Israel's February 10 Knesset elections are all about the Palestinian issue. Yet the outcome is not likely to produce a breakthrough with the Palestinians in any direction. Voters and observers can assess the various party platforms based on a wide spectrum of Israeli reactions to Palestinian developments. But they should be warned that most of this is hot air.
Take for example Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party. It is likely to register the biggest gains in this election by declaring "no citizenship without loyalty" and demanding loyalty oaths and compulsory national service from Palestinian citizens of Israel (and from ultra-orthodox Jews). Coming in the aftermath of Israel's war in Gaza, which Israeli Arabs angrily condemned and Jews supported enthusiastically, Lieberman's slogan has proven a vote-getter. Yet no one anticipates that Yisrael Beitenu, if it becomes a coalition partner, will actually be able to implement its policy; in any case, the High Court of Justice would almost certainly disallow it.
Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud, which might well form the next coalition, promise to do a more thorough job next time we go to war with Hamas in Gaza and to promulgate an "economic peace" with the PLO in the West Bank. Yet the Israeli security establishment will almost certainly balk at the idea of a war aimed at eliminating Hamas and will explain to Netanyahu that after Hamas we will encounter even more extreme Islamists in Gaza while the entire world condemns us. And pressure from the Obama administration, Netanyahu's coalition partners and the Israeli public is likely to ensure that Netanyahu, however grudgingly, offers the West Bank Palestinians more than investments.
Kadima leader Tzipi Livni promises voters that she will continue the Annapolis process of peace negotiations with leaders of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Throughout 2008, Livni, as foreign minister, and PM Ehud Olmert got virtually nowhere with these negotiations even though they could look forward to the support of a relatively dovish Knesset. The next Knesset is certain to be more hawkish, and Livni's coalition partners less willing. Why should we believe she will be more successful in 2009?
The Labor party, traditionally the flag-bearer of a two-state solution, is downplaying that message this time around because its leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, apparently continues to believe we "don't have a partner" and would rather run as "mister defense" after ostensibly teaching Hamas a lesson in Gaza.
The minority far right says no to everything but settlements, yet can hardly be blamed for the sins of the majority center-right and center-left. Meretz on the Zionist far left wants peace but won't be in the coalition. The Arab parties want Israel to cease being Jewish, thereby placing themselves beyond the Israeli political pale.
To complete this depressing picture, not a single Zionist party is suggesting that we contemplate offering to talk to Hamas in Gaza, despite the growing recognition that this is an inevitable development that could provide considerable tactical advantages. No parties are suggesting we stop waging economic warfare against Gaza, even though this strategy has failed totally and can even be deemed counterproductive. Not a single party is running on a platform of prioritizing peace negotiations with Syria, even though this is potentially a far more promising track at the regional strategic level than more fruitless talks with the Palestinians.
Finally, most distressing yet most anticipated of all, these elections and the fragmented and fragile coalition they produce will offer yet another round of confirmation that Israel's political engine is fueled by the Palestinian issue--yet Israel's political system is congenitally incapable of solving it.- Published 9/2/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Public opinion polls in Israel on the eve of elections indicate an alarming lurch to the right, corresponding to a trend of radicalization that has characterized both Israeli and Palestinian public opinion in the last nine years.
The polls show that the Labor party, which was once the dominant party in Israel and was responsible for the breakthrough of the Oslo accords in 1993, now ranks only fourth. Labor has been overtaken by the Yisrael Beitenu party of far-right extremist Avigdor Lieberman, as well as both the right-wing Likud and the governing Kadima parties. Most probably, then, the new Israeli government will be formed out of a coalition of rightwing parties and will be dominated by rightwing politics.
This radicalization of public opinion is not confined to Israel. The same dynamic can be detected on the Palestinian side. The latest poll from the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center shows a similar trend on the Palestinian side, where there has been a systematic decline in public support for the peace process and negotiations accompanied by a decline in public support for parties like Fateh and leaders like Mahmoud Abbas, who have identified themselves with the peace process.
There are two main factors contributing to this trend of radicalization in the two societies. It's easy to draw significant statistical correlations between such changes in public opinion and both the failure of and setbacks in peace negotiations and spikes in violence. Recently, we've had both in the same period of time. The failure of the Annapolis peace process, which was sponsored by former US President George W. Bush, who promised an agreement before the end of his term, was followed almost immediately by an unprecedented level of violence during the war on Gaza.
The combination of the failure of negotiations and the unusual increase in the level of violence clearly resulted in an increase in the popularity of parties and political personalities opposed to the peace process and who promote the use of force and violence as a means of achieving objectives.
This is also not an isolated development. The last 15 years have witnessed similar dramatic changes accompanying or resulting from spikes in violence and setbacks in the political processes. The failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000 and the subsequent outbreak of violence, which included devastating Israeli military incursions and re-occupations of West Bank areas and a massive wave of Palestinian resistance, led to a similar shift to the right in Israel and a corresponding decline in support for Yasser Arafat and Fateh in favor of the opposition, which culminated in Hamas' victory in the second Palestinian legislative elections in 2006.
Secondly, the experience of almost two decades also shows that whenever Palestinian-Israeli relations are subject to meaningful and relatively balanced engagement by outside actors, things move, however slowly, in a positive direction and there is a decrease in violence and an increase in public support for negotiations as the means to achieve objectives. This was most clearly shown in the period when the Americans initiated the international peace conference in Madrid in 1991 and with the Oslo agreements of 1993-1994.
It was shown in the negative when President Bush, followed by the rest of the international community, decided to abandon peace efforts in 2001. The consequences of that decision continue to reverberate.- Published 9/2/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The elections are not important
by Yossi Sarid
We have never been so close to an agreement with our Palestinian neighbors--yet never so far.
The last 15 years since Oslo have been years of missed opportunities and foot-dragging: one step forward, two backward. It is no longer at all clear that the solution of two states for two peoples is feasible. There are too many fait accompli on the ground, too much bad blood flowing in our veins, some of which is shared as if by Siamese twins. It is doubtful any separation operation would succeed, nor is it clear what surgeon is capable of performing such a complicated operation.
No wonder, then, that more and more people on both sides are desperately eulogizing the two states and instead dredging up the idea of one state for the two peoples.
There are no good peoples or bad peoples; no peoples who by their nature are peaceable or warlike. The differences are in the leaderships, and only there. A responsible, courageous and farsighted leadership will formulate policy accordingly and move in that direction. An adventurous, cowardly leadership that can't see beyond the present day will adopt policies without vision that lead nowhere.
The Israeli and Palestinian tragedy is one of leadership. In our camp are the Likud, Kadima and Labor, among which there is no substantive difference. And in the Palestinian camp there are wild Hamas and corrupt Fateh. Recently, Israel too has taken the road of corruption and is making good progress there.
The Palestinian camp is torn and divisive; its main preoccupation is internal rivalries. The same goes for the Israeli camp, where the only missing organ is a backbone. Both of these poor peoples are falling victim to the selfish and opportunistic political struggles in their midst.
Any healing of the Palestinian divisions--between Gaza and the West Bank, between Hamas and Fateh--currently seems a distant possibility. The approaching elections in Israel will most likely produce a political establishment incapable of deciding. What happened in Israel in the past is what will be in the future, and whoever was in power will return to power, while the conflict will only get more angry and ugly. A narrow right wing government in Jerusalem or a government of national unity--both promise nothing. It's even hard to know which coalition is preferable: one from the nationalist right that unmasks the real Israeli policy, or one that pretends to be moderate and makes noises about dialogue while in fact wasting time and, in the best case, going nowhere. Perhaps we're better off with the extremist Avigdor Lieberman: he'll drag Israel down to a place from which it will have to extract itself as quickly as possible.
Palestinian and Israeli politicians are like the prisoner who won't agree to be released from jail. They will not succeed of their own volition in throwing off the chains of trauma, paranoia, prejudice and historic grudges. Hence there is no alternative but to expropriate the solution of this conflict from the hands of the locals.
The past eight years were distinguished by political and security mayhem. The leader of the world, the United States, abandoned the Middle East to its doctrine of power: the power of power, a pseudo-evangelical belief in the power of the military not as the extension of a comprehensive and intelligent policy but rather as its substitute. The new administration in Washington, aware of the power at its disposal, the power of the superpower, addresses it in different terms: "wise power", they call it now. Will this wisdom now finally reach our shores too?
What did the Middle East get out of the boycott and stick policy of George W. Bush, Richard Cheney and Condoleezza Rice? They boycotted Iran and Syria, Hamas and Hizballah, yet the "blacklisted" were not particularly impressed by America's anger. Paradoxically, it was American deterrence that was badly shattered, and when that happens the fragments fly directly into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Washington is itself boycotted even as it boycotts others, and is no longer perceived as a mediator.
The new administration in Washington has to begin talking to anyone who is ready to talk to it. It has to restore the carrots to its arsenal of sticks and boycotts. Above all, it has to position itself at the head of a broad global and regional initiative that generates an interim international mandate for the occupied territories until we are rid of extremism and fanaticism. This is the solution--there is no other, unless we intend to continue limping along the same old paths that were long ago tried and found wanting. If Israelis are held hostage by the settlers and the Palestinians by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, then the Americans, Europeans and moderate Islamic countries must come and release them from their chains.
This week's elections in Israel are not very important. Nor will the results of elections held in the Palestinian Authority--the Gaza Strip and West Bank--be very important if indeed they are held this year as promised. The fate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now rests with the international community. If the world chooses to intervene directly and, as President Barack Obama states, "aggressively", then there is still a slim chance of a way out. If it does not--if it continues to make do with sanctimonious statements--then this chance too will disappear and the conflict will remain in a dead end until the next big war breaks out.- Published 9/2/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Sarid is currently a columnist for Haaretz daily newspaper and a lecturer in national security at the Herzlia Interdisciplinary Center. He is a former minister of education and minister of the environment.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
New Israeli reality only worsens Palestinian prospects
by Ziad Abu Zayyad
The average Palestinian has not shown much interest in the Israeli elections, even if the campaign has been covered comprehensively in the print and electronic media in Palestine and on the satellite stations of the Arab world.
The reason for this lack of concern is the general impression among Palestinians that Israeli politicians are all the same. Successive Israeli governments--whether led by Labor or Likud--have failed to prove to Palestinians that Israel wants just peace. What Palestinians have instead witnessed down the many years of occupation is a persistent and intensive effort to build settlements or expand existing ones in a manner that does not leave any room for a future Palestinian state. The failure of the moderate Palestinian leadership to fulfill its promises to bring an end to the Israeli occupation has contributed much to Palestinian frustrations.
Private conversations, however, betray a feeling of unease on behalf of the Palestinian political leadership regarding the future of Palestinian-Israeli contacts. Those contacts have for the past years been handled by Ehud Olmert, the outgoing prime minister, and Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister. The latter now looks set to lose out to Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu in elections that could give rise to a right-wing coalition that has no interest in making peace with the Palestinians based on the principles of "land for peace" and "two states for the two peoples". The past experience of Netanyahu in 1996 provides a strong and concrete basis for such fears.
The Israeli election campaign has proven to be a battle of two blocs rather than of individual parties. The leaders on the right have taken turns complimenting each other, in the belief that any gain for any right-wing party is a gain for Netanyahu. Opinion polls have consistently shown about a 10-seat advantage for the Right over the so-called Left. According to these polls, Likud, Yisrael Beitenu and the rest of the Right stand to garner some 66 parliamentary seats to 54 for Kadima, Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties (who in any case would not be invited into any coalition).
With Ehud Barak, the hawkish defense minister and head of Labor, expected to accept to continue in his post under Netanyahu, a Netanyahu-led government could enjoy the support of more than 80 members of the Knesset. In the light of such a likely outcome, Palestinian unease should be easy to understand.
Netanyahu has campaigned on a promise that Israel will never negotiate over the Golan Heights, the Jordan Valley or Jerusalem. The Jerusalem zoning plan integrates all satellite settlements around Jerusalem, from the borders of Ramallah in the north, east almost to the borders of Jericho and south, down to Efrat, beyond Bethlehem. This area alone takes almost 20 percent of the West Bank besides dividing it into two major separate units each with its own bantustans, surrounded by more settlements.
Netanyahu never believed in a political solution to the conflict, and he didn't support the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, with a new administration in the White House he will be keen to avoid a confrontation with President Barack Obama. In his election campaign, he already started speaking about "improving" Palestinian economic conditions by building industrial parks near large Palestinian cities to create jobs and get Palestinians busy with work instead of "terror".
But this approach to the conflict has been tried before. It has failed because it underestimates the national and political aspirations of the Palestinian people and misunderstands the nature of the historic compromise. The Palestinian demand is an Israel withdrawal to the 1967 lines to make room for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. This would leave 78 percent of historic Palestine for the State of Israel. That is why it is called the historic compromise.
The continued internal Palestinian dispute, meanwhile, is also causing fear and frustration among ordinary Palestinians. People might have expected that the Israeli war on Gaza, with all the atrocities that were committed against people there, would present a good opportunity for the leaderships of Hamas and Fateh to compromise and go back to a unified effort for the sake of the Palestinian national interest.
But in spite of the tragic situation in Gaza and the huge suffering caused by the Israeli invasion there are no signs of reconciliation between the two parties. On the contrary, the struggle over who will be the legitimate address for the expected reconstruction aid to rebuild demolished homes and infrastructure in Gaza is instead increasing tension between the factions and pouring oil on the fire.
The logical position is that now is an opportune moment for Palestinians to try to take advantage of the combination of a new US administration eager to make a fresh start, global sympathy with the civilian victims in Gaza, and conflicting regional interests, in confronting the threat posed by a new right-wing Israeli government. But any benefit that may come from this constellation cannot be reaped unless there is Palestinian unity and a reorganization of the Palestinian political order so that Palestinians can face the world with one voice, one representative and one authority.- Published 9/2/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ziad Abu Zayyad is co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal.
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