Saturday, January 14

The Political Tempest in Israel and Palestine

So much has occurred in this part of the world over the last month. Ariel Sharon’s serious health condition and the new political realignments in Israel have contributed to an increasing amount of liquidity in Israeli politics. Prior to Ariel Sharon’s severe stroke, the doctors who had treated him for a mild stroke two weeks earlier declared him fit to continue his political activities. So much was at stake for Ariel Sharon at that time. Perhaps the medical staff discharged Ariel Sharon too early from hospital. Naturally, one is wiser after Ariel Sharon’s severe stroke and this conclusion is axiomatic.

After PM Sharon’s severe cerebral haemorrhage, the bulletins on Sharon’s health were frequent. Now there seems to be some coming to terms with Sharon’s tragic condition and after a political respite from infighting, the political situation is heating up and old alliances are breaking up across the political spectrum as the Israeli elections draw closer.

The latest party to fall is the Shinui Party, which has been rocked by political infighting. Their primary result was a disaster for its leader, Tommy Lapid and his deputy Avraham Poraz. The polls have indicated that this party is going to lose heavily and may not even have any representation in the Knesset. It is a party built on anti ultra-Orthodox sentiments and has nothing to offer to the Israeli electorate. Its disappearance from the Israeli political scene will not be a great tragedy.

The Likud Party will also suffer severe losses and the unpredictable results of its primaries have left a bad taste in the mouth of its leader Benjamin Netanyahu. The Likud power is no loss either. It has become more right wing since Ariel Sharon’s resignation, taking with him the cream of the Likud hierarchy prior to his illness.

The Labour Party under Amir Peretz is also showing signs of decreasing support. According to the latest polls, both Likud and Labour will have equal support with Labour perhaps edging slightly ahead of the Likud. Amir Peretz is prone to demagoguery on economic issues that adversely affect the weaker sectors of Israeli society. This may snowball on his ability to win the elections. The smaller parties will all lose as the electorate move towards supporting Kadima under Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister. Amir Peretz is also a dove which does not fit in with the idea of negotiating with the Palestinians especially now with indications that Hamas may win the Palestinian elections.

Traditional loyalties to the main parties are conspicuous by its absence. Never has there been such fluidity in traditional voting patterns. Many of us are in total confusion as for whom to vote. The Meretz-Yahad Party will also lose a seat or two in the upcoming elections. One thing is certain and that is whoever wins will not gain an absolute majority and the dirty game of political wheeling and dealing in the aftermath of the elections will take place. There will be major compromises on all political fronts in the mad scramble for seats and crumbs from the party that gains the most seats with its upper hand in conducting coalition talks.

The Israeli electorate will move towards a central position. There will be a strong desire to carry on Sharon’s policies of disengagement from various parts of the occupied West Bank even if this does not bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians. However, the Israeli electorate does not want any compromises on security. This will result in “ghettoizing” the Palestinians even further. Apart from uprooting various small, illegal settlements beyond the green line, it is doubtful if there will be much change from the present situation under a Kadima led coalition.

The Palestinian elections are also a strong factor that will influence the Israeli electorate. Hamas are showing signs of increasing their support amongst the Palestinians. This could have an effect on pushing the Israeli electorate towards a more right wing stance, helping the Likud gain more seats. On the other hand, Hamas may show signs of becoming more pragmatic as they take over the reins of power. This could surprise us all although the chance of that occurring is very remote! While they may not recognize Israel’s right to exist officially, they may become more amenable to negotiating a settlement with Israel in the form of some long-term (or indefinite) “hudna”. This would weaken the ability of Islamic Jihad and various other splinter terrorist groups from carrying out terrorist attacks against Israel. Meanwhile Palestinian street is in total anarchy. There are armed brigades shooting and killing at will and threatening any semblance of law and order. The odd Qassam or two is still landing on the outskirts of Ashkelon. The Palestinian Authority is losing control over the situation. They still show no desire to disarm terrorist gangs in the streets of Gaza. Turmoil will be the order of the day in Palestinian street. There will be no winners in Palestine. The losers will be the Palestinian people and this will affect the Israelis as well. As the situation stands, there is no viable partner for negotiating a peace settlement with Israel. A Palestinian state under these circumstances will recede further from reality unless Hamas changes its uncompromising attitude towards Israel’s existence and becomes a responsible instrument of government amenable to negotiations.

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