Last update - 22:33 22/03/2007
By Meron Rapoport
Suddenly, after a good few years in which it seemed to all or most of the world that the ball was in the Palestinian court, because there was "no partner" - suddenly, the situation has changed. Without our noticing, the Palestinians lobbed the ball into Israel's court.
Suddenly, it is Israel that must provide the answers; it now bears the burden of proof.
One can feel the sense of relief in Ramallah and Bethlehem, even over the telephone. Not that anyone is overly optimistic - far from it. No one there believes the establishment of the unity government will pave the way to an agreement, a Palestinian state and the end of the occupation. It is difficult even to find someone in the territories who believes it will pave the way to opening the nearest village in the foreseeable future.
For the first time in a long time, however, the feeling in the territories is that Israel is losing points in the international arena and the Palestinians have gained the upper hand, with a national consensus, the support of the Arab world and growing understanding in Europe and perhaps in the United States as well.
More pleased than before
Dr. Mustafa Barghouti can attest to this change. Barghouti, a physician (and a distant relative of the imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, although he does not like to be reminded of the connection), competed against Mahmoud Abbas for chairmanship of the Palestinian Authority (PA) following Yasser Arafat's death, receiving about 20 percent of the votes. In the parliamentary elections, his party failed to pass the 3-percent minimum voting threshold. Since the Arafat era Barghouti has advocated a unity government as the most effective way for his nation to obtain its goals, however, so he is pleased now. He is even more pleased that he has been appointed minister of information, largely thanks to his good connections abroad, particularly in Europe - connections he formed while raising funds for the impressive medical aid organization he established in the territories.
Barghouti's appointments schedule shows the change. He began his week in Norway, immediately before it became the first European country to recognize the new Palestinian government and sent its deputy foreign minister to meet with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The Belgian foreign minister was scheduled to meet in Ramallah yesterday with his PA counterpart, Ziyad Abu Amr, and Barghouti. Sweden is about to follow in Norway's footsteps, Barghouti says, and France and Italy are ready "to hold discussions" with the new government. The European boycott is cracking.
"I think that Europe is gradually moving in the right direction," Barghouti says. "This is a good development, and it will continue. Don't forget that the whole Arab world supports this government."
It is not surprising to discover that Barghouti, as information minister, thinks the platform of the new Palestinian government is nothing less than "marvelous." It speaks, he says, about opposition to violence, about honoring agreements signed by Fatah with Israel (not "respecting" but "honoring," he emphasizes), about upholding international law and about the establishment of a Palestinian state as defined by the 1967 borders, "which means a two-state solution."
The main thing, says Barghouti, is that "not only can this government sign an agreement with Israel, it also has the power to implement it, because it enjoys the support of 98 percent of the Palestinian parliament." The mention of the right of return, he says, need not stir up a fuss, because it is mentioned in the Oslo Accords, too.
The Europeans are coming around, Barghouti says, both because of the significant changes in the government's platform and because the entire Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia, supports this government. It is possible, he adds, that they are leaning toward the new government also because they "are not convinced that it's necessary to punish a nation that is under occupation and oppression, where the average annual income is $800, as compared to $20,000 in Israel."
And Israel? "We are very surprised," Barghouti says, and you can sense his smile through the phone. "We do not understand why the new Palestinian government is being received not with appreciation but rather with a demand to continue the embargo. We do not understand why Israel wants to return to a situation in which it remains alone in the United Nations with Micronesia and the United States. I think the Israeli government is confused. What it is doing is an expression not of strength, but of weakness."
The editor in chief of Ma'an News Agency, Nasser Laham, likes to be in the opposition. When Arafat was in power he supported Abbas, and when Abbas became PA chair, Laham became nostalgic about Arafat. Now he finds himself agreeing with Barghouti. The new government is a success, Laham says, and yes, its platform contains meaningful changes: the continuation of the hudna (cease-fire), the aspiration for a Palestinian state defined by the 1967 borders, and, most important, the fact that Hamas has given Abbas a green light to conduct negotiations with Israel on behalf of the Palestinian people.
"Arafat went to Khartoum in 1995 to meet with Hamas," Laham relates. "Osama Bin Laden was there, too, and asked for their support. They didn't give it. Who would have believed that Hamas would give Abu Mazen [Abbas], who has never brought us anything, what it did not give Arafat?" From this perspective, Laham says, Barghouti is right. The new government is stronger even than the Arafat government was. The Palestinians, Laham argues, want to rely again only on themselves, as in the first intifada.
"Every Palestinian will tell you that in the first intifada we won and in the second we lost," Laham says. The unity government is a step in the direction of self-reliance, he says, because the Palestinians can again be proud of themselves. The interest of Hamas is clear, Laham says. It believes that in another year, after Abbas has failed to obtain anything from Israel, Hamas will be able to say that it gave negotiations a chance. Then it will legitimately be able to take control of the PLO and be considered the representative of the Palestinian people by the entire Arab world. And Israel? "The Israelis, like imbeciles, said 'No' and shifted the pressure onto them," Laham says.
Gigi Riva is an Italian political commentator who follows the Israeli-Palestinian conflict closely and is well acquainted with the major players in the leftist government now in power in Rome. As will be recalled, Italy led Europe to break with U.S. policy after the Second Lebanon War and currently heads the United Nations force in Lebanon.
The formation of the new Palestinian government found Italy in the midst of a debate over the future of its forces in Afghanistan, Riva says, and therefore the Palestinian issue has not yet reached the top of the political agenda in Rome. But the direction is clear: Italy, like the rest of Europe, will hold contacts with the new government. The embargo is coming to an end.