Friday, January 27, 2006

The Day After in Jerusalem

It's the day after the earthquake in Jerusalem. Some clouds, some sun, the possibility of rain and fairly cold.

Yesterday evening the town was as filled with speculation, bewilderment and utter confusion as one could imagine as different politicians, analysts and observers tried to understand the consequences of the new realities of the region.

In East Jerusalem, Hamas captured all the four seats that were there for taking. Two further seats are, according to an arrangement dating back to Jordanian times, reserved for Christians.

A special session of the Israeli cabinet yesterday discussed what could be done. The defence and security services argued moderation, saying that they saw no reason for Hamas to break the cease-fire and arguing that Israel had an interest in keeping the Palestinian authority afloat.

Prime Minister Omert seems to have concluded that one shouldn't rush into any conclusions, that close international consultation was necessary and that one should await and see what actually happens in Ramallah.

Sounds wise to me.

There are, however, some immediate issues on the table. And they can hardly wait.

The Palestinian Authority is more or less bankcrupt. If Israel were to withhold the VAT and customs money that it collects on behalf of the PA, there is no way it can pay salaries even for this month. It's easy to see a scenario in which financial collapse causes political and security collapse.

This issue will be very much on the table when the Quartet meets in London Monday evening. Can economic support for the Palestinian Authority be continued? And which could be the consequences of a financial collapse?

This is to some extent related to the security issues.

There are app 60 000 people employed in the different Palestinian security structures, although most of these without weapons and much of training. They are to an overwhelming extent a Fatah force - and they are now likely to be fearful of their future.

In terms of violence it's hardly the fighters of Hamas that are the issue at the moment. They are likely to be the forces of order.

The risk is rather that the Fatah-linked forces inside and outside the security structures will be the new rogue element of instability and violence. And this in particular if suddenly they don't even get paid.

It's hardly surprising that the Israeli security agencies are advocating caution and moderation. The occupaion is difficult as it is for them, and a collapse that leads to a cycle of confrontations will make everything worse for everyone.

But for this to be avoided, there is a need for money. Transfers from Israel and aid from the European Union and others. Will it happen?

There might of course be alternatives. Washington could press the Saudis or the Gulf states into paying the bills at the least for a while.

And then the nightmare alternative of a Western cut-off followed by Teheran genereously stepping in and offering to pay everything in order to avoid a break-down of public order and social services.

Talk comes cheap these days. But the real issues that are there on the urgent agenda are far from easy.

They will not go away.

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