[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]


January 20, 2006


This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin





Could Israel and the Palestinian Authority be heading towards negotiations following elections on both sides? A few weeks ago the answer would have been a definite no! Now there seems to be less room for such definitive answers.  In one of Ehud Olmert’s first public policy speeches he spoke directly about returning to permanent status negotiations with the Palestinians.  There is, of course, a contradiction between this comment and other statements made by Olmert and by the Kadima platform which speak about the Road Map as the only game in town.  The Road Map requires that the parties go through an interim phase (Phase II) during which time there is an option of creating a Palestinian state with provisional borders.  The Palestinians have been dead set against the idea of a state with provisional borders; they in fact have usually labeled this (incorrectly) as a “provisional state”.  The logic of Phase II of the Road Map is sound and based on the need to rebuild trust and working relationships prior to trying to resolve the difficult issues of Jerusalem, refugees and final borders.  Olmert’s statement on returning to final status negotiations was not as unconditional as the Palestinians would like.  Olmert did remain firm in his determination that the Palestinians completely fulfill their commitments in Phase I of the Road Map regarding security.  According to this, the Palestinians must collect illegal weapons, dismantle terrorist groups, create a working and efficient police force with a unified command – basically implement Mahmoud Abbas’ slogan of  “one Authority one gun”.


Israel’s new Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in her first speech as Foreign Minister, also raised the possibility of negotiations with the Palestinians, specifically stating that it was a better way to proceed than through unilateralism.  But, she added, the ball would be in Abbas’ court following the Palestinian elections.  Israel, she said, and the rest of the world would be watching very carefully if Abbas begins to dismantle the terrorist groups after Hamas is sitting in the Palestinian Parliament, as per his strategy.  Livni gave assurances that if the Palestinian leader did in fact implement his Phase I Road Map obligations, he would find a partner in Israel for negotiations.


Abbas from his side, immediately responded by calling on Israel to enter into new negotiations. He said that the only way to resolve difference was to sit together and negotiate and not to engage in unilateral actions.


The positions being verbalized by Olmert and Livni are new and reflect the views of political parties that have been to the left of Likud in Israel.  This is even a diversion from the policies of Sharon, and although Olmert may know that Sharon had different intentions than what he spoke about while he was able to speak, the rest of the world has never heard Sharon speak about entering into permanent status negotiations with the Palestinians.  It is still too early to judge if these new words represent a real shift in policies and intentions. Nonetheless it is certainly much more newsworthy than the little attention it has drawn in the Israeli media.


Primaries, parties and festivities


This has been another very political week.  Leading the drama at the beginning of the week was the complete disappearance of Shinui from the arena after the fiasco last week of their internal elections.  Shinui leader, Tommy Lapid,  was expected to announce that he was resigning from politics and leaving the party to fester after his personal adversaries from within managed a putsch against him.  Instead, early in the week, Lapid and his #2 Avraham Poraz held a joint press conference in which they left the public guessing – they have not yet made up their mind what to do.  In the meantime the official number 2 in Shinui, Ron Levanthal is left with a party that has disappeared in the polls and without a party leader.   Since Shinui was already doing so poorly in the polls, it is difficult to see where their votes have gone.  Mostly, it seems that they have scattered all over the political map.


As projected, following the smooth and successful Labour primaries this week, Labour seems to have picked up 2 seats in the weekend polls now standing at 17-19 (depending on the poll).  Likud has dropped in the polls now standing at between 15-17 and Kadima remains above 40 with between 41-43.  There is still quite some fluidity in the polls and the final outcome of the elections is still not assured to anyone.  The parties are beginning to adopt their campaign strategies, some of the “new slogans” are appearing on posters around the country.  Here are a few fresh ones out of the house of Bibi:  “Kadima to 1967 borders” “Olmert will divide Jerusalem” - they worked in the past against Labour so why not dig them out of the moth balls? Amir Peretz, under continued pressure from within the party to bring back Barak, has stated that the list elected this week in the Labour party, in the only real open and democratic primaries in Israel, will not be changed – this is the final list.  Peretz’s strong assertion regarding no changes in the list is meant to pre-empt any attempts by Barak loyalists to arrange for the former Prime Minister to be given the number 2 slot.  Barak’s allies in the primaries did very poorly with Barak deserting the country and not even voting himself.  New Labour superstars Avishai Braverman, Ami Ayalon and Shelly Yichemovitch all came out in top positions.  Boogie Herzog and Ofir Pines – the promising young guard of Labour took the number 1 and 2 slots in the primaries signaling that the new generation has taken over.  Labour now has more Generals in top positions than Likud – which has none in the top slots.  The pressure is now being put on Peretz to adopt a more comprehensive and aggressive platform and campaign agenda than solely the social economic agenda.  But some insiders have pointed out that on the political-security agenda the differences between Labour and Kadima are not distinguishable and therefore it will remain important to stress the differences on the social – economic platforms.  Here, it would be worthwhile for people like Braverman and Yichemovitch to develop some more comprehensive and marketable ideas to the public than simply the $1000 minimal wage deal.  The Labour Party should present some kind of “New Deal” package that will not scare away the investors and the sock exchange, but would deal more effectively and strategically with some of Israel’s main weaknesses in the health, education, welfare and labor domains.


Meretz also held its primaries and the only surprise there is that Ron Cohen was not successful in his challenge for the number 2 slot losing to Haim Oron.  Tziva Greenwald, the Haredi women writer won a top slot as well and will present a new face to Israeli politics.  Lacking the ability to get beyond 5 seats in the polls, Meretz has now targeted the “Green leaf” party who’s only real agenda has been to legalize cannabis in Israel.  The “green leaf” party fell just short of the threshold in the last elections.  The marijuana smoker-voters of Israel might be worth between 2-3 seats and Yossi Beilin came out this week as a strong advocate of legalizing or de-criminalizing the use of cannabis for personal use. The Meretz platform will also call for legalizing the growing of cannabis and its medicinal use as well.


Outposts and power politics


The government of Israel has suddenly woken up to the urgency of having to dismantle unauthorized outposts.  The Sasson report commissioned by the Government under Sharon documented systematic abuses of the law and the failure of the legal system in the occupied territories to enforce the rule of law against settlers and the settlement movement.  In an apparent shift from the policies of Sharon of burying the recommendations of the Sasson report, Olmert has now ordered that all of the unauthorized outposts must be dismantled.  Olmert instructed Defense Minister Mofaz to instruct the military to produce an operational plan for the dismantling of the first twenty of the unauthorized outposts. Olmert has announced that the first round of dismantlement will happen before the end of January with the illegal take over of shops in the Hebron wholesale market being first on target.  Riots broke out in Hebron this week with the most extremist settlers conducting a pogrom against their Palestinian neighbors.  The army declared the area a closed military zone and then summarily arrested all settler infiltrators who came into Hebron to resist the forced evacuations that are on the horizon.  In all, 29 hooligans were arrested so far.  There is a small legal battle going on by the settlers against the government, but they stand very little chance of winning in the courts. 


Olmert has moved forward the battle over the West Bank even before elections.  It seems that this decision concerns his need to assert himself as the replacement of Sharon. Olmert has decided that he must be firm and determined and prove to the electorate that his is made of the same material as Sharon.  Olmert has assessed, correctly in my opinion, that the majority of Israelis want to see continued withdrawals and dismantlement of settlements and is very pleased to see the disproportionate power base of the settler movement withered away. 


The ugly face of terror hits again


Once again a suicide bomber from the heart of the West Bank, this time from Nablus, managed to get through the security barriers to Tel Aviv where he blew himself up in a popular shwarma restaurant near the old central bus station.  Fortunately the explosive device was faulty and/or the amount of explosives was too small and there were no casualties, although about 30 people were wounded (only one of them seriously).  The Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility.  There were no direct intelligence warnings relating to this event or to a new Islamic Jihad cell working in Nablus.  Interestingly Israel has placed the blame on the doorsteps of Iran and Syria for paying directly for this attack.  Beyond the possibility that this is actually the case, the security cabinet last night decided not to take any specific new moves against the Palestinian population, probably considering the influence that those steps might have on the electorate five days before elections in the PA.


There have been direct and specific security warnings of an impending attack against the Karni transport zone linking Gaza to Israel which serves as the main artery of economic activity for the Gaza strip.  Last Friday Israel closed the zone due to the security warnings.  It was opened again briefly Sunday morning but then closed again until now.  There had been nothing about it in the Israeli media until the Israeli fruit growers association put out a statement that Israeli farmers stand to lose millions of dollars if their produce cannot get into Gaza.  This is the height of the season for Palestinian farmers to export to Europe and they also stand to lose millions.  The intelligence warnings speak about a tunnel that has been dug from inside of Gaza to the Karni zone with the intention of placing a large quantity of explosives in the tunnel that would destroy the entire zone.  Intensive discussions have been held, mainly at the end of this week and even last night and this morning between all of the parties involved – the IDF and Shin Bet, the Palestinian security, the Quartet and the Special Envoy’s (James Wolfensohn) representatives.  Palestinian forces have been digging with bulldozers on the Palestinian side trying to locate the tunnel, thus far with not results.


Various alternatives to Karni have been proposed with Erez and Kerem Shalom leading the list.  Palestinians are pushing for Karni to be re-opened but in one of the discussions the IDF asked the internationals if they would be willing to take the risk under these circumstances of running Karni with their own personnel.  They all answered in the negative.  The Israeli preference for using Kerem Shalom seems to me to be just another Israeli attempt to regain control over the border crossings after the Rafah agreement was imposed on Israel by Secretary Rice.  I might be completely wrong here, but Kerem Shalom was always the Israeli preference because there I could maintain its control over Gaza without being in Gaza. These seems to be universal recognition that Gaza cannot be completely cut off to Israel, so it seems likely that some immediate solution will be found – if not there will be dire consequences for Gaza and this is not a good time, five days before elections, for life in Gaza to be made more difficult.


Dividing Jerusalem – the people of Israel say YES


A new report issued by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies shows that a clear majority of Israelis now favor dividing Jerusalem as part of the peace deal with the Palestinians.  The report also examines various options for dealing with what they have called the “Historic Basin” which includes the Old City and the areas outside of the Old City such as Mount Zion and the Mount of Olives.  The preferred solution in the report which weighed the pluses and minuses of each option, calls for some kind of internationalization of this area.  This option is still not the favored one by the Israeli or Palestinian publics, but the report is just the beginning of what is likely to be a wider public campaign by the Institute and by other bodies such as IPCRI to expose Israelis and Palestinians to more options and knowledge that will lead to eventual political division of Jerusalem. In reality Jerusalem is and has been for decades two cities.  Peace will require that Jerusalem become the capitals of the two states.