in another context as "a healthy sense of self-development."
This measured sense of optimism carries with it the need for Palestinians to boldly break from their sense of victimization. Reflexively shouting "occupation" is no substitute for the sort of self-sufficiency that is the underpinning of the policy switch that promises statehood when the infrastructure and institutions are in place, rather than when the state of negotiations permits. If ever.
BUT SINCE this is the Middle East, it would be negligent not to ponder the proclivity for missing the opportunity at hand. Prolonged West Bank-Gaza bifurcation is a deal breaker for statehood and is showing few signs of going away. The question of whether the inclusion of Hamas in a government will have a chilling effect on international cooperation is unclear, although an argument is being made that since the West has no problem with Hizbullah in Lebanon's government, why should Hamas in Palestine be a problem?
Yet, the problem grows if electoral results as in 2006 are in the cards. Can Hamas win? Of course. Palestinian pollster Dr. Nabil Kukali, of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, told The Media Line that while the numbers at the moment make a Hamas win doubtful, "elections are way off."
It's a sentiment reiterated by Lana Abu Hijleh, CHF's director for the West Bank and Gaza, who reminds that the women who tipped the election in 2006 were by-and-large voting their protests against Fatah corruption and in praise of Hamas social services. Lana looks to the streets, and suggests that the Abbas resignation is being viewed widely as "the result of a failing peace process," and that history can repeat itself if an optimistic stream is not introduced into the public psyche.
And as is always the case, the whole picture is not as it seems. Threats aside, Abbas is unlikely to step down, according to Dr. Feras Milhem, a legal expert from Bir Zeit University, because his departure would place Hamas member and Speaker of the Palestine Legislative Council Aziz Dweik atop the Palestinian Authority. This scenario trumps the optimistic view presented above and sets the stage for continued bifurcation, a sense of despair and a protest vote that results in dÃ©jÃ -vu all over again a la 2006.
So while the question of whether Abbas is fed up with a motionless process or has simply set a strategy of threatening to withdraw is open for debate, another Hamas victory - while unlikely - is not beyond the realm of reality.
Kukali points out that "for almost 50 years the Palestinians have not survived without the Israelis economically or culturally... It's beneficial for them to live in peace and security."
Perhaps, then, it's time that the Palestinians test Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's frequent call for aiding Palestinian economic development. Perhaps it's time to see exactly what he has in mind instead of focusing on the red line of settlement building that was not in play during previous Israeli administrations.
The result could be additional progress on the Palestinian economic front, the encouragement of visible growth and more than a modicum of cooperation that has been missing from the picture until now.
The same voices that so accurately described reality on the 2006 streets can be heard on the 2009 streets. Perhaps Messrs. Fayad, Abbas, Netanyahu and Barack Obama should listen more carefully.
The writer is president and CEO of The Media Line News Agency (www.themedialine.org). firstname.lastname@example.org
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