A strange phenomenon seems to have been taking place in the nature of the ongoing conflict and struggle between Palestinians and Israelis. Suddenly there is a decline in the level of tension between the two parties, at the same time that there is an increase in each side’s internal turmoil and political confrontation. Israel has recently seen very controversial meetings of its two leading parties. The Likud Central Committee witnessed a great deal of competition and tension between its two main wings, that of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Similarly, the Labor Party is also demonstrating tough competition between its two opposing wings–those of party head Fuad Ben Eliezer and his competitor Haim Ramon.
Simultaneously, Palestinian internal politics have become very heated in recent weeks, especially since President Yasser Arafat’s release from the Israeli-imposed siege. Here, the tension and political confrontation is more complicated– sometimes it is about reform and corruption, sometimes it is over the use of various forms of resistance, and other times it is about whether to continue the Intifada. In all cases, these internal fights are drawing on the energy usually invested by Palestinians in the fight and their confrontations with the Israeli side.
There is, however, one thing in common between these internal tensions: they are mostly a display of power politics between different components of each political elite. Netanyahu seems to have chosen to challenge Sharon on the issue of Palestinian statehood, largely because this is a winning horse in Likud political circles. Similarly, Ramon has taken advantage of the fact that the Palestinian leadership, in particular President Arafat, has been discredited within the Israeli public as a partner for a peace process as a result of the successful Likud media campaign alleging Arafat’s personal involvement in violence against Israelis. These new charges come, of course, after a previous but similar Labor Party campaign that led the Israeli public to believe that Arafat’s rejection of such a “generous offer” at Camp David means that he is either unwilling or unable to be a partner in a peace agreement.
The point here is that politicians in Israel are competing against each other in order to gain power by appealing to the increasingly extremist tendencies within Israeli public opinion. Hence, real possibilities for peace are destined to fall victim to this power struggle. Practically speaking, the Likud’s reiteration of its opposition to the Palestinian state has a negative outcome, no matter how slim the chances may be for peace negotiations with the Likud Party.
Similarly, the atmosphere created in the Labor Party, in particular the consensus that there is no Palestinian peace partner and momentum towards unilateral steps are bad news for the peace process. Peace takes two parties, not one. No matter how few Israelis want to believe it, this Palestinian leadership is the right partner for peace with Israel. The widespread Israeli conviction that there is no Palestinian partner does not reflect the political reality in Palestine, but is the result of a successful, comprehensive and discrediting public relations campaign.
These power struggles appeal to extremist fad politics and do not address the vital interests of both sides in returning the Palestinian-Israeli relationship to one of negotiations, rather than confrontation. In deed, they seem to multiply the tension between Palestinians and Israelis by nurturing the argument for and encouragement of extremist politics on the opposing side. In the final analysis, this will only feed the deepening hatred and consequent gulf of violence between the two. Peace advocates among both Palestinians and Israelis must buck this trend with a central strategy of addressing the internal politics of their own people.
Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.