The results of the Israeli elections--a clear victory for the right wing bloc and further marginalization of the left--have proven correct the fears of many analysts that Israeli society is drifting to the right and that this is part of a general trend of radicalization in the region that includes Palestinian society as well.
While the Arab countries around Israel and others involved in trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are looking at what immediate steps they need to take to deal with the results of these elections, it is useful also to examine the factors that led to the radicalization of both Palestinians and Israelis. This is especially so since the growing strength of the right and radical elements in the two societies reinforce each other.
The emergence of Ariel Sharon, with his rightwing and radical views, and the perception among Israelis that he was the strong leader they needed, contributed directly to the emergence of Hamas as a dominant party in Palestinian politics. Subsequently and correspondingly, Hamas' election victory and its takeover of Gaza strengthened the rightwing in Israel.
With this in mind, there are three main recommendations that need to be taken into consideration by the governments trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The first, and most important, is the need for continuous diplomatic activity by the international community to keep the hope of a peaceful and negotiated end to the conflict alive and maintain some strength and power for the peace camps on the two sides. Such a role is required mainly from the US and other active members in the international community.
The new US administration seems more aware of this role than the previous one and will hopefully maintain an active and engaged diplomacy that can contribute to either slowing or reversing the trend of radicalization.
The second is the need to end those measures and activities of the Israeli occupation that provoke hostile reactions from Palestinians. The history of relations between the two sides, especially since the beginning of the peace process in the early 1990s, shows that the Israeli expansion of illegal settlements in occupied territory is the single most damaging factor in undermining any peace effort and weakening the arguments of the peace camp in Palestinian society. It is therefore a major cause of radicalization among Palestinians.
There are other Israeli measures, such as restrictions on the movement of individual Palestinians and Palestinian products, which also need to end. But these are partially a result of the settlement policy. In spite of the verbal opposition to these practices from almost every single country in the world, including the US, there has yet to be serious pressure on Israel to desist. That needs to change.
Third, it has to be clear that it is difficult to isolate public opinion in Israel and Palestine from general changes in the region, including at the public level. The current complicated and deteriorating situation in the region resulted mainly from mistakes in American Middle East policy and has created a regional situation that is not conducive to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Consequently, the regional situation has had a radicalizing effect on both.
The tension between the US and Iran, the latter's nuclear program, the violence and chaos in Iraq, the alliances between anti-American regimes and independently armed political movements such as Hizballah and Hamas in addition to the failure of the social and economic development processes in most countries of the region have all contributed to radicalization region-wide, which in turn affects public opinion in Palestine and Israel.
The victory of the rightwing in Israel should not discourage the new US administration, the peace camps or progressive forces in the region, however. On the contrary, it should engender new approaches to the conflict of the kind that takes into consideration the mistakes of the past. The recent deterioration in the conflict and the region can be reversed, even if only gradually, with close attention and active diplomacy based on respect for international legality.
Israeli public opinion is usually very sensitive to serious messages from the West, especially the US. The right-wing tendencies of the previous American administration were partially responsible for the rise to power of the Israeli rightwing. The behavior of the US in Iraq also encouraged and justified Israeli behavior vis-a-vis the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
A different approach by a new US administration to the region and the conflict will also receive significant support from the international community, especially in Europe where people and governments have for years been frustrated by US policy.- Published 16/2/2009 © 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
Too early for despair
by Yossi Alpher
Once again, Israel's elections reflected the dominant role played by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in determining the direction of Israeli politics. Now, it appears likely that the conflict will also dictate the creation of a centrist coalition that may not resolve it but at least will do it no harm.
It was pessimism over the prospects for a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace process, more than any other factor, which caused voters to abandon the political left and move to the center and right. The causes for that pessimism are multiple: the failure of unilateral withdrawal--in the eyes of too many voters it produced aggression by Hizballah and Hamas; the failure of PM Ehud Olmert and FM Tzipi Livni's (and President George W. Bush's) clumsy attempt at a renewed peace process throughout last year; the perceived failure (even though it is too early to judge) of the attempt by Olmert, Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to solve Israel's problems with Hamas in Gaza militarily; and the abject failure of the Palestinian polity, over the past 16 years, at state-building.
And yet, Livni's dramatic success at vote-getting in these elections is also an affirmation of the two-state solution she is so closely identified with. Livni fought heavy odds. A failed prime minister from her party refused to step aside in her favor when he could have helped her electorally. The unimpressive Kadima list backing her up simply repulsed some voters. And chauvinist accusations regarding her lack of experience and security savvy appealed to Israelis' overwhelming security concern. Yet in this election, Livni and centrist Kadima successfully embodied the best values of the disappearing political left regarding resolution of the conflict.
By the same token, Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman--a highly problematic figure, to be sure--appears to have completely preempted the left's values on issues of religion and state, which are now the concern primarily of Israel's Russian immigrant population. Lieberman is best known for his racist attacks on the Arab citizens of Israel-- whose rejection of Israel as a Jewish state played right into his hands. Yet he cannot be completely dismissed as a supporter of a two-state solution, even though he prefers a demographic to a geographic standard in delineating the borders.
Finally, there is Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. He came in a close second at the head of a party list populated by many politicians with views far to his right on the Palestinian issue. And he heads a right wing bloc that won a clear majority in these elections but whose support for Netanyahu as prime minister would doom him to intense friction with the Obama administration, Israel's moderate Arab neighbors and the rest of the world over settlements and territory, i.e., again, over the Palestinian issue.
The dynamic of the coming weeks is likely to take the following form: Netanyahu will seek to prove that he can form a rightwing government of at least 61 members of Knesset in order to receive a mandate from President Shimon Peres. His challenge will be to avoid making quotable promises to the right wing parties that could embarrass him later. Livni will insist on rotation of the premiership; otherwise, she and Kadima will opt for the political opposition in the reasonable certainty that a far-right coalition will prove a constant embarrassment for Netanyahu and for Israel and will be short-lived.
Livni and Netanyahu, probably with Lieberman along for the ride, will almost certainly meet somewhere in between, if not immediately then after a few months of poisonous right wing rule. The resultant coalition will engage in fairly effective conflict management with the Palestinians--certainly nothing worse than the outgoing Olmert-Livni-Barak government. When pressured by Obama, and given Netanyahu's preoccupation with Iran, it could find a common language with Washington regarding the need for dramatic progress with Syria. This would strike a critical blow at Tehran's designs for the Levant region, thereby ultimately strengthening moderate Palestinians in the bargain.
Syria-Israel negotiations would be ironic, considering that the question of negotiations with Damascus was barely an issue in these elections. Yet stranger things have happened in Israel when the right is in power but the left (this time in the form of Kadima) retains its influence.- Published 16/2/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
No more process for the sake of negotiations
an interview with Sufyan Abu Zaida
bitterlemons: What consequences will the Israeli elections have for the Palestinians?
Abu Zaida: You mean the possibility of an extremist rightwing government?
First of all, Palestinians, regardless of the results of these elections, are frustrated with the peace process. Since Madrid in 1991, Palestinians have experienced nine Israeli prime ministers, including the next candidate, Binyamin Netanyahu. We tried everything possible in that time and we failed.
I'm not saying we failed only because of Israel, but we failed in terms of results. Any government in Israel, whether it is a government of Likud and the extreme right, or a government of Likud, Kadima and Lieberman, will be very restricted in terms of making peace, if not in pursuing a peace process. After all, we've had a process since 1993.
We have no illusions as Palestinians. We know it will be even more difficult than before. It's not a good outlook.
bitterlemons: What do you expect will happen?
Abu Zaida: Anything is still possible. There could be a unity government. There could be a Likud-led rightwing government. There could be a rotation between Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni. These possibilities are still open. But if there is an extreme rightwing government, which I anticipate, the peace process will become a joke.
bitterlemons: Will an extreme rightwing Israeli government not immediately be on a collision course with the new US administration?
Abu Zaida: It depends on the agenda of the US administration. If [US President Barack] Obama succeeds in getting the US economy under control and has enough time to deal with the Middle East conflict at the top of his agenda, there will be a problem [between Israel and the US].
But if the US administration remains absorbed by it domestic problems there will be no change. In our experience, our conflict depends on how Washington deals with the situation more than the kind of government in power in Israel. It's very important what happens in Washington.
bitterlemons: Mahmoud Abbas has already said he will deal with any Israeli government. But won't this be very difficult if a rightwing government is in place.
Abu Zaida: I think Palestinians, regardless what kind of government assumes power in Israel, will not continue to play the same game as last year. Palestinians are fed up just with talk and meetings and initiative after initiative. In terms of direct negotiations, I don't think Palestinians will continue playing this game.
bitterlemons: What is the alternative?
Abu Zaida: I think Palestinians will negotiate only if we have specific initiatives. The Palestinian side will support any party that agrees to the Arab peace initiative and will place that initiative as the only one on the table.
I am not talking about an end to the peace process. But the kind of process we saw with Annapolis and before cannot continue. Palestinians want peace. It is in their and Israel's interest. But Palestinians are not going to continue negotiating with Israel while Israel continues to build and expand settlements, whatever the government in Israel.
bitterlemons: Will a harder Palestinian negotiating position ease reconciliation efforts between Fateh and Hamas?
Abu Zaida: Partly, yes. But only marginally. The problem between Hamas and Fateh is not only a political one. It depends more on regional issues, the position of Iran and Syria, their relations with Hamas, the relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Syria and Qatar on the other.
bitterlemons: Is there a possibility though that we may, uniquely, have two unity governments confronting each other?
Abu Zaida: You can dream.- Published 16/2/2009 (c) bitterlemons.org
Sufyan Abu Zaida is a member of Fateh and a former Palestinian Authority minister.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Much depends on the Americans
by Galia Golan
Until a government coalition is determined, it is difficult to speculate with any precision about future policies. The only real question is whether Kadima will be part of a Netanyahu government; all the other parties to the likely coalition are either extreme right, religious right or both. The overall shift to the right of the Israeli public--the result to a large degree of frustration over past, failed peace attempts and the ever stronger belief that "there is no partner" nor is there a possibility for peace--has rendered the political left impotent and desolate. The election results suggest that the majority of Israelis accept the notion that the failure of the use of force means only that more force must be used. And this, of course, does not bode well.
Two things that may be expected from the new government are expanded settlement construction and severe responses to Palestinian violence. Yet there are restraints. Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu presents himself to the world as an urbane, rational leader. Particularly with regard to US President Barack Obama, Netanyahu may wish to avoid the appearance of deviation from the overall policy accepted by America's far less interested previous government, namely continuation of some kind of peace process.
Given the risk of alienating the new US administration from the outset, Netanyahu presumably will avoid precipitous moves such as refusing to continue negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen)--or indirectly with the Syrians. He has already said that he is not bound by whatever may have been previously discussed--no agreements were actually produced by the outgoing Olmert government--so he is free to continue talking, indefinitely. Similarly, he will introduce his own formula for the territories, "economic peace," although it is difficult to see just what this can achieve without opening of checkpoints, thereby easing the movement of goods and people in the West Bank.
Much will depend on the reaction of the Americans. In the case of Washington, gentle prodding by means of Obama's representative George Mitchell might turn into actual pressure. Washington has a real interest in changing its position in the region, beginning possibly with Syria but involving interests in Iran--both connected with Iraq--and to some degree dependent upon weakening the power of the Palestinian issue as an instrument of radicalization in the region. Thus Washington's regional approach could lead to pressures for some kind of Israeli move forward. Some believe this might focus on Syria; it might also produce some kind of partial, hitherto unknown measure of movement on the Palestinian issue.
American pressure would have the potential to accomplish more if met by similar pressure from inside Israel. The decimation of the political left in these elections makes that appear unlikely. Yet it is just this situation, and the alarmingly extremist tint of the expected coalition, that may finally bring the left or the so-called peace camp back to life. Out of power, and possibly with Kadima in the opposition (and therefore bound to attack the government for forsaking the peace path ostensibly pursued by Tzipi Livni), this side of the spectrum may find its voice again.
Settlements and the demographic issue are the two matters upon which there is general support for the center-left. We mustn't forget that it was a wish to get on with our lives and livelihoods in peace--separated from the Palestinians--that led the majority of Israelis to agree to compromise and to the two-state solution. This attitude has not changed. And it is with regard to this issue that there may actually be differing positions within Netanyahu's coalition.
It may be hard to believe at this time, but neither the conflict nor the region nor international politics is static. It was the dynamic in the region and the world, as well as locally, that brought about the Oslo process, mutual recognition and ultimately a Likud-led government that favored the creation of a Palestinian state. If Hamas need not be the end of the road for Palestinian efforts for peace, then the expected Netanyahu-Lieberman coalition need not be the end of the road for Israeli efforts. Many more factors are at play that can turn these seemingly hopeless developments into an opening for something else.- Published 16/2/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Galia Golan is professor of government at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya and emerita, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a leading activist of Peace Now.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.