[[ Jerusalem Times : Opinion ]]
October 7, 2005
This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin
Sharon going strong
It seems that Ariel Sharon is intent on staying in power until the end of his term. With Bibi slipping further down in the polls and Sharon’s general approval rating hitting new highs, Sharon has been busy holding meetings with the aim of expanding his coalition. First came Shas with talks of budget changes to reinstate the National Insurance payments for children. Then came Peres, who it seems would like to stay in his Ministerial chair for as long as Sharon will have him. At the end of the week it was Shinui’s turn. In a meeting between Tommy Lapid and Sharon that was intended to be Shinui’s notification to Sharon that since the disengagement has been completed Shinui is returning to its position as head of the opposition, but in a surprise move, Sharon asked Lapid to consider the possibility of returning to the government. Shinui immediately issued conditions that included the passing of a law for civil marriages, public transportation on Shabbat, forcing Haredi boys to do their military service, etc. There is, of course, no way that Sharon can have Shas and Shinui in the same government. So far neither party has said that they are joining, but it is clear that negotiations have begun.
Sharon is no rush as long as the Labour party remains in the government. With Peres clearly out front in the lead for the Labour party leadership, it seems that even the four conditions that Peres has submitted to Sharon will not lead the Labour party to quickly exit the government. Peres demanded that the issue of passages between Gaza and the rest of the world be resolved, that the government re-launch a political process based on the Road Map, that the government support funding for building the Negev and the Galilee and that the new budget reflect a policy to combat poverty. Conveniently, all of Peres’ demands are on the agenda of Sharon.
It seems logical that Peres and the Labour party will have to leave the government at sometime before the real election season begins because staying the government up to the elections give rise to serious questions on what kind of alternative the Labour party presents to the electorate. One unnamed senior Labour party person has already suggested that Peres would prefer to have the Labour party become a sub-faction within the Likud – just as long as he can keep his seat!
Sharon is also busy holding meetings with some of the Likud opposition to the disengagement. Now that the disengagement has ended, Sharon believes that he can entice some of these Likud MK’s to rejoin his alliance in exchange for jobs and high ranking in the party. It is likely that some of them will be swayed away from their ideological opposition claiming that they are rejoining forces with Sharon to prevent further withdrawals in the future.
Sharon’s special envoy Dov Weissglass is meeting this morning with his counterpart Saeb Erikat to prepare the summit meeting of Sharon-Abass to be held later next week. Both gentlemen are aware of the need to have a successful summit. Both men share the same agenda that Abu Mazen be strengthened and that the Palestinian Authority crush the chaos that has developed in Gaza. The price-tag for achieving those results is very different on either side of the table. The Palestinians are demanding a significant prisoner release. In light of the hundreds of Palestinians arrested over the past weeks, it should not be a hard demand to realize, however, it seems that Israel has never really understood the crucial importance and supremacy of this issue to Palestinian society. Israel has made this issue a non-touchable one by emphasizing the impossibility of releasing Palestinians with blood on their hands. These are precisely the people that the Palestinians are most interested in having released – particularly those long time prisoners who have been imprisoned since before 1993. It is unlikely to expect that there will be any serious moves on this issue.
The Palestinians are also demanding an immediate end to the closures, the opening of the passage between the West Bank and Gaza, the immediately opening of the international terminal to Egypt from Gaza and the crossings from Gaza into Israel. With the Jewish holy month still ahead of us and high level security warnings, and the wide gaps that still exist in the positions of the two sides, it is also unlikely that there will be great progress on these issues as well.
Israel is demanding that the Palestinians implement their Road Map obligations of dismantling the infrastructure of terrorism – translated into disarming the Hamas and other factions. While a large amount of weapons and ammunition have been smuggled into Gaza from the tunnels in Rafah and when the Rafah border was completely open, the Palestinian Authority forces do not have sufficient weapons or ammunition. While the public legitimacy of the PA has increased for taking action against the Hamas and it seems that Abu Mazen’s resolve to take such action has also increased, the physical capacity of the PA security forces to act remains very small. There might be some progress on this issue as it is becoming clearer, even to the Israelis, that the PA security forces must be strengthened. This is an extremely unpopular policy in Israel and therefore, I believe, that if there is progress on this issue, it will not be part of the public statements made by both leaders at the end of the summit. I would not be surprised if in several weeks we find out that Egypt has been rearming the PA security forces with the agreement of Israel.
It seems that both sides are pretty locked into positions that will prevent the summit from being declared a success and while the atmosphere of the summit will be described as positive, on substance there will be little progress. Nonetheless, Israeli reports will most likely describe a positive summit while Palestinians will report the opposite. What is most important is that the leaders remove the drama from the summit meetings by scheduling regular and frequent contacts and working relations. This should be on their agenda, and it probably is not.
No more human shields
The Israel High Court has once again taken positions that are not popular with the Government, the IDF and the general public. The High Court ordered this week to cease immediately from using the policy of Palestinian human shields to arrest other Palestinians. This method whereby the army uses a neighbor to lead the way to a house where suspects are located so that if shooting ensues, the innocent Palestinian will be shot first and not the soldiers. The High Court ruled that this policy is in direct contravention of international humanitarian law. The Israeli Chief of Staff immediately ordered the army to stop using this policy. Meanwhile, right wing critics attacked the court’s decision claiming that the court cares more about the lives of Palestinians than it does about Israeli soldiers.
It was feared that most of the Gaza settlers would move to settlements in the West Bank. This has not happened. But a small group of some 18 families did temporarily move to Ofra near Ramallah and now have announced that they are moving to Tene Omarim in the southern part of the West Bank. It has been reported that 85 families in that settlement have requested that the Government allow them to use the law legislated for Gush Katif for moving out of the settlement in exchange for compensation. Apparently knowing that the small and isolated settlements in the West Bank are next in line, these foolish Gaza evacuees are planning to build their new fortress on another lost cause. Any thinking person in the Government would already seek ways to prevent their move that will eventually result in great costs and a need for more resolve and sensitivity to remove them in the future. There should also be a public outcry against these settlers inhumane and irresponsible behavior towards their children, once again putting them on the front line and forcing them to face additional traumas in the future.
Crisis in the right
It has been suggested that following the disengagement, the right wing religious groups would face a crisis of belief. The miracles that they were promised did not happen. God let them down. The settler leaders let them down. Their Rabbis let them down, the IDF let them down, and the Government of Israel let them down. From the internal debates taking place in the religious communities, it seems that the largest crisis exists between these people and the State of Israel – meaning the secular body called the State of Israel. People in the religious camps are opening speaking and writing about a war of cultures between the Jewish State and the Israeli state. For them public enemy number one are the secular Israelis who they accuse of being “empty and valueless”. They say that the secular majority of Israelis have detached themselves from the Land of Israel, the Torah of Israel, the God of Israel and the religion of Israel.
Speaking from the other side, I agree with them there is a cultural war between the two societies that make up the Jewish part of the State of Israel. We do have different value systems and we care about different things. The common threads linking the two together are becoming increasing thin and worn. We view these so-called lovers of Israel as being the most dangerous element to the continued existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic state. They view us as the single most dangerous factor to making Israel into the theocratic state that they wish to see. The disengagement from Gaza was only chapter one of this struggle. There is a lot more to come.
West Bank – Gaza Link
The US Government has paid out $1 million for a study on how best to link the West Bank and Gaza. The World Bank is undertaking the study. The Government of Israel has already stated that whatever arrangement is made, the crossing through Israeli territory would remain under Israeli sovereignty and jurisdiction. The Palestinians have stated their preference for what is called the sunken route – a below ground road and rail link that would include infrastructures for water, electricity and gas as well. Any plan eventually accepted that involves creating new infrastructures will take years to get through the web of Israeli planning bodies and will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The fastest and cheapest way of linking the two territories is by making use of the existing Israeli rail network. Dedicated Palestinian trains could be put on the rails that would carry passengers, cargo and even vehicles. The links would have to be extended to Gaza and up to Tarkumiyeh near Hebron. The work could be completed within one year. In this scenario the parties would have to negotiate the modalities, time schedules, and the rights of Israel or the lack of rights of Israel to stop the trains and check them. This would make the most sense, but as we all know, the most sensible plan is usually not the most favorite plan. Politics will get in the way and the questions concerning the permanent link between the West Bank and Gaza will probably remain on the agenda for quite some time.