Sharon decision engenders mixed Palestinian reactions

Ahead of their elections in late January, the Palestinians' largest faction, Fatah, and their largest Islamic faction, Hamas, have exchanged barbs and sometimes gunfire. But on Monday, even as Fatah primaries got under way, the political maneuvering that seemed to matter most was that in the Knesset. So while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his new party might struggle to recruit Israeli votes, so far they seem to have won the hearts and minds of many Palestinians. The official position of the Palestinian Authority is that it will negotiate with any Israeli leader. True to that dispassionate stance, Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Sha'ath told reporters that "we in the Palestinian leadership are watching carefully the unfolding political developments [in Israel] to see its consequences on the peace process." Other Palestinian leaders couldn't contain themselves. Chief Palestinian Negotiator Sa'eb Erekat, perhaps more than any other Palestinian a witness and sometimes victim of the rise and fall of Israeli governments, called Sharon's move "the most significant thing that happened since Israel occupied my hometown of Jericho in 1967." A host of other factors aside, said an agitated Erekat, the dramatic reshuffling of the Israeli political deck was "not because of Likud's economic program or rifts between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, but because of us, because of the Palestinians." Israelis and specifically Sharon have come to understand that "when someone sneezes in Tel Aviv, I get the flu in Jericho," said Erekat. Sharon understands how intertwined the fates of the Palestinians and Israelis are and seems poised for far-reaching moves, he added. "Why else would a man who is comfortable in his position, who can win 40 seats in the Knesset take such steps?" asked Erekat, perhaps voicing the thoughts of many Israelis. Erekat called the past 10 years "labor pains," and said he hoped the new dawn of Israeli politics "will bring the delivery [of a Palestinian State]." Labor Minister-without-Portfolio Haim Ramon, Erekat's friend and erstwhile negotiating partner, has already called his Palestinian counterpart to inform him of his jumping ship from Labor to Sharon's "National Responsibility." "Shimon [Peres]," observed Erekat, "might do the same." The confluence of Palestinian and Israeli national elections, said Erekat, and the fact that Fatah is holding primaries for the first time in its history sends a message that both sides are more ready than ever. Other Palestinians weren't so sure. A leading Interior Ministry official fretted that "Sharon's leaving the Likud strengthens the right." Sharon and Labor's newly crowned Chairman Amir Peretz will neutralize one another vying for the same votes, he fretted, "thus leaving the new Israeli right in control." But for most Palestinians, observed Nablus-based social worker Abed Omar, the jury is still out. "Everybody talked about Sharon today, but we must wait to form an opinion." Many Palestinians, he said, "cannot forget [the massacres in] Sabra and Shatilla [for which Sharon was found indirectly responsible], so they cannot be too optimistic about Sharon's future," he said. Besides, he added, "with chaos and lawlessness in the streets there is too much to worry about. We have to get back to thinking about Fatah primaries, what will happen to Hamas and national elections in January."