|World -- Commentary|
Issue Date: April 7, 2006
Israeli elections: the backward march
By NEVE GORDON
Israelis went to the polls last week with the hope of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all. The new political party, Kadima, which means forward in Hebrew, promised as much and therefore won the day, while the countrys long-established ruling parties, Labor and Likud, lost their traditional place at the helm.
Although the social justice discourse introduced by Labors new leader, the Moroccan-born union advocate Amir Peretz, did inject energy into the shattered party, he failed to reap support. His position regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been criticized as incoherent, and it also appears that many of Labors longtime Ashkenazi voters have deserted the party ranks because they are unwilling to be led by a Mizrahi Jew.
Likuds situation is much worse. Following the creation of Kadima, it lost almost 75 percent of its cohorts, not least because it has been increasingly characterized as an extremist party that represents the settlers uncompromising ideology. Perhaps more important, during his tenure as minister of finance, Binyamin Netanyahu introduced unpopular Thatcherite policies that pushed hundreds of thousands of Israelis under the poverty line. After the elections humiliating results -- in which Likud won less than 10 percent of the Knesset seats and has been relegated to the fifth largest party -- many believe that Netanyahu should resign.
Even though the extreme right lost many seats, Avigdor Libermans party Israel Beiteinu (Israel is our home), garnered 12 seats, four times more than it won in the previous elections. Liberman is Israels version of Frances Jean Marie Le Pen, a shrewd politician who captivates right-wing voters by appealing to atavistic sentiments of Jewish blood and soil.
Whereas Liberman may have been the elections surprise, Kadima was its victor, gaining 28 seats. Kadimas meteoric ascent in the polls is due, in part, to a pervasive yearning for a centrist party that will solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the party has very little to say about the countrys other social ills, Ehud Olmerts bold declaration that Kadima will unilaterally determine Israels international borders is one of the secrets behind its noteworthy achievement.
It was actually the partys founder, a man who is currently lying in a coma, who managed to persuade the public that he will make the Palestinian problem disappear. In the weeks leading up to the elections, Kadima simply exploited Ariel Sharons promise. Much of the support the party enjoys reflects the enormous respect many Israelis developed for the former prime minister.
The thrust of Kadimas claim is that there is a contradiction between Israels geographic and demographic aspirations: As the settlement project deepened its hold on the Occupied Territories, the very idea of Israel as a Jewish state, where Jews are the majority, has been undermined. In other words, the fact that the majority of people living between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea are not Jewish underscores the impossibility of achieving the vision of a greater Israel while maintaining a Jewish state.
The partys idea is to unilaterally redraw the borders between Israel and the Palestinian territories, and thus to radically alter the regions demographic and geographic reality. Last summers Gaza pullout constituted the plans first stage. This move was regarded both in Israel and among the international community as a positive step toward solving the conflict. Few seemed to care that it was carried out unilaterally and that the new reality whereby the Strip is closed off from air, sea and land limited Gazans even further in terms of resources, mobility and decision-making.
In a recent interview for Haaretz, Olmert outlined the plans next stage, explaining that Sharons so-called security barrier will become Israels political border. But he failed to explain what exactly the conversion of the security barrier into a political border will entail.
Demographically, the barrier will surround 48 Jewish settlements from the east so that 171,000 of the West Banks settlers will be incorporated into Israels new borders. The wall being built in East Jerusalem is meant to reinforce the 1967 annexation of this part of the city, and to further consolidate the 183,800 settlers living there. In this way the government will not have to evacuate 87 percent of the settlers now living in the West Bank, and Jews will have a clear majority within Israels borders. The price Israel will have to pay for such a solution is the evacuation of 52,000 settlers.
Geographically, however, the barrier qua political border, including Israels plan to maintain control of the Jordan valley, does not resemble either one of the two traditional visions for peace: the two-state solution or the bi-national polity.
An examination of the barriers route reveals that the future Palestinian state will be divided into three if not five areas (including Gaza). Each area will be closed off almost entirely from the others, while Israel effectively continues to control all of the borders so as to enforce a hermetic closure whenever it wishes. What is new about Kadimas vision is not the attempt to create isolated enclaves in the Occupied Territories but rather the effort to transform these into quasi-independent entities that will ostensibly constitute a Palestinian state.
Examining the make up of the new Knesset, it appears that anywhere between 65 and 85 members out of 120 will support Olmerts proposal.
Kadimas political plan presents its solution as the two-state option, regardless of the fact that this so-called independent state will not have power over any of its borders. Indeed, Kadimas plan elides the fact that Israel will continue to control the Palestinians, whose living conditions will be even further limited. The methods of control, though, will have to be more remote and technologically sophisticated, using biometrics, video cameras, robots and surveillance aircraft.
The Palestinians, in turn, will no doubt employ all means at their disposal to resist Israels attempt to transform the West Bank and Gaza into remotely controlled Bantustans. Consequently, one should not be surprised if Olmerts plan were to be met by Qasam missiles being launched from the West Bank toward Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv.
The ultimate irony is that Kadimas political vision actually puts the peace process into reverse. On the one hand, it is trying to persuade the public that it can make the Palestinian problem disappear by reintroducing the age-old Zionist trope of an iron wall. On the other hand, it has abandoned all forms of dialogue and negotiation, which Israeli leaders since the early 1990s understood to be the only way to reach a solution with the Palestinians. Kadima is accordingly an oxymoron. While the partys name means forward, many will see its political program as effectively taking Israelis several steps backward.
Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University and can be reached at email@example.com.
National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2006
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