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Israel's Dangerous Crossroads | The Nation

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Israel's Dangerous Crossroads

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Tel Aviv

About the Author

Hillel Schenker
Hillel Schenker, a Tel Aviv journalist, is a veteran commentator on Israeli-Arab affairs and co-editor of the Palestine...

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Israel's attack on Gaza has benefited the current leadership, especially Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in pre-election polling. But do they have an exit strategy?

The fall of Ehud Olmert is a tragedy for Israel and the world--squandering a genuine opportunity for a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab relations.

In December, on the eve of the primaries for the upcoming Knesset elections, polls predicted that the Likud Party would get forty-one seats out of 120 and, together with the far right and Orthodox religious parties, would have a clear seventy-seat majority. Ariel Sharon was a shoo-in for a second term as prime minister, and was in a position to more or less dictate policy.

But as election day drew near, the Likud declined dramatically, to around thirty seats in the polls, and Ma'ariv, the most right-wing of the three major dailies, wrote that Sharon is in the "Battle of His Life." What happened? "Not peace and security," continued Ma'ariv, "not the question of a Palestinian state, not unemployment, not the rapidly deteriorating economic situation--it is the honesty of the Prime Minister that is on the line."

When Sharon was elected prime minister in February 2001, the country was four months into the second intifada, its economy was shrinking rapidly and there was no end in sight. The spin was that after an impulsive, scandal-plagued military and political career, Sharon had been transformed into a grandfatherly elder statesman who would responsibly provide security, peace and a rejuvenated economy to the children of Israel.

Sharon has not delivered on any of his promises. During the past two years, more than 700 Israelis have been killed, with more than 4,000 wounded (the corresponding figures for Palestinians is about 1,800 killed and more than 20,000 wounded); unemployment has gone from a low of 6 percent in 1996, during the heart of the peace process, to close to 11 percent at the end of 2002; people stare at the rare tourists as if they were exotic aliens from Mars; and investors are steering clear of the entire Middle East. There is no political vision on the horizon and still no end in sight.

Instead of providing a clear alternative to Sharon's inability to provide answers, the Labor Party spent the past two years compromising itself by participating in a paralyzing national-unity government that totally discredited the party leader, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who was defense minister, and Shimon Peres (foreign minister) as viable alternatives. This paved the way for Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna to challenge Ben-Eliezer for the party leadership. Ben-Eliezer in turn pulled Labor out of the government and forced new elections to shore up his position on the left in the upcoming party race; but he lost out to Mitzna, who became Labor's candidate for national leadership.

A former general, Mitzna does not mince words. Apparently unable or unwilling to play the usual politician's game of blurring his positions to satisfy the broadest public possible, he says there is no military solution to the conflict and that peace is the key to economic recovery. Echoing Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, Mitzna calls for a reorganization of national priorities, wants to transfer funds from the settlements to the social and economic infrastructure within the State of Israel proper and calls on the settlers to come home. Posing a clear alternative to Sharon's refusal to resume negotiations, he proposes a return to Rabin's dual approach of confronting terror while simultaneously carrying out negotiations with any authorized Palestinian representative, including Palestinian Authority (PA) head Yasir Arafat, declared persona non grata by both Sharon and President Bush. If those talks fail, he promises a unilateral withdrawal from all of Gaza and from the majority of the West Bank (a policy paper suggests 63 percent of the territory), the establishment of a temporary physical barrier to reduce terrorism (which Sharon opposes because it suggests borders) and removal of settlements on the other side of the barrier until the time is ripe to negotiate a permanent political settlement.

Until recently, the fact that the majority of Israelis support almost all of Mitzna's declared positions made no dent in Sharon's popularity, or the presumed outcome of the elections. Then came the Likud primaries and revelations that some candidates gained their positions through bribery, and were even associated with criminal elements. When the liberal daily Ha'aretz broke the story that Sharon and his sons were implicated in a campaign finance scandal, the prime minister himself was tainted. Suddenly, Mr. Teflon, to whom nothing had stuck during the past two years, was converted from "Grandfather" to "Godfather."

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.

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.

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