January: Political Upheaval on All Fronts

To put it mildly, this year has gotten off to an interesting start. I should’ve seen that this year was going to be far from boring when, at 1 a.m. on New Year’s Day, the bar where my friends and I were celebrating was evacuated because someone had thrown a molotov cocktail into a bar around the corner. A harbinger, you could say, of things to come.

A week later, Ariel Sharon suffered his stroke. As the news broke, Israelis became very nervous: would the government, which had just dissolved the Knesset a few weeks earlier, continue to function? Who would take over? Would Sharon live through the night, or was this the proverbial game over for Israel’s most influential politician? The news of his stroke broke late on a Wednesday night, and everyone was glued to the TV for the next 5 days. As Sharon emerged from surgery only to go back in a few hours later, the climate was one of extreme anxiety. No one knew what would happen next, but people’s reactions ranged from deep sadness and worry to apathy. Some people I talked to said that yes, it was sad, but “ein ma la’asot.” (Hebrew for “there’s nothing you can do.”) Others were visibly upset, and were concerned about how Sharon’s sudden disappearance from the political scene would impact the peace process and the Israeli government.

As he lingers in a coma, though, the government has continued to function, and a seamless transition was made to Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s former deputy and now the acting Prime Minister. Kadima, the political party founded by Sharon that includes many heavyweights in Israeli politics, has retained its members despite Sharon’s absence, and campaigns are gearing up for the March elections. Things seem to be stabilizing a bit, but the next big issue on everyone’s mind has been what happened yesterday and today: the Palestinian elections.

The Palestinian elections, held January 25, were for the Palestinian Legislative Council: a parliamentary body that would form a coalition to govern with the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), a position currently held by Mahmoud Abbas. The two parties in a tight race for the majority of seats in the 132-seat representative body were Fatah, an offshoot of the Palestinian Authority founded by Yassir Arafat, and Hamas, a radical organization that has both waged a suicide bombing campaign against Israel and filled the political vacuum left by the PA’s governance problems. Fatah has been facing both internal and external threats. Internally, factionalization, corruption, and financial mis-management have left it broke and essentially powerless. Externally, Hamas has been a rising political force in the West Bank and Gaza, and many pundits were predicting a Hamas victory in yesterday’s elections. However, as of this morning, the exit polls indicated that Fatah was in the lead. But when my friends and I got back from exploring the Muslim Quarter today, we checked the news only to see that Hamas had secured a decisive victory over Fatah.

This, of course, changes everything. By all accounts, Hamas is unwilling to change its stance calling for the destruction of Israel, and is considered to be a terrorist group by both the Israeli and American governments. It now looks like the peace process could go in two directions: the more optimistic path is that Hamas, now having to function as a government and not as an armed faction, would be held accountable for its actions and begin to moderate its views on negotiation and disarmament. The other, far less rosy picture is that Hamas could use its new power to legitimize its suicide bombing campaign against Israel, and by radicalizing the fledgling Palestinian government, freeze the peace process indefinitely. There’s no way to know which path Hamas will choose, but it’s clear that Israel and Palestine are both at critical turning points. Each is facing a fork in the road, and the decisions that will be made in the next few months will profoundly change both the peace process and the greater Middle East.

This is another one of those moments when I struggle to explain how amazing it is to be on the ground as events are unfolding. Having studied this region and its politics for the last 7 years, watching through my own eyes as the Middle East goes through massive changes is an experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

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