Preparations continue in Israel for the general election to be held on
28 March. Yesterday Kadima, the party of Ariel Sharon and acting prime
minister Ehud Olmert, launched its campaign
with a major rally. Sharon himself, still in a coma, was unable to sign
his nomination form and therefore officially bows out of Israeli
politics.

Later in the day, the gap between the centrist Kadima and its right-wing opposition was dramatically illustrated by a violent confrontation
on the West Bank. More than 200 people were injured as police
dismantled an unauthorised Jewish settlement on a hilltop at Amona,
near Ramallah. “In my many years in the Israeli police force, I have
never seen such violence against police,” said the local commander.

As The New York Times notes, “Mr Olmert has adopted a more
confrontational tone toward the settlers at illegal outposts” than
Sharon had. (“Illegal,” that is, under Israeli law; the international
community regards all the settlements as illegal.) Although Olmert has
firmly rejected compromise with Hamas, he is evidently trying to signal
that he is serious about peace.

Meanwhile Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, was in Egypt,
where the Egyptian government lent its backing to demands that Hamas
should renounce violence and recognise Israel. Formal recognition is
probably a long way off, but Hamas may be able to find some formula
that it can live with as a basis for negotiations. Since the new
Palestinian government will probably not be up and running until after
the Israeli elections, Olmert could be facing that task with a fresh
mandate.

So despite last week’s political earthquake, there are some hopeful
signs. Yesterday even World Bank head Paul Wolfowitz – known as
“Wolfowitz of Arabia” for his role in promoting the Iraq war – expressed the hope that international aid for the Palestinians would continue. And public opinion seems to be solidly in favour of negotiations: a poll last week in Israel
found 48% in favour of direct talks with Hamas, and two-thirds support
for “talks with an administration that includes Hamas,” while one in the Palestinian territories
found that “84% of Palestinians want a negotiated peace
agreement with Israel” and “nearly three-quarters want Hamas to drop
its demand for the destruction of Israel.”

Peter Fray

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