Radical trend can still be reversed

The results of the Israeli elections–a clear victory for the right wing bloc and further marginalization of the left–have proven correct the fears of many analysts that Israeli society is drifting to the right and that this is part of a general trend of radicalization in the region that includes Palestinian society as well.

While the Arab countries around Israel and others involved in trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are looking at what immediate steps they need to take to deal with the results of these elections, it is useful also to examine the factors that led to the radicalization of both Palestinians and Israelis. This is especially so since the growing strength of the right and radical elements in the two societies reinforce each other.

The emergence of Ariel Sharon, with his rightwing and radical views, and the perception among Israelis that he was the strong leader they needed, contributed directly to the emergence of Hamas as a dominant party in Palestinian politics. Subsequently and correspondingly, Hamas’ election victory and its takeover of Gaza strengthened the rightwing in Israel.

With this in mind, there are three main recommendations that need to be taken into consideration by the governments trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The first, and most important, is the need for continuous diplomatic activity by the international community to keep the hope of a peaceful and negotiated end to the conflict alive and maintain some strength and power for the peace camps on the two sides. Such a role is required mainly from the US and other active members in the international community.

The new US administration seems more aware of this role than the previous one and will hopefully maintain an active and engaged diplomacy that can contribute to either slowing or reversing the trend of radicalization.

The second is the need to end those measures and activities of the Israeli occupation that provoke hostile reactions from Palestinians. The history of relations between the two sides, especially since the beginning of the peace process in the early 1990s, shows that the Israeli expansion of illegal settlements in occupied territory is the single most damaging factor in undermining any peace effort and weakening the arguments of the peace camp in Palestinian society. It is therefore a major cause of radicalization among Palestinians.

There are other Israeli measures, such as restrictions on the movement of individual Palestinians and Palestinian products, which also need to end. But these are partially a result of the settlement policy. In spite of the verbal opposition to these practices from almost every single country in the world, including the US, there has yet to be serious pressure on Israel to desist. That needs to change.

Third, it has to be clear that it is difficult to isolate public opinion in Israel and Palestine from general changes in the region, including at the public level. The current complicated and deteriorating situation in the region resulted mainly from mistakes in American Middle East policy and has created a regional situation that is not conducive to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Consequently, the regional situation has had a radicalizing effect on both.

The tension between the US and Iran, the latter’s nuclear program, the violence and chaos in Iraq, the alliances between anti-American regimes and independently armed political movements such as Hizballah and Hamas in addition to the failure of the social and economic development processes in most countries of the region have all contributed to radicalization region-wide, which in turn affects public opinion in Palestine and Israel.

The victory of the rightwing in Israel should not discourage the new US administration, the peace camps or progressive forces in the region, however. On the contrary, it should engender new approaches to the conflict of the kind that takes into consideration the mistakes of the past. The recent deterioration in the conflict and the region can be reversed, even if only gradually, with close attention and active diplomacy based on respect for international legality.

Israeli public opinion is usually very sensitive to serious messages from the West, especially the US. The right-wing tendencies of the previous American administration were partially responsible for the rise to power of the Israeli rightwing. The behavior of the US in Iraq also encouraged and justified Israeli behavior vis-a-vis the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

A different approach by a new US administration to the region and the conflict will also receive significant support from the international community, especially in Europe where people and governments have for years been frustrated by US policy.