MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the state of play in the Palestinian elections, and the latest bump in the road in Israel's politics, we turn to Shibley Telhami, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He recently authored "The Stakes," about Arab and Muslim perceptions of U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
And Matthew Silver, a professor at Emek Yezreel College in Israel, who's currently a visiting professor at the University of Hartford. He's a former member of the editorial board at the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.
And welcome to you both. This election is just five weeks away. How much progress have the Palestinians made or has been made on the ground, Shibley Telhami, in creating the conditions that are needed for a free and fair competitive election?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, first all, in terms of organization, clearly the Palestinians have been organized, they've had the experience of elections, they've been expecting elections; they've been expecting local elections. These elections have been postponed. So organizationally at some level they're quite ready. There's already over 70 percent registration for the vote.
The problems are two-fold. One is the logistical issue on the ground -- that is the roadblocks, the relations with Israel, the security questions, all of that is a major roadblock that has to be clearly sorted out before. Then the second is having truly competitive elections. There's no sense in having an election where you know exactly who is going to win in the end.
Are these going to be competitive elections? Well, yes, at some level I think they'll be quite competitive and they will probably be fair. On another level it's clear that Hamas and Islamic Jihad will not be part of this political process and the issue will be whether in fact the interest of Barghouti into this will make it a real race.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let's separate -- there are a couple of issues there. And, Professor Silver let me ask you first about the idea of the conditions just for running an election that can be open, and competitive if indeed it is, under occupation. What have the Palestinians been able to do to get ready? What have the Israelis done to make this easier?
MATTHEW SILVER: Well, there are expectations that Israel will ease some of the restrictions on movements in the territories. There are various issues about whether East Jerusalemites will be able to cast ballots. There are some technical solutions to those kinds of problems. Israel is committed to helping a democratic process unfold in the territories.
It's clear to the Sharon government that a viable democratic process is in the interest of both peoples. And the Sharon government has shown, as already indicated, a willingness to meet with Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and any moderate leadership that will emerge in the Palestinian authority on two simple conditions -- simple but also complex:
One, the Palestinian Authority, the new leadership that emerges from this process, has to crack down on terror, and secondly, a basic recognition of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.
MARGARET WARNER: I've read that I think in fact Prime Minister Sharon's government has already said that for instance East Jerusalem Palestinians will be able to vote.
Professor Telhami, Prime Minister Sharon also said today, and let me just look exactly, that during this election period, that Israel won't launch any attacks or raids against the Palestinians, unless he said, of course, provoked. How significant is that?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, I think it is important. I do believe that there is a sense that at least this experiment has to be allowed to take place. And I think that it is important that obviously there would be no new action that would undermine it.
For one thing you can't really remove the roadblocks if have you an intense security situation and Israeli operations in Palestinian cities. But I think you could put that aside a bit and think about the possible consequences of the Israeli crisis, if in fact the government does collapse and you do not have a new national unity government.
If in fact you have preparation for an Israeli election, you can see the electoral process in Israel in a way putting pressure on the government in different directions, especially if there is an attack on Israel by one of the Palestinian groups, and that could be a challenging issue for holding the elections in a very fair environment.
MARGARET WARNER: Having these two issues basically converge in an unproductive way. Professor Silver, go back now to another point that Professor Telhami raised, and that is Barghouti himself and jumping into the race.
Do you think that, first of all, tell us about these two men, what's the most important thing we need to know about them and the biggest difference between them?
MATTHEW SILVER: Well, there's a very clear difference between them. Abu Mazen Mahmoud Abbas has established credibility in the minds of the Israeli leadership and all western diplomats who have dealt with him in past years.
He has been committed to the Oslo peace process; his ill fated tenure as president of the Palestinian Authority about a year ago, did show a willingness to go ahead with a truce and end the violence and terror against Israel. The Israeli leadership Jews around the world had certain questions about Abbas' record many, many years ago.
But since the peace process has been -- began a decade ago, he did establish credibility as somebody whose words have meaning, a credibility that Yasser Arafat lost in his past years. That's a night and day difference between Mahmoud Abbas and Marwan Barghouti.
Barghouti is serving five consecutive life sentences now for the terror murder of four Israeli civilians and one Greek orthodox cleric. He was popular, relatively popular at some point among the Israeli left wing members of our Israeli left wing, but that's before the current Intifada uprising.
His involvement with the Fatah militia, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade entirely had him lose credibility in Israel's eyes, and we are now at the position which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said and it's an inevitable position, our prime minister has no choice, he's been convicted for five terms in prison, he can run for the president or the prime minister authority, but he'll do that from prison.
MARGARET WARNER: Shibley Telhami, what would you add to that?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, there are clearly differences, and I see it slightly different. I think there's no question that both men are strategically committed to the same end, I mean, Barghouti has been committed to peaceful settlement in the end that would accept Israel as a state. I think technically they're different.
Clearly Mahmoud Abbas has come against the use of violence as a tactic in the process of negotiations, Barghouti has taken a different course, but the real question obviously is in terms of their legitimacy on the ground. Barghouti has been - has had a lot of support in the grassroots really dating back to the first Intifada, not just the second Intifada.
He also has portrayed himself to come across as not being corrupt, not being part of the Old Guard. That has won him a lot of credibility in the Palestinian community, but the end, you know, politics is about organizations. The fact that he was popular as a man does not translate often into electoral power. So in fact it's actually healthy for Abu Mazen to have him in the race.
I think he's going to have a huge battle to try to win without the organizational support of Fatah. And if Abu Mazen is seen to in fact defeat him electorally in a competitive election, it's going to enhance Abu Mazen's legitimacy at home and abroad.
MARGARET WARNER: And briefly, Professor Silver, when you go to the question of legitimacy, how much will it undercut the legitimacy that Islamic Jihad and Hamas -- more importantly Hamas -- are calling on their followers to boycott the election?
MATTHEW SILVER: Well, I think that no political community has an interest in a one-man kind of electoral race, much as Israel finds Barghouti and Hamas and Islamic Jihad unacceptable from the Israeli point of view as potential negotiation partners in a resumption of the peace process. We do hope that there would be a competitive election.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad's participation in that process goes back to a dilemma that Israel and the United States and the western countries now face in the Middle East, and it's a dilemma that has been faced since 1991 when the Islamic front in Algeria was suspended from a democratic process.
Do you deal with elements which are subversive to the democratic process itself? There's no clear-cut answer to that question, but Hamas and Islamic Jihad is making life easy in a sense for Israel right now by announcing that they will boycott those elections.
MARGARET WARNER: Before we run out of time - and there's lots more we could talk about the Palestinian election -- but let me ask you both about Sharon's political problems.
And, Shibley Telhami, I'll come back to you on this first. I mean, how serious is this latest unraveling of his coalition and what are the prospects you think that he can resolve it versus having to face a snap election?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: No question it's very serious. I mean, losing Shinui, has been a very important loss for him; he really is left with only one choice and that is having labor in the party; without labor, he simply is not going to be able to have a coalition.
But having labor does put him in a very difficult position because many of his own Likud members don't really want to see labor in the party. If he succeeds, it actually will enhance his hand, because he will seem to have a broader coalition; he will be able, much more easily than before, to push the withdrawal. But that's a big if, and he -- stands really, a lot hurdles along the way.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it, Professor Silver?
MATTHEW SILVER: Oh, I think that I'm not quite as pessimistic about the old general's ability to pull another political rabbit out of the hat. He's been shuffling the cards now in his coalition government for several years; the labor party was part of his first government after he was elected prime minister. Labor has a clear interest in unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Shimon Perez will be firmly behind that.
And there will be a few more surprises - the Shinui Party, which has now pulled out, because of domestic wrangling in Israel about issues that are entirely removed from what we're talking about, they -- in the weeks ahead you'll see them also rejoining the government because Shinui, the center, the left parties in Israel have a clear interest in improving the situation on the ground for both peoples and improving the situation means ultimately getting -- moving ahead with the road map.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Telhami, just a very brief final couple sentences from you on this point. To what degree will this election look like what Americans think of it as an election, with rallies and speeches and television advertising?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, I think there will be a lot of campaigning in this election, but it wouldn't be like an American election, we've seen it before, there are a lot of speeches people will go around. The candidates are going to make a good case, there will be television appearances.
Interestingly the problem is here when you look at Palestinians most of the television they watch is really one that is not Palestinian television. I think they'll probably watch more Palestinian television during the election campaign, but you'll see the candidates actually making their case on Arab satellite television and you'll see them making more appearances on Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, because those are more watched in the Palestinian community than actually the local Palestinian television.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, it will be fascinating to watch. Professors Telhami and Silver, thank you both.