Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Israeli Elections: the view from London

It's a Thursday winter night, the late 1980s. Outside the Jerusalem Post Printers, sitting in a parked car, is a young Israel minister. He is waiting anxiously for his driver, whom he sent to get a copy of tomorrow's local paper of Jerusalem, where he knows there would be a big investigative story about him. A story about allegations of corruption. He has to know what they managed to find out, before the newspapers are delivered.
The man was Ehud Olmert, who yesterday won the Israeli elections. It was funny to read him in an interview in Ha'aretz a few days ago, describing how he worked diligently for years to pay his mortgate. He forgot to mention the interest-free 50,000 dollar loan he received from a small bank along the way. Strangely, all the bank's records were later destroyed by fire.
Olmert is widely seen as one of Israel's most corrupt politicians, although he always managed to avoid being charged in court. But like many corrupt men, he is also very pragmatic. When he was mayor of Jerusalem he played the nationalist right wing card. Later he underwent a change, and he is seen as the brains behind the Gaza pull-out. He is the first Israeli politician from the right wing to be voted into office on a clear pledge to withdraw most of the settlments in the West Bank.

Amir Peretz, Labour's new leader, will most likely be Olmert's senior partner in government. Peretz has done over the past few months something quite unusual: he has repositioned his party and changed its social base and constituency. Laobur has ceased to be a workers' party many years ago, and for the last 30 years it represented the Israeli middle and upper-middle class. Many of them left the part now, detered by Peretz's "socialist" agenda and his Moroccon ethnic origin. But Labour managed to win new voters, from lower classes. It's a lot to do with ethnic politics. But Peretz's language does not fall into this trap: he speaks, unashamedly, about class, and calls himself a social-democrat.
Peretz spoke very little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in these elections. But when he did, he spoke about negotiations, about the Geneva initiative, about peace. These are not popular catchphrases in Israel today. He speaks about common future, not hiding behind walls.
Peretz brings promise to Israeli politics. As a trade-union man, his outlook is radically different from the people who managed things so far: the generals and their businessmen friends.
It seems to me that Peretz is the only mainstream politician that doesn't speak in terms of ethnic separation and high walls. In this he differs from most members of his own party.

Sharon's government two largest projects - the wall in the West Bank, and the pull-out from Gaza - were both unilateral moves, supported by a Israeli majority, which since Camp David 2000 believes that negotiations with the Palestinians are a waste of time. Ironically, it would have been much more difficult to pull out from Gaza as part of negotiations. The brutal line taken by Sharon against the Palestinians allowed him to pull this one off; he didn't want to be seen as 'doing the Palestinians a favour'.
Interestingly, the same logic works on the other side. For the last year Hamas has decided to keep a unilaretal cease-fire, as part of its efforts to win power in the Palestinian Authority. Had Hamas negotiated with Israel over this, it would have been much harder to swallow for its hard-line supporters.
This led some commentators to suggest that unilateralism can actually lead to a better future: Israel would withdraw out of most of the West Bank, and Hamas would run its Palestinian state: not peace, but mutual agreement to ignore eachother.
This is an illusion. As we see in Gaza, unilateral withdrawl may improve some aspects of Palestinian life in the Occupide Territories, but in the mid-long term it's a recipe for disaster. Isolated pockets of Palestinian control will not provide the Palestinians with what they need: the very least is freedom of movement for people and trade, inside the Palestinian Territories and to the outside world.
With Sharon, brutal unilateralism was a way of life. His successors, it seems, are not so averse to the idea of negotiations. Whether they can rid themselves of the Israeli arrogant negotiation attitude since 1993 onwards, "take it or leave it", or turn their backs - not just on the 'crazy settlers' in remote outpost, but on the whole colonialist project in the West Bank - is a different matter.

The Future
The present point is one of risk and promise. The Hamas government, contrary to what some people believe, was not elected on a promise of escalating the conflict; if it did pursue escalation, it might be the end of the Palestinian Authority. I think Hamas understands that in order to improve life in the West Bank and Gaza, negotiations are imperative. Maybe they'll let Abu-Mazen do the work for them.
But it also seems that patience is running out in the West Bank. For the last 18 months or so the Intifada subsided, and polls have shown majorities against militray attacks against civilians in Israel, i.e. suicide bombings. While these never stopped completely, the mainstream factions - Hamas and Fateh - did not carry such attacks.
Israeli pressure on the Palestinian poluation, however, has not subsided. New rules make movement within the West Bank increasingly difficult, sometimes altogether impossible. The Wall continues to be built and in some ares is making people's life a hell. There has been an increase in Palestinian attacks on soldiers in checkpoints. It seems that if things do not improve soon, something is about to give.

My own prediction: a Israeli overture in the next couple of months - or - a third Intifida.