- Palestinian-Israeli crossfire on
"Internal political developments”

November 4, 2002 Edition 40

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>< “Getting to the heart of the matter” - by Yossi Alpher
The internal political events in Israel and Palestine offer Israelis a blessing, a danger and a hope.

>< “Counting down to the end of Sharon” - by Ghassan Khatib
Internal Palestinian and Israeli politics cannot be separated from the greater struggle at hand.

>< “The settlers have no interest in a narrow coalition” - by Yisrael Harel
The true interests of the settlers are liable to suffer in the absence of a government that comprises representatives of the left.

>< “A militarized Israel, a triumphant Arafat” - by Saleh Abdul Jawad
Even though President Yasser Arafat seemed in more trouble than Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Arafat has come out in pretty good shape.

Getting to the heart of the matter

by Yossi Alpher

The timing chosen by Labor Party leader Fuad Ben Eliezer for last week's coalition crisis was dictated solely by his personal political difficulties. As his primaries test against Haim Ramon and Amram Mitzna approaches on November 19, he is behind in the polls; he calculated that three weeks of presenting himself as leader of a fighting opposition might yet convince Labor voters to back him.

That's politics; Israeli governments have frequently fallen over seemingly peripheral causes. But the political flurry of the coalition collapse and Prime Minister Sharon's maneuvering between a narrow coalition and early elections cannot obfuscate the real issue. It was merely highlighted by Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat's success last week in gaining Legislative Council approval for a new-old cabinet that offered little hope for real change in Palestine. While Israelis were getting ready for an exercise in real democracy and Palestinians remained mired in Arafat's autocracy, neither side has effective leadership that can point the way toward peace. Nor does the United States.

Against this very negative backdrop, the internal political events of last week in Israel and Palestine offer Israelis a blessing, a danger and a hope.

The blessing is the emergence of a genuine political opposition against the settlement and war policies of Ariel Sharon. Until now Meretz failed to provide such an opposition, both because of its small numbers (10 representatives in the Knesset) and because it did not enunciate a realistic alternative policy, concentrating instead on options that failed to appeal to skeptical Israelis, like renewed negotiations with Arafat and introduction of an international force. Hopefully now, and particularly after November 19, Labor will concentrate on the most urgent issue for Israel: the need to stop the South Africanization of the conflict at any cost--first and foremost, through unilateral redeployment, the favored option of both Ramon and Mitzna.

The danger is that Sharon, who is determined to maintain manipulative control over 3.5 million Palestinians whatever the cost to Israel, will form a narrow right wing government that will increase the spread of settlements and the concomitant heavy-handed, dead-end oppression of the Palestinian civilian population. This will reflect the critical and extremely dangerous grip that the settler minority has gained over Israeli politics. In this sense, Ben Eliezer was right on the mark when he focused on the settlements' ample budgetary allotments in bringing down the government; a smarter politician and stronger leader could have scored more points on this issue.

Sharon could allow himself to turn down Ben Eliezer's modest request to reduce settlement budgets, and may allow himself to go the path of a narrow government, in the confidence that he will not face significant pressures from Washington. The Bush administration has placed the settlement issue somewhere in the middle of its "non-urgent things to do in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" list, and is generally indifferent to what happens there as long as the lid doesn't blow off. That is also why Yasir Arafat could afford to present his Legislative Council with another non-reform cabinet that includes two ministers from a pro-Iraqi movement and no prime minister, and whose new interior minister, Hani al-Hassan, thinks he can contribute to a solution by declaring that settler women and children are fair game for Palestinian terrorists ("they cannot be considered civilians", Haaretz, 29.10.2002).

The election of Ariel Sharon and the formation of a unity government almost two years ago were Israel's knee-jerk reaction to Arafat's implicit rejection of Israel's existence as a Jewish state. But now both the Jewish and the democratic nature of that state are in danger from within--from the settlements.

This brings us to the hope. In a reality where neither Sharon nor Arafat nor Bush has a realistic strategy for peace, a rejuvenated Labor Party might make a difference. The November 19 primaries for party leader are in many ways a more important and deserving focus of our attention than Sharon's decision whether to opt for elections in February or May of next year. If Labor can elect a leader who focuses like a laser on the dangers to a democratic and Jewish Israel presented by the settlements--ongoing occupation, abuse and distraction of Israeli security efforts, the demographic threat--and offers the public a feasible alternative in the form of unilateral redeployment, then it has a chance to recover its political appeal and beat the Likud.

Undoubtedly, both Ramon and Mitzna have their weaknesses as potential leaders. And the road to a governing coalition with a firm majority capable of removing even a single settlement is a long and arduous one. But unless something dramatic happens on the Palestinian side--unless a more worthy leader emerges to replace Arafat and a better system emerges to replace his back-room dictatorship--and unless and until the US administration recognizes that its interests require it to play a much more aggressive role in our conflict, this is the best way to proceed.- Published 4/11/2002©

Yossi Alpher is an Israeli strategic analyst. He is former Director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University.

Counting down to the end of Sharon

by Ghassan Khatib

There is no doubt that the ongoing struggle between Palestinians and Israelis will also impact internal Palestinian and Israeli politics. For example, the most recent internal Palestinian crisis resulted, among other things, from the ongoing debate among Palestinians as to whether or not their leadership is adopting the political line desired by the Palestinian public.

It also reflects the Palestinian “reformers’” debate over and evaluation of the last two years of the Al Aqsa Intifada. Some Palestinians believe that changes in the leadership structure and performance could contribute to increased political efficiency and benefit the cause of the Palestinian people. Others believe that the changes being demanded by external players, including the United States and Israel, are intended to affect change in the leadership structure that would facilitate “progress” in the peace negotiations. As such, the democratic battle that took place between the legislative and executive authorities over the last several weeks was partially seen here as a struggle between the will of those external powers (with some local expressions) and the will of those who do not want changes that are specifically intended to extract Palestinian political concessions.

On the Israeli scene, however, the linkage between the government crisis and the political process is much more clear. Despite the fact that the direct cause of the crisis (i.e., the budget) was not related to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle, the debate over the budget did reflect the priorities of the Israeli government’s expenditures: whether to finance settlements, expansion and defense or support a liberal social agenda. The debate in Israel that led to the fall of the national unity government is also symptomatic of the failure of the main players to agree on the policies of the government vis-a-vis Palestinians, and the way that the government handles peace proposals.

Looking at this for the long term, one can only come to the conclusion that the fall of the unity government is the beginning of the countdown towards the end of the era of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. That era was distinctive in three characteristics: first, the prime minister’s domination pushing the government towards the far right wing; second, the absence of any opposition, which augmented this government’s power; and third, unusually smooth relations with a right-wing administration in Washington, which relies on votes influenced by the American pro-Israel lobby.

Given the significance of this juncture and turbulence in the two political systems, it would be very useful if the Israeli and Palestinian publics and their representatives recognized that we are quickly nearing the evaporation of the window of opportunity for historic compromise. This window is closing for two reasons: the radicalizing effect of these bloody confrontations, which are pushing the public away from the spirit of peaceful compromise, and because of Israeli illegal settlement expansion that both brought about the failure of the Oslo peace process and is now jeopardizing the possibility for two states along the internationally recognized 1967 border.-Published 4/11/02©

Ghassan Khatib is minister of labor in the Palestinian Authority cabinet. He has served for many years as a political analyst and media contact.

The settlers have no interest in a narrow coalition

by Yisrael Harel

Although it served in wartime, the Likud-Labor government was not really a "government of national unity." During its tenure, terrorists murdered more than 650 Israelis (the equivalent of some 30,000 out of the 250 million Arabs in the Middle East, when measured in proportion to the size of the population), but the Labor ministers, and certainly their members of Knesset, frequently behaved like hostile members of the opposition--as if these were normal times.

Now that the government has fallen due to what most of the public considers to be "primaries tactics," not a few right wingers are happy. The settlers especially were glad "to finally be rid of those left wingers." That is an emotional reaction, certainly justified in terms of the left's behavior toward them, including dismantling the outposts for obviously political motives. But paradoxically the true interests of the right, including the settlers, are liable to suffer in the absence of a government that comprises representatives of the left.

Example: Despite United States President Bush's speech of June 24, the "road map" presented on behalf of the US administration by Assistant Secretary of State William Burns demands that Israel pay the main price for the terrorist war initiated by Yasir Arafat two years ago. And the Arabs, at least in the first phase, are not even required to end all terrorist attacks. All they are asked to do is declare that they "oppose violence." This provision, like the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders or the abandoning of the US demand to collect illegal weapons--a provision the Americans insisted on in the past--are unacceptable to the responsible Israeli left as well. But when that left is in the opposition, the political dynamic is liable to cause them to avoid standing by the government to rebuff American pressures even regarding demands that they oppose. In terms of the role of American Jewry as well, the administration can apply greater pressure than against a government in which the left is represented.

This holds for the settlements, too: the government that fell maintained the status quo, i.e., no new settlements. But there was also no hindrance to the natural development of existing settlements. Considering that the brunt of American pressure will now be directed, in accordance with the "road map," against the settlements, it is very important to renew the coalition agreement on this matter. And because Labor is not likely to return to the coalition prior to elections, this can only happy if elections are moved up.

Israel's ability to wage war against terrorist attacks, most of which take place near the majority of the settlements, is liable to be weakened when the Ministry of Defense is not occupied by a minister who is at least formally identified with what is called in Israel "the peace camp." Even at the height of the terrorism, the world behaved hypocritically. Rather than supporting Israel when it was fighting terrorism, it frequently supported the Arab terrorists. Now that Shaul Mofaz is minister of defense, this tendency is likely to be strengthened. And the settlers, who in any event have suffered the most from this war of terror and attrition, are now liable to be attacked even more heavily.

The staggering economy is liable to totter even further without a broad coalition. The smaller factions within a narrow right wing coalition will have the economic blackmail power they lacked in the previous coalition. The settlers, with their commitment to what they call the "community of Israel" (Klal Yisrael), are certainly responsible in this regard too. Accordingly they too should issue a call for early elections, so that once the petty primaries that brought about the collapse of the government are out of the way it will be possible to reconstitute a broad coalition.

The prime minister should announce immediately that he has no intention of fulfilling the "prophecy" of holding the elections on time, i.e., in October 2003. He should opt for elections now, meaning in 90 days. Such a responsible act would merit public appreciation. It would also deny the left the opportunity to score points as a consequence of the ongoing social and economic crisis or of other blunders--and there will be not a few blunders--that take place during the tenure of a narrow coalition.

All the opinion polls predict that the parties of the right, led by the Likud, will win a clear and unambiguous victory in the next elections. Following the elections it would be for the best to return Labor to the coalition; but if that does not happen, then better that there quickly emerge in Israel a government that enjoys a stable majority not only among the public, but in the Knesset as well.-Published 4/11/2002©

Yisrael Harel is a Fellow at the Hartmann Institute in Jerusalem and a columnist at Haaretz newspaper. He is a former Chairman of the Council of Settlers in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.

A militarized Israel, a triumphant Arafat

by Saleh Abdul Jawad

We now sit at a crossroads after two years of Intifada. Palestinians and Israelis are further apart than ever and each side (especially the Israeli side) is now making decisions that will affect the region for generations to come. It is no surprise then that both parties, in the same week, have experienced government upheaval.

Strikingly, and even though President Yasser Arafat seemed in more trouble than Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Arafat has come out in pretty good shape. One might even ask if what his people tried to explain seven weeks ago as a “setback” was not really just one more tactic by this political magician. It certainly appears that Arafat himself felt that interior minister Abdel Rizaq Al Yehiya was making some decisions without consulting him, and therefore used the chance to remove him.

Otherwise it is difficult to understand why Arafat’s choice of cabinet would have failed a vote of confidence seven weeks ago, but sail through one today. The changes made in the cabinet selection were not so significant. The only important change was the entrance of Hani Al Hasan who is an influential Fateh Central Committee Member. Al Hasan is from the German link of Fateh, has good ties to the Gulf States and was the first Palestinian ambassador to Iran. There is no doubt that he is politically stronger than Al Yahiya.

The only other major shift in the cabinet was the departure of Jamil Tarifi as minister of civil affairs (despite that Tarifi will maintain his powers as head of a “bureau”). But despite the lack of real cabinet reform, the Legislative Council vote, 56 for the cabinet and 18 against, shows that Arafat still completely controls Fateh, the main political force on the ground. After all the external effort to weaken the Palestinian leader, this is truly amazing.

Heading his own new government, Sharon is likely to continue his attempts to undermine Arafat. With a right-wing majority, it will be easier to implement his three-pronged policy towards Palestinians: to destroy what remains of the Authority, to continue to impede the peace process and the “roadmap,” and (under the guise of the first two) quietly continue the policy of colonizing Palestinian land. With this extremist cabinet, Sharon will find it easier to implement the final step in his third objective, which is the transfer of Palestinians from the land. (It should be said, however, that attempts of this nature will face a great number of problems, not least of which is Palestinians’ own memory of the ethnic cleansing of 1948.)

Initially, we can expect Sharon to repeat his performance of the spring of 2001 when he exerted efforts to show that he is a statesman, not an extremist. Eventually, however, he will show his true colors. One of the things that is so remarkable about the Israeli government today is its lack of internal checks. Palestinians can expect an even more difficult situation on the ground, as it seems likely that settlers will be used as a paramilitary arm with which to attack Palestinians. There is, of course, the possibility that the introduction of settlers as a tool in the violent conflict will lead to its eventual internationalization.

The swearing-in of former Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz as minister of defense in the new Sharon cabinet raises the specter of further militarization of Israeli society, and the politicization of the army. Mofaz was one of the first ever chiefs of staff to speak so extensively to the media. He publicly opposed the army’s departure from Hebron, for example, and argued in at least one cabinet meeting that Sharon must exploit the opportunity at hand and drive Arafat out of Palestine for good.

This cabinet, while unprecedented in its right-wing credentials, is also a mile marker in the history of Zionism. When Zionist leaders first discussed creating a state, they thought of creating a modern liberal state “of Jews.” Theodore Herzl chose this wording deliberately, rejecting the religious characteristics of “a Jewish state.” Today, however, we are seeing a new phenomenon, which is that the main characteristic of the state of Israel is that of religion. In the short term, this dramatic strategic shift will pose great difficulties and dangers for Palestinians. In the long term, however, it will be Israel that will pay the price.-Published 04/11/02©

Saleh Abdul Jawad is a political analyst and politics professor at Birzeit University.

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