Political Observations

Gershon Baskin*

Jerusalem – January 21, 2003

On February 1, 2001, several days before the election of Ariel Sharon I wrote a series of forecasts – 19 in all (www.ipcri.org/files/predictions.html), all-in-all, I didn’t do so badly – unfortunately, because the forecast I gave was so terribly bleak.  I have decided not to repeat with a piece of predictions, but rather try to make some political observations about the current situation, the Israeli elections, the situation in Palestine, the Gulf crisis, the Quartet and the road map and the possibilities for change. Comments are welcome, the more interesting of them I will distribute on this list.

Observation #1: What we have is what we’ll get. The outcome of the Israeli elections, as it seems today, will not produce any kind of radical change. The Israeli public isn’t yet ready for a change. While most Israelis recognize that the state of the State is worse now than ever before, few are willing to make the current leadership pay the political price for bringing us here. Sharon enjoys the strongest coating of Teflon ever created. Blatant corruption, economic ruin, over 750 Israelis killed since he came to office – no security, no peace, no work, no economic growth, no hope, only despair, and he will most likely continue to serve as Prime Minister. What is even more amazing is that the Israeli public opinion with regard to such fundamental issues like Palestinian statehood has moved to what could be called unimaginable just a few years ago. The public will elect Sharon, but they want him to adopt the policies of the left. The old adage: only Sharon or only the right wing can make real peace with the Palestinians seems to have taken hold, despite its complete lack of belonging to the reality. Sharon will not make peace. Sharon is not capable of making peace. There isn’t a Palestinian or an Arab alive who would accept Sharon’s unacceptable offers. The Sharon promise of security and peace will remain on paper alone. If it is up to Sharon and his policies alone, there will be no peace, there will be no security, and there will be no economic growth. What there will be a lot of is more despair, more pain, more bloodshed, more suffering, more poverty, more unemployment, more religious fundamentalism, and more young people seeking their futures abroad.

Observation #2:  More on the Israeli elections – never has there been an election campaign in Israel so totally devoid of vision. Oh, of course, the political parties all have their own kind of parochial narrow vision aimed at their own choir, but no one is presenting a vision for the nation. The extreme right wing parties’ vision is of an Israel devoid of Arabs. The religious parties’ vision is of Israel devoid of secularism and secular Jews – more synagogues, more Yeshivas, more Rabbis and less democracy. The Russian parties’ vision is of an Israel devoid of Hebrew culture – they simply don’t even present their case to non-Russian speakers. Shinui presents its vision of an Israel devoid of religion and more importantly an Israel without Shas and Yehadut Hatorah – the Ashkenazi religious party.  The best the Labour Party can do is present to us an Israel of walls and fences. Meretz has done much better either – they have a vision of social justice that they don’t explain and only attack settlements rather than present a clear and articulate vision of peace. The Arab parties do have a vision, but it is yet to be one that any significant number of Jews can accept – a non-Jewish State of Israel. And then there is Sharon whose vision seems to be an Israel where every citizen has a farm with hundreds of acres of land given by the government. That’s what we see of Sharon, walking on his private farm and sitting by the fire place. Other than that, the Likud only tell us how dangerous Mitzna and the Labour party are, but in the very next sentence Sharon tells us that he wants Mitzna and the Labour party in his government.

Observation #3 – There is no doubt that the main story of this election campaign is Shinui. It is very difficult to explain the sky rocketing success in the polls of this Archie Bunkeresque character named Tommy Lapid spewing forth a modern version of racism and hatred. The amazing thing here is that it is the young people who are flocking to his call. Shinui is trying to convince the public that if a secular Zionist government is formed of Likud, Labour and Shinui all of Israel’s problems will be resolved. There is a clear protest vote here – a voice of disgust of Israeli politics and corruption. The public is fed up of supporting the non-working, non-serving, Haredi sector who have milked the public coffers for too long. Shinui is really a side show; Tommy Lapid is a disgusting person, grossly rude and crude. His lack of respect for anything or anyone has shown favor with young people who are also fed up of living in a society without justice, without peace and without hope. In the myriad of political parties that lack appeal, Shinui provides comic relief by ignoring the serious situation we are in. If it wasn’t so frightening, it might be funny. 

Observation #3 – In my view, the Meretz campaign has been a great disappointment. Meretz seems afraid of the public’s response to present its own vision of peace with the Palestinians.  Especially after Yossi Beilen and Yael Dayan finally left the Labour Party and found their home in Meretz, I expected that Meretz would stand up and spell it out clearly, without hesitation. Meretz has rightly said “it’s the settlements – stupid!” but they haven’t gone beyond that. The main problem for most Israelis is that they have lost the belief that there is someone to talk to on the other side. The Meretz campaign should have focused on building partnerships.  There are people to talk to on the other side, their voices should have been heard. This is what the whole peace camp should have been doing over the past 2 months.  I said this at a meeting of the Israeli Peace Coalition leadership – but it was a voice in the desert. Once again, the politicians and their campaign strategists believe that we must hide the Palestinians from the eyes of the public. The presentation of Palestinian partners is a call for new hope. New hope along with a real and honest presentation of peace including maps and plans for sharing Jerusalem  - these are the key for ending the violence and for getting back to the negotiating table – not only a vision of walls and fences. I would have expected Meretz to show how economic cooperation is the key to economic growth, not more economic separation and isolationism as the Labour Party presents. Meretz really does have some great people on their list, but unfortunately as a result of their not facing the public – looking straight into the eyes of every citizen and saying it straight and forward – peace means withdrawal, ending the occupation, sharing Jerusalem, sharing water, economic cooperation, international presence on the ground, etc. etc.  those great people will join the fastest growing sector of Israeli society – the other 12% of Israelis who are currently unemployed.   

Observation #4 – The attention of the world is really not on Israeli elections but on the US-Iraqi axis. There is no doubt that the Palestinian people are clearly behind the Iraqi people and its leader. Even the most moderate peace loving Palestinians that I know feel real solidarity with the Iraqi people. They are convinced that following the American invasion of Iraq, other Arab countries will follow. In Palestinian eyes, the American attack against Iraq is an attack against all Arabs, against Arab culture, against the Arab nation, against Arab honor. I have yet to meet a Palestinian who thinks that the American plans have something to do with weapons of mass destruction. For them it is clear that the US wants the oil and wants to subdue the Arab regimes in order to get it.

Observation #5 – Arafat continues to be the number 1 political wizard of the world. Never before has a political leader been so weak and yet so strong at the same time. There is no doubt that the phenomenon called Arafat will be studied in university classes throughout the world for generations to come. Today, Arafat wields no real political, military or economic power. He definitely has more political enemies at home than allies. It is difficult to hear even a few positive words about him from Palestinians. But still no non-Hamas or Jihad politician, civil leader or public figure in Palestinian does anything without asking Arafat first. The Palestinian Authority governmental institutions barely function. Israel has destroyed everything either through physical destruction or through arrest of key actors or through full occupation, curfews and closures. Arafat can’t move beyond his own compound which has been nearly totally destroyed. Yet with a telephone and some aides he remains in total control, and everyone listens to him. Amazing! Many Palestinians have told me though, that if Israel would only give a little space, withdraw the pressure from Arafat even just a little, remove the siege against the civilian public, it would not take long before the Palestinian public would demand change. But the opposite is what is happening.  I guess that the strongest ally that Sharon has today is Arafat and this strange odd couple have developed such a symbiotic relationship that today they really need each other in order to survive politically.

Observation #6 – The quartet, made up of the United States, the European Union, the UN, and Russia has devised a plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace that they call a “road map”. This so-called road map has also been called the translation of (get this unbelievable phrase) – the Bush vision!!! – into a political plan. On December 20th the Quartet met in Washington where the 3 non-US members of the Quartet tried to convince the fourth member to publicize the latest version of the plan so that it will impact on the Israeli elections. Sharon asked Bush to postpone the publication, and of course, Bush agreed. Will the road map lead to a real international political initiative that will bring about peace?  Unlikely, but, as they say, it is the only game in town, and the game has yet to begin.  The starting date of the game will be only after whatever happens in the Gulf is behind us.

Observation #7 – Will there be a war in the Gulf? As I see it right now, it seems inevitable. (But a word of caution – in 1991 I didn’t think that the US would really attack Iraq). The huge massing of troops and all of the preparations appear to be for real. Bush has received intelligence and military reports that the fall of Iraq will be even faster than the fall of the Taliban. There is finally some thinking going on in Washington now about the “day after”.  It seems to me that the battle against Iraq will be much faster and much simpler than anything that happens after the fall of Saddam. The post-Saddam Iraq, right now looks to me like a modern day Vietnam – you know how to get in,  but it’s much harder to get out. Iraq makes Afghanistan look simplistic and uncomplicated.

Observation #8 – Is there a way out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the near future? I can see three scenarios that each one of them presents a way out. Each one of them is equally unlikely to happen, but in the Middle East, we have learned over and over again that the unexpected is usually what happens, so here they are 

  • Scenario 1 – After the fall of Iraq, the victorious Americans, backed by the UK led European Union come to Israel/Palestine to make order. Based on the road map, they force their plan for Palestinian political reforms, they force the Israelis to withdraw and give space for new Palestinian elections. They put pressure on Israel to freeze all settlements and to even withdraw from the Gaza settlements in advance of a full agreement. They Quartet sends troops to the West Bank and Gaza, etc. etc.  Chances of this happening – very small – but not impossible.
  • Scenario 2 – Following hundreds and thousands of more casualties a real protest movement takes to the streets of Israel and Palestine forcing the two sides to stop – saying: enough – we’ve had enough! Right now this seems quite unlikely because both sides are still too caught up in the cycle of revenge – thousands of dead Israelis and Palestinians are still not enough for the publics to see the total insanity of this situation and they still want more.
  • Scenario 3 – Arafat doesn’t wake up tomorrow morning. If all of a sudden Arafat is no longer with us, there is a possibility for real change on the Palestinian side.  It might not be instantaneous and it may not even be a change for the better, but it will break the symbiosis between the Arafat regime and the Sharon regime. Real change in Palestine will effect real change in Israel (and not the opposite).  If the Palestinians were to present a new leadership that the Israeli public believed was sincere in its desire for peace, the Israeli public would kick out the Sharon regime very quickly and replace it with a regime that would make peace with the Palestinians. Most Palestinians would, needless to say, prefer if the scenario was reversed stating that Israel is the stronger party then it should make the change first.  That might be so, but it will not happen. What are the chances of this scenario happening – both Sharon and Arafat are not young healthy men in good physical condition. They will eventually pass on to what some call a better place – so perhaps of the three scenarios, this one is the most likely, but again – in the Middle East it is always better to expect the unexpected.

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