Israel's Dangerous Crossroads
Actually, the problem is deeper. When the Bush Administration took over, its approach to international affairs veered toward an isolationist disengagement from all efforts at conflict resolution, including abrogation of many treaties that served as the cornerstone of a more secure and stable world. The trauma of September 11 shocked the Administration into engagement--but unfortunately it has taken the form of an imposed Pax Americana. That's not what the Middle East and other trouble spots need, and it's also highly questionable whether it will work. Sharon jumped at the opportunity created by 9/11 to promote his long-held dream of "regime change" as a basis for foreign policy, and he found a willing ally in Bush. It didn't work in Lebanon in 1982, and it won't work in Palestine. Sharon also used the opportunity to promote the equation of "Arafat = bin Laden," convincing Bush to join him in the delegitimization of the Palestinian leader. Despite all his flaws, there is a world of difference between Arafat and his colleagues, who are ready to negotiate for a two-state solution, and bin Laden, with whom no dialogue or negotiation is possible.
§ Sharon: In his old age (he turns 75 this month) Sharon has become a masterful tactician. He has positioned himself at the center of Israeli politics, fending off both the extreme right and the left. Unlike his Likud rival Netanyahu, he has declared that he supports a Palestinian state and is ready for "painful concessions" to achieve an agreement (though he does nothing to bring that day closer). He even claims that any Likud politician who doesn't agree with him won't serve in his next Cabinet. This makes him sound like a realistic, responsible leader to the majority of Israelis, while the far right (which supports "transfer," the immediate expulsion of Arafat and is totally opposed to a Palestinian state under any circumstances) appears dangerous, and the left's possibility of a peace agreement appears utopian. Sharon also understands the lesson the pragmatic David Ben-Gurion taught: that Israel always has to maintain an alliance with a superpower. Today this translates into care not to anger the Americans.
§ Winds of War: When the Likud scandals hit the front pages, Sharon went out of his way to fan the fears of a future US/Iraq war. He arranged a photo-op examination of home-front readiness for a possible Iraqi attack against Israel, sending a not-so-subtle reminder that the public shouldn't change leaders with war on the horizon. The fact that the UN inspection team is scheduled to submit its report on January 27, one day before the elections, will only reinforce this impression. The catch is, What will the White House do after the Iraq crisis is resolved, one way or the other? At that point, there will be no more excuses to delay publication of the Quartet's roadmap, which, if seriously pursued, would lead to the establishment of "a viable, independent Palestinian State living side by side in peace and security with Israel" by 2005.
§ Israeli Democracy: Israel's 1948 Declaration of Independence said the state would be "based on freedom, justice and peace...[and would] ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex...." That promise was threatened by a recent majority decision (21 to 19) of the Central Election Committee that barred two Arab members of the Knesset, Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara, and Bishara's National Democratic Alliance (Balad) Party from competing in the elections. The decision was made purely along party lines--the right was for, the left against. The right understands that any future victory for the left depends upon an alliance between the liberal-left Jewish parties and Arab parties, so for them the political arithmetic is simple: Ban the Arabs. The trouble is that this would seriously undermine the fabric of Israel's democracy and send it down the road toward an apartheid-like structure, with all the negative internal (serious tensions between Jews and the Arab minority, now 20 percent of the population) and external (a growing campaign to boycott Israel) repercussions. Fortunately, since the chairman of the committee is a Supreme Court justice opposed to the decision, no one was surprised when the Court reversed it. This has given new impetus for Arab citizens to participate in the elections.
However, this was not the only warning sign concerning the state of Israel's democracy. None of the past five prime ministers have served a full term. The divisions and fragmentation of Israeli politics--there were nineteen parties in the last Knesset--are beginning to recall the instability of France's Fourth Republic.
As the campaign enters its final stages, Mitzna says Labor will refuse to serve in a unity government under Sharon--"the public has to choose"--while the surprise joker of these elections, the anti-clerical, neoliberal, centrist Shinui Party (polls predict a jump from six to sixteen seats) will serve only in a secular Likud-Labor-Shinui coalition. This might force Sharon, who prefers a centrist, unity arrangement, to form a narrow, shaky coalition based only on the Likud and far-right parties. In any event, the pluralistic, left-wing Meretz Party, which will remain in opposition to a Sharon-led government in all circumstances, plans to form a new social democratic party after the elections, together with Yossi Beilin's breakaway Labor group, the left Russian Democratic Choice Party and elements from the Arab sector.
Israeli politicians usually don't like long-term planning. Yet on August 25, Gen. Uzi Dayan, then head of the National Security Council, submitted a lengthy position paper to the government on the country's problems and goals. It places at the head of national priorities "the need to maintain a solid Jewish majority and a democratic regime.... the only realistic way to do this is to plan state borders that will include a minimal number of Palestinians." The paper asserts that a continuation of the current situation will undermine Israeli democracy. It also stresses the need to define clear-cut borders to maintain a democratic society and promote other worthy social goals. Many psychologists and educators reinforce this message by saying that the lack of clear borders (physical and psychological) is one of the contributing causes to the rise of youth and domestic violence within Israeli society.
Sharon, of course, buried the report. But the writing is in the paper, and on the wall.