Israel's Dangerous Crossroads
Before the scandals broke, Mitzna's campaign had not taken off. The new Labor leader is up against a very complex reality:
§ Camp David: When Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Arafat and President Clinton met at Camp David in 2000, the Israeli public thought that we were on the verge of a permanent peace agreement that would continue the positive economic and social trends of the 1990s, begun with the 1991 Madrid Conference and the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords. When Camp David ended in failure, and was soon followed by the outbreak of the second, violent intifada, Israelis went into a collective trauma. I don't want to dwell on the reasons for the failure here--suffice it to say that the Israeli, Palestinian and US leaderships all share part of the blame and should have prepared a backup in case the talks failed. But the result was a tremendous loss of confidence between Israelis and Palestinians. And Barak's inability to engage in self-criticism, his claim that he "did everything possible, left no stone unturned" and that the Palestinians were totally to blame, has only served to undercut the Israeli left [see Carey, page 24].
Along comes Mitzna, who says, Let's resume where we left off at Camp David and the subsequent talks. But the majority of the Israeli public simply doesn't believe it's possible. Mitzna's response has not been to challenge Barak's "generous offer" at Camp David but rather to say that Sharon has provided no solutions to the deteriorating security and economic situation. Without the scandals, though, his campaign would have gotten nowhere.
§ The Palestinians: While the second intifada was probably not the product of a conscious, planned strategy of the Palestinian leadership--to get by the gun what couldn't be gained at the negotiating table--but rather of ongoing frustrations because of continued Israeli settlement expansion and the lack of visible fruits of a dragged-out negotiating process, the result of two and a half years of violence on both sides has been the virtual destruction of the PA as a viable governing body. This may have been Sharon's fantasy as he climbed onto the Temple Mount in September 2000, but the Palestinians fell into his trap, and the result has been a drastic decline in the socioeconomic situation of the average Palestinian. Another outcome is that the average Israeli no longer believes the Palestinians support a two-state solution, despite the fact that this is the official PA position. This has led many Palestinian intellectuals and leaders, for example Sari Nusseibeh and Ziad Abu-Zayyad, to do some private and public soul-searching about the nature and direction of the struggle. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Arafat's deputy, made a number of statements criticizing militarization of the conflict as counterproductive. In a recent interview in Abu Dhabi's Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, he noted that "a large percentage of Israelis want peace, but they also want security." And younger West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who from his position in an Israeli prison is a candidate to be a future "Palestinian Nelson Mandela," has affirmed his commitment to a two-state solution and given his blessings to the Fatah-Hamas dialogue in Cairo to end suicide bombings.
The problem is that this is probably too little, and definitely too late, for this election campaign. The impact of the accumulation of suicide attacks is still more powerful. The recent horrific suicide bombings in Tel Aviv, which killed twenty-two Israelis and foreign workers, is not exactly a message that inspires trust.
§ The Americans: With all the best intentions, no other third party, whether they be the Europeans, the United Nations or the Egyptians, can substitute for US leverage when it comes to facilitating a resolution of the conflict. Here there is unfortunately a huge difference between George Bush the father and George Bush the son. In 1991, after the first Gulf War, it was Secretary of State James Baker who twisted arms throughout the Middle East to insure the convening of the Madrid Conference, which set the peace process in motion. In 1992 it was Bush's refusal to provide loan guarantees to a Likud government that helped to elect Rabin and led to the Oslo Accords.
What do we have this time around? The current President Bush is more or less giving Sharon a blank check to do whatever he wants, "within reason," i.e., don't touch Arafat himself, don't support "transfer" (expulsion) of the Palestinians and don't rock the Middle Eastern boat as we prepare for a possible war with Iraq. What Bush is not doing is providing any inducements for resumption of a diplomatic process.
Another US President, who supported active efforts for conflict resolution, would have kept to the schedule of announcing an official Quartet (US, Russia, EU and UN) "Roadmap for Middle East Peace" in December, which would have had a positive impact on the Israeli elections. Another President would hold up an economic carrot as inducement to resume negotiations. The opportunity is there--Sharon sent emissaries to Washington requesting $12 billion in additional aid and loan guarantees--but Bush didn't seize it; he let Sharon get away with the spin that aid will be coming after the elections, with no conditions.