Elections Approach for Israelis, Palestinians

Israelis and Palestinians go to the polls in separate elections early in the new year, and there are new participants on both sides. In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has left the right-wing Likud Party and formed a new centrist movement. On the Palestinian side, the Islamist militant movement Hamas is taking part in legislative elections for the first time.

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Both Israelis and Palestinians will go to the polls early in the new year and both will have new choices. In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has left the right-wing Likud Party and formed a new centrist movement. It's called the Kadima or forward party. On the Palestinian side, the Islamist militant movement Hamas is taking part in legislative elections for the first time. As NPR's Linda Gradstein reports, analysts say politics on both sides have turned inward, away from the broader Middle East conflict, for the time being.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a mild stroke last week, the Israeli political system was shaken up. In a news conference today, doctors said Sharon was unable to make decisions and had difficulty speaking when he was rushed to the hospital, but they said by the next day, Sharon was fit to make decisions and there was no permanent damage. They also announced that Sharon will undergo a catheterization procedure in the next two or three weeks to close a small hole in his heart that was discovered during tests after the stroke.

Polls show Sharon's new Kadima party winning about a third of the seats in the 120-seat parliament in the March elections, but that was predicated entirely on Sharon remaining at the helm of the party. After it became clear that Sharon's stroke wasn't serious, Kadima's support moved even higher. Asher Arian, an Israeli elections expert, says Sharon's continued popularity reflects widespread approval of his approach to the Palestinian problem, including the historic withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip this summer.

Mr. ASHER ARIAN (Israeli Elections Expert): I think that he has demonstrated that he is in touch with Israeli public opinion better than maybe any other prime minister ever. He has that combination of toughness and security mindedness and single-mindedness and this drive of survival that resonates very deeply with the Israeli psyche.

GRADSTEIN: The party in the number-two spot in the latest polls is the center-left Labor Party. Labor recently underwent its own upheaval when longtime party leader Shimon Peres was ousted by fiery trade unionist Amir Peretz. Peretz has little foreign policy experience. He says it's time for Israel to begin dealing with social issues. The country has one of the largest income gaps in the Western world and poverty, especially among its Arab citizens and ultra-Orthodox Jews, is increasing. Uri Dromi of the Israel Democracy Institute says social issues are likely to play an important role in the election campaign for the first time.

Mr. URI DROMI (Israel Democracy Institute): The fact also that Amir Peretz took Labor with a very strong socialist message and people respond favorably to this show that maybe Israelis are, with all the intifadas, with all the terror attacks, with all the ongoing conflict--maybe have matured enough to give social issues also a precedent here.

GRADSTEIN: And yet Dromi and other analysts warn that one or two big Palestinian terrorist attacks could easily sweep social issues back under the rug, where they have been virtually since Israel was created. As they prepare for their own vote, Israelis are also closely watching the Palestinian legislative elections, scheduled for January 25th. Recent polls show Hamas winning about 40 percent of the vote, significantly ahead of the ruling Fatah movement. Abdul Satter Kassem, a professor of political science at An-Najah University in Nablus, says Palestinians are frustrated with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority it controls which many see as ineffective and corrupt.

Professor ABDUL SATTER KASSEM (An-Najah University): They hate the Palestinian Authority so much. The Palestinian Authority is very much regarded in a very bad image. So they talk about corruption, about poverty, about stealing people's money and so on. So these are the major concerns.

GRADSTEIN: Kassem says many Palestinians are also fed up with growing chaos and lawlessness, especially in Gaza. Almost every day, armed groups take over Palestinian governmental buildings or kidnap foreigners, demanding jobs or the release of Palestinian prisoners. The ruling Fatah movement is also in disarray with an open split now between the Old Guard, men in their 70s, like Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, and the young guard in their 40s, led by the charismatic Marwan Barghouti, who is serving time in an Israeli jail for involvement in terrorism.

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the director of a Palestinian think tank in East Jerusalem, says the upcoming election could mark a significant turning point in Palestinian politics.

Mr. MAHDI ABDUL HADI (Director, Palestinian Think Tank): The young generation of the first intifada and the second intifada realize it's time for change. It's time to have a new legitimacy through election. The same applies on Hamas. Hamas comes to realize they need to legitimize their position through election.

GRADSTEIN: And yet, Abdul Hadi says, Israelis and Palestinians cannot continue to focus on internal issues indefinitely. Eventually, he says, they will have to deal with each other.

Mr. HADI: Everything you are doing internally is affected directly, indirectly by the external factor and vice versa. We reflect on them, they reflect on us, and that's why I'm talking about how we will develop an agenda for the two-state solution where we share the land, we share the future, politically, economically, culturally.

GRADSTEIN: He says he hopes that after the Palestinian and Israeli elections there will be a new willingness to return to the peace table.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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