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Israel’s election hurdles

AS IF ISRAEL DIDN’T HAVE ENOUGH political turbulence because of the Palestinians’ parliamentary elections next month, Ariel Sharon’s stroke Sunday so soon after forming a new political party has added uncertainty to Israel’s own upcoming elections.

Last week’s local council elections in the occupied West Bank unfortunately went as expected, with Hamas trouncing the Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas has won favor with many Palestinians with its schools, hospitals and social work, but it is dedicated to the destruction of Israel and has carried out numerous suicide bombings. The U.S. considers it a terrorist organization, and Israel on Wednesday said it would prohibit East Jerusalem’s Arab residents from voting there if Hamas is on the Palestinian Authority ballot.

Since succeeding Yasser Arafat as Palestinian Authority president a year ago, Abbas has gambled that bringing Hamas into politics will end its violence. It’s too early to tell whether that bet will pay off. Meanwhile, Abbas’ credibility has been eroded by his failure to stop violent outbreaks by various groups in Gaza following the Israeli withdrawal of its settlers in the fall. Gunmen from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small but dangerous independent group, briefly kidnapped two foreign teachers in Gaza on Wednesday to press for the release of their organization’s jailed leaders. Palestinian attacks and allegations that insurgents are smuggling arms into Gaza have led Israel to periodically close its border, disrupting an already fragile economy.

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Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza was engineered by Sharon, over the opposition of some in the ruling Likud Party. Last month, Sharon quit Likud and formed a new party, which immediately was considered the favorite for the March elections. However, Sharon’s age, 77, and recent stroke could give voters second thoughts.

The danger is that a strong showing by Hamas in next month’s parliamentary elections could convince Israelis that the Palestinians are unwilling to end their violence. That could prompt Israelis to turn to hard-liners in their own election two months later.

The U.S. has done a good job in recent months of pushing both sides to negotiate matters such as opening borders, and it has dispatched high-ranking military officials to advise the Palestinians on reforming their security services. Washington will have to remain heavily involved if there is to be progress toward the eventual goal of an independent Palestinian state living in peace with Israel.


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