Posted on December 29, 2002 in Washington Watch

Less than one month remains before Israeli voters go to the polls for their third national election in four years. This, in itself, is a sign of the divisions and instability that have come to characterize Israeli politics–a dangerous situation that has made peace difficult to achieve.

There are two distinct ways of describing the fault lines within Israeli politics. On the one hand there is the deep rift that exists between the pro-peace and anti-peace camps–alternatively referred to as Israel’s left and right. This division has been growing since the signing of the Oslo Accords and has only worsened after two years of intensified violence. Two decades ago, for example, only fringe elements, like the followers of Meir Kahane, called for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the occupied lands. Today, representatives of this extremist and racist ideology serve as Ministers in the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon serving alongside those whom Mrs. Rabin once accused of inciting the violence that ultimately took the life of her husband, Yitzak Rabin.

The accepted historical narrative that defines the right-wing ideology is that “‘Israel has no peace partner. Ehud Barak, representing the culmination of the Oslo process, made Arafat a generous offer. Arafat rejected it and resorted to violence threatening the very survival of the state of Israel.” The lesson Sharon has sought to cull out of this experience is the necessity of ending the Oslo experiment and destroying the Palestinian Authority. Thus far, a majority of Israelis have supported the Likud Prime Minister’s approach.

While the right wing has grown stronger, the peace forces have shrunk in size. They were never a dominant force in Israel. Even during the tenure of Yitzak Rabin, there was a near even split between the two camps, which is why Rabin, and later Shimon Peres, found it so difficult to push more aggressively toward a final peace arrangement. In any case, Rabin’s once dominant Labor party faces the prospect of being reduced to about one-half of its former strength.

A further sign of this drift to the right in Israeli politics are reports leaked to the press last week that indicate that Labor’s new leader Avram Mitzna has proposed a map for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. The map cedes, to the Palestinians, far less than what Barak offered at Camp David. Since Mitzna, is seen by many as the “great hope” for peace, the fact that he senses that he can go no further than this miserly offer, speaks volumes about the current drift of Israeli politics.

There is a second fault line that defines contemporary Israeli politics and that is the ethnic/communal divide. Twenty percent of Israel’s population is Arab, another 20 percent are recent Russian immigrants and another 20 percent are ultra-orthodox religious Jews. These three groups share almost no common ground and, in many instances, don’t even speak the same language. All of this is, of course, makes it quite difficult to build a stable political order.

The question, is what ought Arabs do in the face of this chaotic situation? First and foremost, it is imperative to recognize that the situation can become worse. With the neo-conservatives and religious conservatives ascendant in U.S. politics and Likud still dominating Israeli politics there are real dangers that a third “disaster” can occur in Palestine.

I remember toward the end of the Clinton Administration some Arabs arguing that an election in the United States and or Israel made no difference and that the situation couldn’t get any worse. They were wrong then and if they still believe the same thing, they could see even more horrible results in the future.

I argued a year ago in this column that the violence should end. This is even more imperative today. Israel’s plan is becoming clear every day. It is to exploit the anger and fear created by suicide bombings in order to completely dismantle the Palestinian Authority, reassert complete occupation and expand its colonialist outposts in the West Bank and Gaza. The accelerated pace of assassinations and other provocative acts are designed to hasten this goal. When Palestinians respond with violence it only serves to further legitimate this Israeli plan by building stronger support for Sharon’s efforts in Israel and the United States.

In the current political Palestinian environment it will take enormous strength to exercise self-control and complete the agreements, between Fateh and other Palestinian factions, being sought in Cairo. These efforts can be supported by major Arab states. One way they can do so is by undertaking an aggressive campaign to promote the pro-peace resolution of the Beirut Arab Summit.

As difficult as they will be to achieve, the impact of these two efforts combined could yield some positive results for Palestinians.

Even though the right-wing bloc in Israel is in a dominant position, it has been weakened by recent revelations of corruption and voter-fraud. And while the Labor party is in a somewhat weakened state, Meretz, a party to the left of Labor, has grown somewhat and can provide some needed back bone to the peace bloc.

A recent poll of Israeli society produced contradictory, but interesting results. An overwhelming majority want peace based on two sovereign states, but a strong majority remain insecure and do not believe peace is possible. Steps taken to reinforce Arab commitments to peace can be helpful in this regard.

Palestinian pain and anger are real and legitimate and so taking such steps toward peace will be enormously difficult, especially as Israel continues its brutal provocations. But this is precisely why Israel acts as it does–to block any Arab peace move and to continue the cycle of violence, which they use to their advantage.

But if Arabs and Palestinians can marshal their strength and make the right gestures, they may be able to alter the internal Israeli political discourse to their advantage. At the same time, they can win much needed support in the West, which could serve to restrain the Israelis from pursuing even more heavy-handed and devastating blows to the much beleaguered Palestinian people.

The recent speech delivered by Abu Mazin in Gaza was essentially correct. The current path taken by the second intifada has not taken the Palestinians in a direction toward the realization of their national aspirations. Contrary to the views of those who argued two years ago that the situation couldn’t get any worse–it did–and it can become worse still. There is no guarantee that a corrective measure taken now will yield immediately positive results. But what is certain is that, in the face of the disasters that loom ahead, the only responsible path is to make a genuine effort to transform the current dynamic. One way to do that is to attempt to transform the intifada, with Arab support, into a courageous challenge for peace on the eve of the Israeli election.

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