The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has led directly or indirectly to the collapse of every Israeli government for at least the past 18 years. Prime ministers Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak all failed to convert their popular mandate regarding the Palestinian issue into a viable coalition for change; some took dramatic but abortive steps, such as Oslo and Camp David II; all failed to last through their statutory terms of office. Most recently, three different governments under PM Ariel Sharon were dissolved over the Palestinian issue, finally ushering in elections that brought Ehud Olmert to power on a platform that focused, once again, on ways to mitigate the conflict.
In the course of this period, one attempt to improve the political structure--direct election of the prime minister--had to be abandoned because it merely worsened the situation, while the overall quality of Israeli politics and politicians has deteriorated sharply.
Israel's country-wide proportional voting system and heterogeneous society produce complex and fragile governing coalitions whose members are driven by diverse and often conflicting political agendas. Small, radical factions often gain disproportionate power. As a result the Israeli political system, far from providing a mechanism for solving Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, seems to have become a serious obstacle to a solution.
Of course, the Palestinian conflict is not prolonged merely because of Israeli governmental instability; there are many other factors. Nor can we ignore the chicken-and-egg question: does an inherently unstable form of government in Israel contribute to not solving the conflict, or does the conflict destabilize Israeli governments? This is a particularly relevant issue today, with new initiatives surfacing to reform Israel's system of governance.
On the Palestinian side the issue is not as clear-cut, if only because the Palestinian Authority is young and there has not been enough experience at governance to divine a clear link between the conflict and governmental instability. Many Palestinians are inclined to blame all their troubles, including bad governance, on Israel and the conflict. But the Israel factor does not appear to be the principal reason for the endemic corruption that affects Palestinian governance, or for the total failure to exploit the fruits--land, unhindered movement, hothouses and other infrastructure--of Israel's withdrawal a year ago from the Gaza Strip. One can even make the case that Hamas' rise to power through democratic elections reflected the Palestinian public's reaction to corruption and its adherence to the Islamist wave that is sweeping the Arab Middle East far more than a Palestinian response to the conflict.
Still, it is hard not to perceive some sort of linkage between the conflict and governmental instability on both sides. If we imagine for a moment that the conflict has been resolved in the form of a stable two-state solution, reinforced by improved Israeli relations with additional neighbors, international support and Palestinian economic growth, it certainly seems likely that the removal of this issue from the majority public agenda in Israel and Palestine might make their respective national agendas easier to manage and encourage greater stability in governance.
Yet we are nowhere near such a solution. Indeed, at present the most we can expect is an improved attempt at conflict management and growing international involvement, rather than conflict resolution. Moreover, on the Israeli side the looming Iranian threat is likely to move the center of gravity to Israel's east (Iran, a Shi'ite Iraq) and north (Lebanon, Syria) and away from Palestine.
This poses an intriguing set of possibilities. If, on the Israeli side, the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is pushed to the fringes of the public agenda and the conflict focuses primarily on Iran and its client states and proxies, might we have more stable governments based on a greater degree of national consensus, as we did when, prior to the 1980s, the Israel-Arab conflict loomed far larger than the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation?
On the other hand, if on the Palestinian side hopes for a resolution to the conflict have, for the foreseeable future, been dashed, will the conflict have an even greater and more destructive effect on governmental stability?
Finally, if in both Israel and Palestine governmental instability continues despite the downgrading of the conflict by Israel and the international community, will alternative causes of instability--structural, societal, religious--become more apparent?- Published 16/10/2006 © bitterlemons.org
In spite of all the differences between the Palestinian and Israeli situations they have one thing in common: both sides are suffering government crises causing internal instability.
On the Palestinian side, where the situation is much more serious, there is almost complete paralysis. The crisis started with the election victory of Hamas that created the present government and was aggravated when this government reached a deadlock in its relations with the Palestinian Authority presidency on the one hand, and with the international community, on which the PA is financially dependent, on the other.
Armed with two factors, the Hamas government has been trying to change the rules of the game vis-a-vis Israel and the international community. One is the complete failure of the peace approach of all previous governments. The second is the legitimacy bestowed upon the government by the fair and transparent elections through which it came to power.
Fateh, meanwhile, has found itself in an awkward position. On the one hand it is the main opposition as the largest minority party in parliament. At the same time it holds power because Fateh's head, Mahmoud Abbas, is also president. The Palestinian constitution--which was amended as a result of internal and external pressure on the previous parliament in order to reduce the powers of the late President Yasser Arafat by shifting some of his responsibilities to the prime minister--ensures that government and presidency have comparable levels of power. In the current climate, that has meant stalemate.
Fateh, which had never been out of power since the modern national Palestinian liberation movement began in the early 1960s, is not adapting easily to a spell in opposition. In particular, the movement seems to have no patience with the constitutional stipulation that the only way to regain power is through elections after four years. Since the January elections, Fateh has been looking to change the situation in ways that are either unconstitutional or for which it lacks the necessary power.
The current attempt at dissolving the government is unrealistic because any new government would still need a vote of confidence from the Hamas majority in parliament. If an emergency government is installed, it can stay in office no longer than a month according to the constitution. That allows no time for improving conditions on the ground. Finally, the option of early elections for both parliament and the presidency is risky because the balance of power between Fateh and Hamas has not changed enough to ensure significantly different results.
Meanwhile, the donor community, which also wants an end to the Hamas government, has imposed financial sanctions of a kind that have been punishing the Palestinian people collectively and is pushing the PA toward collapse without significantly reducing the strength and popularity of Hamas as a political movement.
Instead, the sanctions have brought the Palestinian government and other institutions of Palestinian authority close to collapse. Since the general strike of civil servants started, government has been unable to provide any services, including vital education and health services. Five weeks after the beginning of the school year there has been no teaching except in the United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools, and due to internal tensions the Palestinian security services have completely stopped functioning except when engaging in sporadic internal fighting, this mostly in Gaza.
In fact, the situation in Gaza is drifting gradually toward anarchy and more internal clashes, as the combination of growing poverty and government paralysis takes deeper hold. In the West Bank, the state of paralysis is encouraging Israel to expand its presence, whether in terms of settlement building, the separation wall or on a security level, even reviving the role of the Israeli civil administration.
The absence of any political prospects, combined with the continuing unilateral Israeli practices--whether political or military--the economic deterioration, and the unstable internal Palestinian situation have three consequences: a complete separation of Gaza from the West Bank; anarchy and internal violence in Gaza, and further Israeli reoccupation in the West Bank.
Such scenarios are neither conducive to stability in the Palestinian-Israeli context nor in the regional context, especially when we take into consideration that the leading power in Palestine has a regional dimension of a kind that has been deeply worrying to many players in the region and internationally.
The only way to reverse this deterioration is to change Israeli policy so that it pursues negotiations to seek an end to the occupation. The only way for this to happen is for policy makers in Washington to once and for all recognize that the Israeli occupation is the ultimate cause of the current deterioration not only in Palestine-Israel, but, as a result of related causes, in the region.- Published 16/10/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
Conflict sustains stability, compromise erodes legitimacy
by Tamar Hermann
There is a common tendency to confuse governmental stability (do elected bodies and officials serve a full term, and is the transfer of power regularized) with governmental legitimacy (do the voters and external actors recognize a government's right, or authority, to rule) and effectiveness (to what extent does government, with the means at its disposal, attain its goals). While these three elements are linked, they are not identical. Moreover, the direction of the linkage is muted. For example, does stability ensure effectiveness or vice versa? Is a stable government ipso facto legitimate, or does initial legitimacy enhance the government's stability?
One way or another, there is little doubt that in recent years we haven been witness to a governability crisis in Israel that comprises all three elements: a decline in the effectiveness of the state's institutions, erosion of their legitimacy and a strong sense of uncertainty about the political future. (This, despite the fact that based on objective parameters like length of term of an elected Knesset there is no significant decline.)
We have also witnessed on the Palestinian side an acute crisis of governance. The Palestinian Authority's effectiveness is at an all-time low; the days of the present government seemed numbered virtually since the moment the results of Hamas' election victory were known. Furthermore, many both inside Palestine and beyond question the legitimacy of the Hamas government even though no one denies that it was elected democratically.
Is there a link between the crises of governance on both sides of the conflict and the total absence of progress in political negotiations between them? Here, too, the answer is not as unequivocal as some would argue. Notably, in Israel and on the Palestinian side the very act of entry into negotiations with a veteran enemy caused, by the mid-1990s, not only sharp disagreements at the level of public debate but even rejection of the elected leadership on the part of significant sectors of the public.
Palestinian "refusalist" organizations and Israeli right wing leaders and organizations both behaved this way. In both cases the rejectionists, arguing that the authorized decision-makers had exceeded the moral if not the legal mandate given them by the voter, tried constantly and by every means to challenge their rule.
The Rabin assassination, whose eleventh anniversary will soon be marked, testified more than any other event to the de-legitimization of his government in the eyes of sectors of the Israeli public that opposed Oslo. But it also testified better than any other event to the stability of governance in Israel, insofar as public and governmental order was not violated despite the pain and the trauma. An alternative example is the readiness of both sides of the Israeli political divide to rally round the flag once it became clear that the peace process had collapsed and negotiations had ended. Within less than half a year Ariel Sharon took the national helm with an unprecedented electoral majority; the public then gave him a near free hand to manage the conflict and his political opponents repeatedly failed to unseat him.
Something similar happened to Yasser Arafat on the Palestinian side: the second intifada restored a portion of the luster he had lost while negotiating with Israel. Only a small majority dared to challenge Sharon's and Arafat's legitimacy in the course of the frontal confrontation between them, and their rule was more stable than previously. Paradoxically it is their successors, elected on the promise of a return to Israeli-Palestinian consultation, who suffer from problems of legitimacy and have difficulty stabilizing their governments.
From the start, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) adopted a relatively compromising position toward Israel yet failed to stabilize his rule. Widespread inefficiency and corruption--inherited from his predecessor--fatally eroded his legitimacy. PM Ehud Olmert, too, in his new and moderate incarnation--support for disengagement followed by the convergence initiative--seems to be failing to recruit general legitimization for a government whose effectiveness, judging at least from the public and media reaction, is very low.
Nevertheless, early elections do not at this point appear to reflect the interest of any significant political actor in Israel. The present Knesset could conceivably last for all or nearly all of its statutory electoral term. But only on condition that there is no dramatic move toward renewing talks with the Palestinians, in which case there is a high likelihood that the life of the Olmert government would be considerably shortened thereby ushering in new elections. Such a development would once again bring to the surface all the forces of de-legitimization, reinforced this time by public anger and disappointment with the governmental ineffectiveness that characterized management of the war in Lebanon last summer.- Published 16/10/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Prof. Tamar Hermann is dean of academic studies at the Open University and director of the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University. She recently completed a book on the Israeli peace movement and the Oslo process: A Wearying and Unrewarding Journey: the Israeli Peace Movement 1993-2003.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Losing our compass
by Ali Jarbawi
Not much substance is left in the term "Middle East peace process" even as the mantra of the urgent need to revive it is heard again and again. The mantra is futile; it collides with the realities among the players involved. Any "revival" of the peace process at this stage will remain at a purely superficial level. Nevertheless, the process must be revived, not in order to reach a conclusion but purely as a means to administer this difficult crisis for the time being.
No observer of the internal Palestinian situation expects the Palestinian side to come up with any initiative in the foreseeable future that can test the seriousness of Israel and the United States in terms of a substantial political settlement. For the time being, Palestinians are drowning in a bitter internal struggle between Fateh and Hamas. This struggle has reached a point where there is fighting in the streets. If these parties do not reach an understanding quickly, it can spiral into a fierce civil war. In such a situation, any talk of a political settlement will be nothing more than words.
One of the most significant reasons for this internal Palestinian crisis is in fact the failure of the political process, which dragged on for 15 years with no result. The failure of negotiations is also one of the main reasons why Hamas won the Legislative Council elections. It's not that Palestinians don't want a settlement. On the contrary, they wagered everything on a negotiated solution with Israel for an end to occupation, their own state and a resolution to the refugee issue. Their situation only worsened as it became clear neither Israel nor the US was offering this.
Right now, the Palestinian political arena has lost its compass. Those who support a negotiated settlement are incapable of achieving it and those opposing a political process are incapable of waging a resistance that can bring about an end to the occupation. The result is that an internal struggle has erupted between Fateh and Hamas. With no political horizon for either party promising an end to occupation, the struggle has become one over an authority created in the shadow of occupation.
This struggle can be expected to continue, sometimes intensifying. at other times waning. Instead of presenting a unified front to confront Israel and the international community--a front that clearly states that Palestinians want a negotiated settlement, but only one that ensures their rights and falls within a certain time limit and without which there can be no process--Palestinians have chosen internal strife. As such, the Palestinian side has squandered any remaining possibility of affecting the course of diplomacy, and like a feather in the wind is being buffered first this way then that by the whims of Israel, the regional powers and the international community. The most that can be hoped from the Palestinian side is that the clashing parties agree to keep their warring to a minimum.
At the same time, the political situation in Israel is not much different, at least in terms of losing its compass regarding the Palestinian situation. The Olmert government has been left hamstrung after its failure in the war on Lebanon and with soldiers in captivity in both Gaza and Lebanon. Tensions within the coalition parties are increasing as are tensions between ministries. In addition, government rocked by various internal scandals and charges of corruption lost its main political platform when it abandoned thoughts of a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.
Hence, Ehud Olmert's primary concern now is simply to preserve his government, while continuing the large-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip. There is no clear vision to push forward a political process, assuming, of course, that Israel is interested in such a process. Considering the continued expansion of settlements and construction of the separation wall in the West Bank, that is far from clear.
If the two parties themselves are incapable of reviving a political process and giving it the substance and momentum it needs, then effective and urgent external intervention is necessary. But for all the current international attention, tours of the region and statements reaffirming the need to find a solution to the conflict, the international will to reactivate the political process is still clearly absent. The United States, which owns the issue internationally, is dealing with it as it has always done, purely from an Israeli perspective. In this Washington is being followed by a long train of compliant countries.
In short, there is no prospect for a revival of any political process at the moment.- Published 16/10/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University.
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