Monday, December 5, 2011

Two Political Rumors Worth Following

Here are two rumors worth noting, one Israeli, one Palestinian, each with potentially big political significance.

1. The first has to to do with Netanyahu's decision to call a snap Likud primary for late January. The superficial explanation is that he wants to take advantage of his current strength in the Likud, or the complacency of the rank and file, or both, and renew his mandate in case a government partner moves to break-up the coalition and he faces an unexpected election.  But the (slightly obnoxiously) shrewd Hanan Krystal, Israeli radio's closest thing to Bill Schneider, has an intriguing alternative explanation:

Krystal says that Netanyahu's move is aimed to preempt Barack Obama, whom Netanyahu thinks will be reelected. After November 2012, so the argument goes, Obama "will put away the carrot and take out the stick." (Presumably, Leon Panetta's shot across Netanyahu's bow at the Saban Forum, which has rattled America's connoisseurs of victimhood, has put things in focus.)

So Netanyahu, Krystal thinks, will call a general election himself for the fall and win a new mandate before Obama wins his. Implicitly, Krystal is suggesting (something I've believed for some time), that Israel's opposition parties, Kadima and Labor, have one card to play in any future election, and that is the fear of international isolation trumping the fear of regional siege (especially since international support is Israel's only hope for withstanding regional siege).

If the Israeli election is scheduled for the spring of 2013, and opposition leaders like Livni, Mofaz, and Yachimovitch have several months to rail at Bibi for screwing up relations with Washington, they'll have a fighting chance to defeat him. In that context, the energies of last summer's street demonstrations can also be channeled, since economic growth depends on continued global integration.

2. There has been a lot of understandable anxiety in the West following the announcement that Salam Fayyad will be forced out as the Palestinian prime minister. The fear: Fatah and Hamas are trying to achieve a "unity" government of professionals and technocrats, to preside until new elections in the spring, and Fayyad is unacceptable to Hamas. Arguably, this is an indication of Hamas's rising power, a portent of a new government to be led by hard-liners less loyal to Abbas.

But sources in Ramallah tell me that rumors, which have generally proven true, suggest a different story. The next prime minister, they say, is likely to be Mohammed Mustafa, the current CEO of the Palestine Investment Fund. His name has reportedly been approved by Hamas. He is, if anything, even closer to Abbas than Fayyad ever was, regularly accompanying Abbas to Washington, and even to the White House.

Mustafa, a former World Bank official, has run Palestine's sovereign wealth fund (formerly "the billion dollars Arafat kept in his mattress") with transparency and vision. He's invested in telecom, housing, and new businesses. He is a man of exceptional talent and genuine humility, which I've had the privilege of learning at first hand. He is in many ways chairman of the board of Ramallah's entrepreneurial and professional class, and certain to continue to work toward unity mainly through (where possible) economic integration with Gaza.

If it is true that Hamas approved Mustafa, this only proves what is obvious but provisional, that the state-building efforts on the West Bank, however stymied by the occupation, provide Palestinians their only political horizon. Hamas has no choice but to go along. They are even less popular is Gaza than in the West Bank.

Fayyad was unacceptable to Hamas, according to this view, not because of what he stood for, but because his forces jailed (and allegedly roughed-up) Hamas people; many old Fatah leaders had no loyalty to him and lost certain economic plumbs under his administration. Besides, some of Fayyad's ministers were themselves charged with corruption.

Oh, and as for the Palestinian election scheduled for the spring, we can safely assume the opposite of what might happen in Israel, that the vote will not take place until after the American election. If Obama wins, and does take out a stick, Abbas will have a chance to prevail.  If Obama loses, or if hope for a two-state deal is lost, then expect Abbas to resign--and, election or no election, for the leadership of Palestine to fall into Hamas's hands like a ripe fruit.