12 January 2006 Edition

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Netanyahu victory bad for Palestinians

Palestinian elections

Turmoil and disruption ahead of polls

Political uncertainty as Sharon critical

As Palestinian politicians try to campaign under occupation in advance of a general election on 25 January, the Israeli state faces its own difficulties. First was the decision of new Labour leader, Amir Peretz, to abandon the coalition headed by the right-wing Likud. Then, came the announcement of Likud leader and Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, that he would lead a new centre-right political party called Kadima, which immediately topped opinion polls. Then, on 18 December, Sharon suffered a minor stroke. His worsening health since has brought political uncertainty to the region. While medical bulletins indicated a slight improvement in Sharon's survival chances, he remains critical.

The newly-created Kadima was widely expected to win Israel's election on 28 March, and as Sharon lies in intensive care, it seems the party could still make it. However, Sharon's forced retirement and failure to designate a successor, has caused the first divisions in the new grouping. The rules of the party authorised Sharon only to make key decisions, including drawing up a candidate list for elections. The rules also fail to detail a mechanism for choosing replacement for the leader.

Divisions in

new party

The divisions are between those supporting Ehud Olmert (60), acting Israeli Prime Minister and Sharon's closest ally, and former Labour Prime Minister, Shimon Peres (82), Israel's elder statesman and Nobel Peace Laureate. As senior Kadima members were announcing support for Olmert, Peres remained silent. Others within the party, like Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, whose popularity among Israelis surpasses that of Olmert, could be also considered a candidate to the leadership.

Meanwhile Israel's traditional parties, Likud and Labour, are trying to position themselves in the new political landscape. There is speculation that Labour representatives approached Peres to persuade him to come back to his old party as deputy leader to Amir Peretz, who assumed the Labour leadership in November 2005 in a surprise victory over Peres.

Born in Morocco in 1953, Peretz became the first Sephardi Jew — of Mediterranean ascendancy —and trade union chief to head the traditionally Ashkenazi (central and northern European ascendancy) — dominated party. Peretz also lacks the military background that traditionally has fed into Israel's political leadership. His first move as leader of the Labour Party was to pull the party out of Mr Sharon's coalition government, precipitating the national elections scheduled for March.

Likud will try to win back traditional votes that deflected to support Sharon's new party. Likud's leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, 56, was for years Sharon's main political rival within the right-wing party. Articulate, ambitious and a masterful communicator, he came back to the helm of the party following Sharon's departure at the end of last year. He is staunchly opposed to any kind of Peace Process with Palestinian people and the recognition of the rights of the Palestinian nation. An election victory for Netanyahu would be the worst result from a Palestinian point of view. He has already shown his disregard for any national or international support for a political arrangement involving the recognition of Palestinian aspirations.

Olmert, who once backed Jewish settlement-building in the West Bank and Gaza, now believes Israel can only secure its future as a democratic state with a Jewish majority by withdrawing from parts of the West Bank.

Despise Israel's announcement that allow Palestinians to campaign in East Jerusalem for the election on 25 January, Israeli police stopped Hanan Ashrawi, from the Third Way Party, and Mustafa Barghouti, standing as an independent, from canvassing on 3 January, the first day of campaigning. The candidates were told no Palestinian political activity was allowed in the area, under Israeli law. Israel also warned it would ban Palestinians in East Jerusalem from voting if Hamas took part in the poll. Hamas members remain barred from campaigning in the city. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he would postpone polls if East Jerusalem could not vote.

Meanwhile amid growing violence Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef told colleagues that armed gangs, particularly in Gaza, would disrupt voting if it becomes clear their candidates will lose.

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