MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Marianna Belenkaya.)
On January 25, the territory under control of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) is to hold elections to the Legislative Assembly, for the first time in a decade since the first parliamentary elections were held in Palestine on January 20, 1996.
The situation on the West Bank of the Jordan River and in the Gaza Strip has changed radically over the past decade, and the Palestinian parliament no longer reflects the true alignment of forces in the territories. Now, there are fears in Israel and in the West that the Hamas Islamic Opposition Movement, listed as Reform and Change, may win the elections.
A number of Islamic and national-radical movements refused to stand in the elections a decade ago in protest against the Oslo process (the start of peace negotiations with Israel on the basis of which the PNA was established). This primarily concerns Hamas.
The fact that Hamas and other influential radical movements will be running in the elections is significant. This will be a silent, though belated, recognition of the Oslo process and manifestation of willingness for a tough dialog with Israel, which would be a precondition for staying in power, and Hamas understands that only too well.
Most Palestinians hope the elections will solve the country's internal problems - economic, social and those pertaining to security. Compared to these concerns, the prospects for settling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the declaration of Palestine's independence take second place and seem illusory. Therefore, a political movement's failure to run in the elections would be tantamount to refusing to tackle Palestine's pressing problems and hence the loss of popularity, if not a complete withdrawal from the political arena.
Over the years of the second Palestinian intifada, Hamas has won a greater popularity among the Palestinians both because of its uncompromising stand on Israel and, to a greater extent, due to the social policy the movement has been pursuing in the PNA, while the official structures have been totally paralyzed. The time has come to invest the popularity in political long-term capital, given that the majority of Palestinians have grown weary of the armed opposition to Israel, which in the long run creates chaos in the PNA.
In the run-up to the elections, Hamas is promising to establish order in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank of the Jordan River, to put an end to corruption and to contribute to social and economic development in the region. It will participate in the elections under the new name of Reform and Change, which reflects these ambitions. "This is what people want and this is what we are going to do," those involved in the Hamas election campaign say.
Officially, the name Hamas will be running under explains the involvement of representatives of other organizations, including a number of Christians, in their election list. But there is another significant detail.
Hamas is seeking access to official structures. This would be impossible to achieve without the recognition of the international community that matters to everyone, except perhaps the Iranian president. Palestinian politicians cannot afford that luxury, for their dependence on external financial and political support is too great.
Hamas is on the blacklist of terrorist organizations in the U.S., the EU, and Israel. There have been no official contacts with it. However, if Hamas plays a significant role in the Legislative Assembly or in the Palestinian government, it will be problematic to ignore it, because the entire international community would not want to have the PNA isolated.
Yet, negotiations with the terrorist organization would be equally impossible. The EU and the U.S. have already warned the Palestinian leaders that they could cut the financial support to the PNA if Hamas wins the elections. So, it is generally perceived that the Reform and Change faction is Hamas, whose alternative name enables the movement to distance itself from its previous policy without having its image marred and to establish a dialog with the West. Undoubtedly, this would be more difficult to achieve with Israel.
Ten days before the elections, Sheikh Mohammad Abu Tir, No.2 on the Reform and Change election list, said a dialog with Israel was likely to be established. "We will be more successful in the negotiations than those who have been doing it for the past ten years and have achieved nothing," he said in an interview with the Gaarets newspaper.
The readiness for negotiations, however, does not mean they will start at all, much less that they will be a success. Although the Reform and Change does not call for the destruction of Israel, as Hamas did in the past, it states that security cooperation with the occupationist government is a grave crime and sin, and those exposed of it deserve to be punished.
However, there is a possibility that if Hamas leaders sign an agreement, they will be more committed to it than the present PNA authorities. It should also be remembered that Hamas is not a homogenous organization and consists of a variety of groups, including those close to the ruling Fatah (Palestinian National Liberation Movement), whose policy does not contribute to the peace settlement.
Although Hamas is unlikely to secure an absolute victory, the movement is a serious rival of the Fatah. Having tried its capabilities in the municipal elections, it can expect 27-35% of votes, various public polls show, with 35-40% going to the Fatah. Therefore, the Reform and Change bloc could certainly influence lawmaking, from domestic reforms to peace agreements with Israel. The question is: who will the other parties, movements and individual deputies support? The situation in the Palestinian Legislative Assembly is likely to be similar to the Israeli Knesset, when solutions to global issues depend on small parties.
In the circumstances, those interested in an early settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should proceed prudently and without haste. If Hamas and other Palestinian movements and parties intend to focus on domestic reforms, they should be given a chance. All the more so since provisions for reforms in Palestine and order in the PNA have been included in the Road Map of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict designed by the quartet of mediators, including the United States, Russia, the EU and the UN.
In an interview with the Arab press, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said commenting on Moscow's attitude to Hamas' participation in the elections: "Like other members of the quartet, Russia believes that all political parties who insist on the implementation of the Road Map should run in the elections." He expressed hope that "Hamas would turn into a full-fledged political organization," and "the election results will determine the composition of the Legislative Assembly, which could become a responsible partner of PNA leader Mahmoud Abbas in his efforts to consolidate the community and implement the provisions of the Road Map, including the curbing of violence."
Israel too would like order to be established in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank of the Jordan River. So, even if there is no visible progress on the Palestinian-Israeli settlement and no territorial compromises and loud statements are made, that will not mean a halt in the process.
The "pause" is useful for the elimination of internal problems to both Palestinians and Israelis, who will have their own elections in March. True, both sides will have to follow certain "rules of the game" and refrain from provocations in this period. In other words, Palestinians should not carry out any terrorist acts, while Israelis should abstain from military operations or construction activities on the occupied territories. The previous experience showed that it is problematic and virtually impossible to implement, but is necessary. This matter does not concern only Hamas. But it will be interesting to see the outcome of the elections in Palestine.