Weighing the Options: The Next Path for Israel/Palestine

Given the recent political death of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, many in Israel and the Occupied Territories are wondering who will take the former premier’s spot.  Likewise, Palestinians and Israelis are closely watching who will govern Palestinian society.  The Palestinians engage in the political process first — with parliamentary elections on January 25.  How smoothly the parliamentary elections will run remains a question.  It is of the utmost importance that Palestinian elections — including in Occupied East Jerusalem — proceed unobstructed by Israel.  Differing reports emerged regarding whether or not Israel will allow voting in East Jerusalem, though the latest reports state that acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will give in to US pressure and allow Palestinians to vote by absentee ballot.

The outcome of the Palestinian elections in January may affect the Israeli elections in March.  It is thought that the militant group Hamas will do exceedingly well, mirroring what it accomplished in municipal elections over the last year.  Hamas unexpectedly won 73 percent of the vote in the West Bank town of Nablus last December.  It is not clear how many of the 132 seats Hamas (running as the Change and Reform ticket) will win on January 25.  Recent polls suggest Hamas may capture 40 percent of the vote, as Fatah, Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen‘s ruling party, falls further out of favor.  According to United Press International, the Shin Bet — Israel’s internal security agency — predicts Fatah edging out Hamas for the 66 parliamentary seats that are distributed on a national proportional basis but foresees Hamas dominating in the 66 seats elected by districts.

Hamas’ rise to power can be attributed to its extensive social programs for poor Palestinians coupled with the disarray and corruption that has consumed Fatah.  Fatah’s infighting — between the younger generation, who are infuriated by Fatah’s lack of reform, and the old guard — strengthens the unified position of Hamas.

What will be the Israeli reaction to a strong Hamas showing (perhaps even victory)?  The likely reaction is to elect hardcore Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who incidentally has led the party further to the right in recent weeks.

The Israeli public will have two months to digest the results of the Palestinian elections.  Israelis were already given a taste of the new Hamas when multiple Israeli newspapers indicated that a more “tempered” Hamas may be arising.  The Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, stated that Hamas did not call for the destruction of Israel in its platform: “Diplomatically, the platform does not differ substantially from that of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction.”  This “tempered” Hamas position was also documented by an earlier Shin Bet report which found that only one Israeli death in 2005 could be attributed to the military wing of Hamas.  The majority of the Israeli public, nevertheless, has a strong disdain for the group, following suicide bombings carried out in the 1990s and more recently in the first few years of the second intifada.

Haaretz reported that insiders believe Acting Prime Minister Olmert will step up attacks against the Occupied Territories to show Israel that he’s strong enough to lead, though the paper didn’t say whether or not targets would include Hamas.  Although military action has not been used against Hamas yet, Israel has already arrested many of its members leading up to the Palestinian elections.  It must be noted that the Sharm Al Sheik ceasefire expired at the end of December, and, though remaining cautious, Hamas reserves the right to use armed resistance against Israel.  One assumes Hamas will use it if Israel begins a large military campaign against the group.

An aggressive military stance against Hamas, which has so far restrained itself, could lead to Olmert’s demise: provoking resumption of violence may swing voters over to hard-line Netanyahu, for they will be led to believe that Netanyahu is what they need, a strongman who can confront the militant groups in light of the Palestinian Authority’s hands-off approach.  It is in the interests of Olmert to have a “tempered” Hamas, so that he can continue the Sharon model of “peace.”  What is “peace” according to the Sharon model?  Security for Israelis, if not for Palestinians.  While the brutality of the occupation raged on out of Israeli sight, the suffering of Israelis lessened during the last year of Sharon’s reign, which in large part can be attributed to the Sharm Al Sheik ceasefire, as the Shin Bet asserted.  Maintaining a “safer” Israel is vital if Olmert wants to be the next prime minister of Israel.

Palestinians have no reason to prefer Olmert to Netanyahu, however.  Netanyahu is liable to make the deplorable face of occupation uglier and trigger a third intifada — more suicide bombings, more dead Israelis, many more dead Palestinians.  Electing Olmert, however, is electing more of the same — a Netanyahu-light.  Under Olmert, the occupation will continue unabated, as will extrajudicial assassinations, the construction of the Apartheid Wall, home demolitions, land confiscations, mass arrests, checkpoints, flying checkpoints, curfews, and the endless restrictions that strangulate Palestinian society.

The question remains: what is best for the Israeli and Palestinian people?  First and foremost, Israel must respect the principles of democracy and stop interfering with the Palestinian elections in the Occupied Territories.  That will not only reinforce a democratic foundation in the territories but give Israel a true representative of the Palestinian people.  However, many in the Israeli government may not want that.  Unfortunately, the majority of the Knesset rarely reflects popular Israeli opinion on the occupation.  As noted by former Knesset member and longtime peace activist Uri Avnery, leading candidates for the premiership obsess over the Judaization of Jerusalem, while 49 percent of Israelis recently polled would share Jerusalem to reach a peace deal with Palestinians (the same proportion as that of those opposed to sharing Jerusalem) .

Despite the fact that many in the Israeli government are out of touch with the public, new choices are emerging in both Israel and the Occupied Territories.  The new head of the Labor Party in Israel, Amir Peretz, a Moroccan Jew who was first elected to the Knesset in 1988, is a new way “forward” for Israelis.  Peretz is a firm believer in social justice: his platform includes the eradication of child poverty, the protection of worker rights, the raising of the minimum wage, and the strengthening of the middle class.  Peretz is seen as a strong advocate of a two-state solution, having endorsed the Geneva Accords.  Peretz stated in an interview with Labor Start: “I see the occupation as an immoral act” (though he is quick to add that he sees ending the occupation as “an Israeli interest” rather than a response to “international or Palestinian pressure”).

However, we must be honest with ourselves: Peretz is not the perfect candidate for the Palestinian people.  His election alone won’t ensure that peace will flourish.  The Geneva Accords would fail like the Oslo Accords, both of which were co-authored by “dovish” Yossi Beilin.  The Geneva Accords, like the Oslo Accords, pushes a system of Apartheid, unacceptable on the basis of international law or a population’s indigenous rights, yet it’s presented as the path to autonomy.

Nonetheless, Peretz is surely leaning in the right direction, and a possibility must not be discounted that, given the right political climate, he would make further concessions to expunge the “immoral act” of occupation.  Uri Avnery wrote, “Amir Peretz supports a serious peace program: negotiations with the Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian state, on the basis of the borders of 1967.”  The first ingredient for the realization of an autonomous Palestinian state that is viable for Palestinians depends on the election of Amir Peretz.

Similarly, a new choice must emerge in the Occupied Territories.  The Palestinian Authority, led by Fatah, is an ineffective representative of the Palestinian people.  Regrettably, Abu Mazen is not interested in what’s best for the Palestinians.  He has been too busy juggling the interests of America and Israel to realize that, first and foremost, he is the representative of the Palestinian people.  Appeasement will bring Palestinians nowhere.  It will not rebuild their schools, pave their roads, or feed their children.  And it will surely not end the occupation that has plagued their lives for the last 38 years.

The election of Hamas may shake out the corruption of Fatah as well as positively affect the social aspects of Palestinian society and the essential rebuilding process.  Nevertheless, Hamas is not the answer.  Palestinians must live by democratic principles (not Western “democratic” principles), as the late Edward Said argued, by establishing “a concept of citizenship whereby every individual has the same citizen’s rights, based not on race or religion, but on equal justice for each person guaranteed by a constitution.”  While recognizing the right to armed struggle, Palestinians must also realize that armed struggle in the past five years has led them nowhere, only pushing away the inevitable: living in peace in a land also inhabited by Jews.  The answer to the oppression of occupation is not the taking up of arms, but the movement of mass non-violent demonstration, civil disobedience, and an outreach to the world that says, yes, Palestine is occupied, Palestine is suffering, yet Palestine is resisting with the moral upper hand.

Two important lists are running on independent tickets.  One of them is the Third Way, which, albeit headed by Salam Fayyad, includes longtime PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) spokeswoman and secretary-general of MIFTAH (the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy) Hanan Ashrawi.  An ardent subscriber to Palestinian rights, equality and democracy, Ashrawi is a tough and dedicated candidate for the Palestinian people.  The Christian Science Monitor quoted Ashrawi: “We’re using the elections as a launching pad.  This is a group of people who are likeminded, who want good governance, peacemaking, and democracy to be part of the vision.”  The ticket on which she is running received 5.5 percent support in a recent Palestinian poll conducted by the Center for Opinion Polls and Survey Studies at An-Najah National University.  Ashrawi is known in international circles as an intelligent, articulate spokeswoman for the Palestinian people.

The other ticket that has come forth is Independent Palestine led by Mustafa Al Barghouti.  Running second to Abu Mazen in the presidential election last year, Barghouti is a longtime grassroots activist and writer.  He co-founded the Palestinian National Initiative with Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi, Mr. Ibrahim Dakak, and the late Edward Said. In the An-Najah University poll, Independent Palestine garnered 10.4 percent of the vote.

In an article entitled “The Truth You Don’t Hear,” Barghouti wrote, “Our [Palestinian] demand is for an international peace conference where resolution to the conflict would be returned to its basis in international law, and where the ICJ [International Court of Justice] advisory ruling [on the Apartheid Wall] would be addressed.”  Barghouti further stated: “The Palestinians deserve to be freed from the long-term suffering they have endured through 600 years of foreign rule, 58 years of dispossession and 38 years of a military occupation that has become the longest in modern history.”  Rejecting colonial rule while returning to negotiations and non-violent activism is the policy that both Barghouti and Ashrawi promote.

The Palestinian people cannot gain independence with only the election of Amir Peretz.  The Israeli people cannot gain security with only the election of democratic progressives such as Ashrawi and Barghouti.  They need each other.  Two people — one land.  Bilateral negotiations are fundamental in recognizing and engaging with the other side.  The way of the future for Israel and Palestine is not Apartheid, not separation, but unification and integration.  Nobody is so foolish to think this process will happen overnight.  But with the elections in January and March, the Israeli and Palestinian people can take the first step toward a just resolution to the conflict.http://poeticinjustice.net/webs/poetic_gallery.htm

Remi Kanazi is the primary writer for the political website www.PoeticInjustice.net. He lives in New York City as a Palestinian American freelance writer and can reached via email at <remroum@gmail.com>.