Palestinian elections and the unknown road ahead - opinion

There are serious reasons behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most Israelis are blind to the realities of occupation.

HAMAS SUPPORTERS protest in the southern Gaza Strip last month against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to postpone the planned parliamentary election. (photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS)
HAMAS SUPPORTERS protest in the southern Gaza Strip last month against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to postpone the planned parliamentary election.
 Last week I wrote about al-Aqsa/the Temple Mount as the nerve center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the dangers of transforming what has been essentially a political conflict over land, ownership, sovereignty and narratives into a conflict of religion. If the ownership over God’s truth becomes the focal point of this conflict, we all lose. That is why we must keep the focus of the conflict on the non-religious aspects of what we are fighting over. The issue of the holy places is essentially a political issue over control and over narratives, that is IF all of the people of religion remain faithful to the belief that we all pray to the same God. If the God of Islam, Judaism and Christianity are different Gods, then we are doomed to fail in the search for peace and will continue to kill in the name of God. We cannot allow the religious extremists among us manipulate events and emotions to move us towards a conflict over religions. Whether it be Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad or the Kahanist Party and the Religious Zionist Party – these groups use religion and God as mechanisms to manipulate fear and hatred, and that makes them evil. There are people of religion among us, Jews, Muslims and Christians, who use religion and God to preach peace. Not all supporters of the hate groups listed above are evil people. If they are good people, they should sharpen their hearing and listen with more intent to the evil messages that these groups spread.
There are serious reasons behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ongoing tragedy of the Palestinian people and their daily suffering under the yokes of the Israeli military occupation provides sufficient reasons for wanting to resort to violence. Most Israelis are blind to the realities of occupation. Many don’t want to see it. The reporting of life in Palestine in the Israeli media is almost nil and what is reported is generally distorted by the so-called experts on Palestinian, Arabs or Islamic affairs or by former military personnel who held high positions in the occupation administration and are called into the media to translate reality to the Israeli public. Most of them have no real idea. That is why the predictions they make about what happens in Palestine are mostly wrong and mostly insight the Israeli public against Palestinians. Their analysis is often completely off base because it is always seen through the eyes of the occupier. There are, of course, exceptions – those who make the effort to speak to real people on the streets of Palestine and don’t get their news from Israeli security personnel. 
Amira Hass wrote in Haaretz on Tuesday that despite their reality the Palestinian street is not on the verge of the third intifada. Hass has lived in Ramallah for years and before that in Gaza, and she is one of the best on reporting the Palestinian reality to Israelis. Over years Israel has successfully dissected the Palestinian people in to clusters of a very divided nation. The divisions are not only West Bank and Gaza, Fatah and Hamas; they are also within the West Bank between regions and families, refugees and non-refugees, and of course between those who hold Israeli citizenship, those who hold Palestinian Authority IDs and the Palestinian diaspora. The failed Palestinian leadership has done its best to supplement the Israeli efforts with their own means of keeping disunity alive. Those include the divisions between Fatah and Hamas, the West Bank and Gaza, refugees and non-refugees and of course the regional divisions between Hebron and the north of the West Bank for example. The Palestinian people’s demand for new elections and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s initial agreement to hold them was an expression of the Palestinian desire to search for the road to unity. The Palestinian people want to choose their leaders. They want the right to democratically define a new strategy for ending their long saga of Israeli occupation. Thirty six political parties registered to be elected clearly demonstrating the vitality of political life in Palestine, if it would be allowed to exist. The canceling of the elections by Abbas, under the excuse that Israel would not allow Palestinians in Jerusalem to participate, was a lame escape from facing the reality that his time in power has come to an end. 
I HAVE told Palestinians in Jerusalem for many years that voting in the Israeli Jerusalem municipal elections is not a recognition of Israeli sovereignty in east Jerusalem. I say to Israelis, Palestinians from Jerusalem who vote in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections is not a recognition of Palestinian sovereignty in east Jerusalem. Israel and the PLO agreed in 1993 that they would negotiate the future of Jerusalem. In Oslo, when the Palestinians agreed that the Palestinian Authority would not work in Jerusalem, they did not give up their rights to Jerusalem. They agreed to postpone them for five years during the interim period. Those five years ended in 1999. Palestinians in east Jerusalem must have the right to democratically elect people who represent their needs and their interests. 
Many Israeli analysts claim that Abbas is afraid that Hamas would win a significant number of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. That is what Abbas has been told by Israeli security officials and by the US intelligence folks as well, at least that is what has been reported. But whatever the outcome of the elections will eventually be, it is the will of the people and it must be dealt with. Israel has an enormous ability to influence the outcome of the Palestinian elections, positively or negatively. Perhaps a new Israeli government will send clear signals to the Palestinian people that Israel wants to lower the flames of the conflict. Israel could make movement and access easier. Israel could provide for more Palestinians to enter Jerusalem to pray and to shop. Israel could initiate the renewal of the tens of joint civilian coordination committees. Of course, Israel could also signal that it wants to renew negotiations. Imagine the impact that could happen if the new Israeli Prime Minister signaled that he would like to come and speak before a newly elected Palestinian Legislative Council. Perhaps it could even match the impact that the visit of Anwar Sadat had on Israel’s readiness to withdraw from Sinai and make peace with Egypt. 
I personally was excited by the possibilities that Palestinian elections could produce. I was particularly interested in seeing the alternatives to Fatah and Hamas having success in the polls. Most Palestinians that I know said that they would vote for anyone other than Fatah and Hamas – both have proven their failures over too many years. There are so many new faces, young people, including women who were standing for election. It would be great to see new Palestinian leadership emerge.
The elections will eventually happen because the Palestinian people will demand them. My hope is that once there is a new elected leadership, forces wanting and working for peace on both sides of the conflict will once again come together to search together for the road to peace, just as we did during the first intifada. We all need new strategies for figuring out how to live together. We need to replace the failed strategies that have left us with no road map to the future that involve mutual respect, understanding, acceptance and equality. 
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press and is now available.