Signs that ballots could replace Mideast bullets

In the wake of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza strip, completed on Sept. 12, there has been sporadic violence between Palestinians firing rockets and the Israeli army returning fire. As of this writing, the militant Hamas is observing yet one more cease-fire. But the future of Palestinian-Israeli relations may be determined more by what happens in each camp than by what happens between the two camps.

On the Israeli side, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is bent on the ouster of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as the leader of the governing Likud party. Mr. Netanyahu narrowly failed to win a vote in the Likud central committee to hold a new election for party leader next April. But Netanyahu continues to be a thorn in Mr. Sharon's side. He will not forgive the first unilateral withdrawal of territory under Israeli occupation since the surrender of the Sinai to Egypt as part of the 1979 Camp David accord.

If Netanyahu eventually succeeds in deposing Sharon from the leadership of the right-wing party, the incumbent prime minister would probably try to stay in office, assembling a new coalition of supportive "likudniks," along with Labor, and perhaps one or more of the fringe parties. But Sharon would obviously be weakened in negotiations with the Palestinians.

The Palestinian leadership also faces an early trial by ballot. President Mahmoud Abbas has renounced violence in the quest for a Palestinian state, but has so far not managed to win over the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad. An election next Jan. 25 for the Palestinian Legislative Council, the Palestinian parliament, will determine how much support he has among the population.

In recent municipal elections, the Fatah (Mr. Abbas's party) and Hamas, emerged as the major players. Even while Hamas has been gaining ground against the Fatah, Abbas continues to enjoy popular support. And, significantly, in opinion polls, 57 percent of Palestinians oppose military operations against Israeli targets.

On both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, there appears to be a struggle for legitimacy. On each side there are hard-liners seeking to wrest control of policy and return to confrontational positions. That this drama is being played out, at least for now, by ballot rather than bullet may itself be a hopeful sign. But, as we have often seen, that could change in a minute.

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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