Courtesy Reuters

The Politics of Paralysis II: Peace Now or Hamas Later

PALESTINIANS HAVE REACHED THEIR LIMITS

Since the election of Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996, mutual trust and confidence between Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority (pa) and Israel's new Likud government have steadily deteriorated. That vicious cycle will only be exacerbated as the two sides harden their positions in preparation for the final status talks. These negotiations touch on both Israelis' and Palestinians' most critical issues of security and national survival: refugees, Palestinian statehood, security arrangements, settlements, and, thorniest of all, Jerusalem.

The erosion of the Oslo process gives new importance to Palestinian politics. Palestinian public opinion will determine Arafat and the pa's room for maneuver in the run-up to May 1999 -- the deadline for the conclusion of the final status talks and, if those negotiations fail, Arafat's avowed date for unilaterally declaring Palestinian statehood. So far, al-Fatah, Arafat's mainstream, secular nationalist movement, has provided the backbone of the peace process. Its support has held despite the setbacks. But Fatah's success is based on two key factors: Arafat's leadership and a lack of initiative by the Islamist opposition. As the grand old man of Palestinian nationalism, Arafat's personal influence and political wiles have let him dominate and change Palestinian politics in a way no other figure could. But Arafat will not live forever, and Hamas will not stay on the sidelines forever. If the peace process flags, Arafat falls, and Hamas rises, the nationalist center could indeed lose its hold on power to the Islamists. Palestinian politics, increasingly, are the front line of the peace process.

A POLITICIZED SOCIETY

Palestinians, like their Israeli neighbors, are highly politicized. The 1993 Oslo Accords -- which call for an end to terrorism, mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the creation of the pa, and deferral of the remaining issues to the final status talks -- have increased the importance for peace of Palestinian views. Pundits often make sweeping generalizations about belligerent Palestinian attitudes without bothering

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