First Responses on a Disastrous Evening

Gershon Baskin*

The outcome of the Israeli elections is even worse than I expected.  But in democracies, the people have spoken and we have heard their voice, now we must try and understand what they wanted to say. Perhaps I am blind, but I don’t see that the people of Israel said last night: No to Peace!  I think that a lot of different messages were given last night and it would be incorrect to assume that the simple message and main message is a rejection of the peace option.

In my view the main message of the voice of the Israeli public is that they still don’t believe that there are partners for peace amongst the Palestinians. (I know that the Palestinians think the same about the Israeli side, but please allow me for the purpose of this piece to relate only to what is happening inside of Israel).

The Israelis continue to perceive the message that they receive from the Palestinians that the war has no end in sight.  The All-Palestinian faction meeting in Cairo under extreme pressure from the Egyptians and the Europeans failed to produce a Palestinian call for an end to terror attacks against Israeli civilians.  Everyday during the election campaign the Israeli public was informed of the high state of alert because of numerous suicide bombers trying to reach Israel’s main population centers.  Just last week a car bomb carrying some 300 kilograms of explosives was caught by the army on its way into Israel. In addition to this, the Israeli election campaign focused a lot of attention on Arafat – the number one enemy.  Many of Israel’s problems were presented as being the direct outcome and result and even the responsibility of Yasser Arafat. The Israeli public certainly feels that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority are the main obstacle to peace and as long as they are around, in their view, peace is not possible.

The Israeli public is still very much caught up in the cycle of revenge.  The public is angry.  The public is fed up with “the situation” as they call it – meaning, living in fear constantly – day in and day out. They still believe that in the short term the only response can and should be a response of force. Most of them know that this is not a solution to the conflict and it will not bring peace.  Most of them might even be aware that it will not really lower the rate of casualties on the Israeli side – but this is an emotional response more than anything else.  They want Palestinians to feel pain.  They want Palestinians to reach a point when they will say to their leaders – stop the violence. In this, they show a huge lack of understanding of the Palestinian narrative and the view of the situation from the other side.

I don’t believe that the Israeli public has great faith that Sharon will lead Israel to real solutions to its many real problems.  I don’t believe that the Israeli public has faith that Sharon will improve the security situation, will improve the economic disaster, or lead Israel towards peace.  The Israeli public does believe that he will work to create a sense of unity – which will provide some false sense of strength that Israelis long for.  They believe that Sharon will not give into international pressure.  They believe that Sharon is the right person to squeeze the Palestinians between the “rock of Israel and the hard place of Bush”.

Sharon, they know, will once again, over the course of the next year, remain the foreign leader to visit the White House more than any other leader in the world. While most foreign leaders and governments conduct their foreign policy with the United States through the US State Department, Sharon and the Israeli government have direct access to the President, the National Security Advisor and now an inside “agent” named Elliot Abrams.

Those who are hoping that the US will free itself for pressuring Israel in the aftermath of Iraq should not hold their breath. The so-called “road map” is already on its way to being redefined in accordance with Sharon’s speech at the Herzliyeh Conference. Sharon has created his own internal Israeli “quartet” composed of himself, Dan Meridor, Gen. Amos Gilead and Dubbie Weisglass to concretize a new American-Israeli agreed upon “road map”.  This new Israeli-US plan might include removing a few isolated settlements – although I would not bet on it, the main thrust will be the final demise of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority in the form of so-called “reforms”. There is no real concern for Palestinian democracy although elections might eventually be held.  The main concern is to get rid of Arafat. This is shared US-Israeli concern. In the meantime, Sharon is once again working to create an alternative Palestinian leadership.  Some Palestinians might be tempted to be drawn in to Sharon’s net, but if the so-called new alternative leadership does not have the legitimacy of the Palestinian public, they will not be able to do anything to advance the cause of peace and I believe are destined for failure, pretty much from the outset.

I believe that the first order of business of the old-new Israeli government will be to further de-legitimize the Palestinian Authority and its leaders. The Israeli government, with the assistance of the White House will implement a policy of no communication with Palestinians who are associated in any way with the Authority.  The Israeli government and the Israeli military authorities will not allow Palestinians associated with the Palestinian Authority to engage in any kind of dialogue with Israelis by systematically preventing them from entering Israel or from even traveling abroad via Jordan or Egypt. These people will be placed in a cage of isolation from the outside world. 

This new policy is already in effect and will have great impact on the work of organizations such as IPCRI that work everyday to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.  We are already suffering from the results of that policy as it is becoming almost impossible to get permits for Palestinians to travel to joint Israeli-Palestinian meetings. We experienced this two weeks ago when we were denied travel permits for Palestinians to attend a meeting of Israelis and Palestinians on the subject of agricultural cooperation that we convened in Turkey.  We convened the meeting despite the ban of several of the Palestinian participants and ended up having a very successful meeting.

Tomorrow evening we are traveling to Cyprus for a joint Israeli-Palestinian meeting that we are convening on the subject of security and the role of third parties in issues of verification of agreements, compliance and dispute resolution. We will focus on the roles and mandates of peacekeepers, observers, inspectors, buffers, etc. but the Israeli authorities are preventing four of the seven Palestinians to leave the country.  We are working on gathering all of the pressure we can, but on the morning following elections it is difficult to locate politicians who are awake and willing to do anything constructive.

The peace camp in Israel definitely suffered a huge blow last night. Both Labour and Meretz must look inward and find new ways to present themselves and their views to the Israeli public.  I believe that Labour got what it deserved. Serving as the fig leaf of legitimization for the Sharon government of the past two years and not serving the people from the opposition – presenting an alternative to the people, simply meant that Labour could not excuse itself from at least partial responsibility for the disastrous policies of the government. Now the question is whether or not the Labour party will have the wisdom to remain in the opposition and to develop, together with Meretz,  and with Israeli Palestinians and other peace forces inside of Israel to become a real alternative.  I believe that Mitzna does not wish to join with Sharon.  I do believe that many of his fellow party members cannot accept the thought of staying outside of the government and they will present some very persuasive reasons to the Party officials and members why they should join Sharon.  Maybe that will bring about a split of the Labour party.  If the Labour party, or part of the party joins the Sharon government, I believe it will be the final death blow to what we have known as the Labour party – I personally will not mourn its demise.  

It is now time to leave behind the old frameworks and parties and to create something new – a new united force that builds coalitions within Israeli society and across the divide into Palestine.  It is time for this force to develop and strengthen the message that political justice and social-economic justice go hand-in-hand. We must show compassion for the largest growing sector in Israel – the unemployed and the impoverished. We must help those people to understand that there is a direct link between the lack of peace and the economic demise of the entire society – with them in the front lines of economic ruin and doom. This must be more than lip service, as it has been until now. The social-economic gaps in Israel continue to grow wider and wider – the rich might not necessarily become richer in the immediate future, but the poor will definitely become poorer and their ranks will swell.

The peace camp in Israel must work with the supporters of peace in Palestine – we have one cause and one camp and we must work together –despite all of the problems that we will face – because this is the best way to rebuild hope. The forces of peace from civil society must take to the streets – be we small in number, we must persevere. We are the hope, we are the future.  Maybe we will be a small force of avant-garde,  but if we persevere, others will follow – mainly because people cannot survive without hope.

The voter turnout – under 65% was the lowest in Israel’s history. This too in my view is a sign of hope. Yes, a sign of hope – so many people believed that there was no real reason to vote. They felt that there was no real possibility of change.  Their non-vote was a protest vote – and there are a lot of reasons to protest.  The fact that so many people were undecided about who to vote for up to the minute they entered the polling place showed how difficult it was to find politicians and political parties that offered hope and real solutions.

There was no spirit of elections in Israel this time around.  Even political bumper stickers disappeared from cars all over Israel.  It wasn’t only the left-wing voters who were afraid to put stickers on their cars.  There were very few stickers for Sharon as well.  There were no grand celebrations last night.  Everyone, across the entire spectrum of Israeli politics cannot see any real victory for anyone or anything in the outcome of these elections. I think that most people feel that in a relatively short time we will be heading back to the polls. Maybe the next elections will be the real ones – maybe then the politicians will have something real to offer and the public will have something real to support and fight for. I know that until then, we have our hands full – we cannot afford to give into despair.  Our struggle must continue even stronger and more determined from this morning.  So, my friends, I’m off to the front lines – hope to see you there!

  • Gershon Baskin, Ph.D. is the founder and the Israeli Co-Director of IPCRI  - the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information