Polls indicate that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is heading toward a landslide victory in the Jan. 28 Israeli election. Given his performance during his short tenure, his widespread support is astounding.
Although Mr. Sharon is still considered to be Mr. Security, people are less secure today than before he took office 20 months ago. Since the eruption of the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, Sept. 29, 2000, the day after Mr. Sharon visited the Temple Mount, 681 Israelis have been killed and 4,823 have been wounded, the majority in the past 20 months, Israeli army figures show.
Mr. Sharon’s reduction of politics to a question of military tactics has foreclosed all diplomatic initiatives and aided the collapse of the Israeli economy. This year, he slashed the budget by 11 percent, cutting social security pensions and basic health care provisions.
Israel is experiencing negative economic growth of 1.8 percent, foreign investors have fled and tourists have become a rare species on the Israeli landscape. Unemployment has risen to 10.4 percent, and a third of the country’s wage earners now live below the poverty line, which is $4,440 annually for a single person and $11,280 a year for a family of four. Inflation – at 8 percent – has nearly tripled in the past year.
Mr. Sharon’s Likud Party has been mired in scandal since it was revealed that Likud parliamentary contenders paid bribes to be elected as the party’s representatives in the Knesset, or parliament.
Any other prime minister with a record half as bad as this would have been driven out of office, tail between his legs. Yet Mr. Sharon is more popular today then ever before as the election approaches. Running against him for prime minister is the Labor Party’s Amram Mitzna, mayor of Haifa and, like Mr. Sharon, a former general.
In an effort to explain his success, Israeli political analysts have claimed that during these extremely unstable times Mr. Sharon has managed to project a sense of confidence and solidity; he is perceived by the public as a fatherly figure, an Israeli Ataturk.
His success largely has to do with Israel having been hijacked. The kidnappers are not members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, but rather a small and highly organized group of Israeli religious zealots – the leaders of the Jewish settlement movement.
These settlers have held the Israeli public hostage for 20 months by capturing the national agenda. Since a just peace is antithetical to their interests, the settlers’ leaders have been undermining all attempts to negotiate with the Palestinians even though, without peace, blood will continue to flow and the economy will fall apart.
Mr. Sharon, who for decades has championed the settlers’ cause, is now benefiting from his ties with their movement, if only because the Israeli public is exhibiting a form of national “Stockholm syndrome” – the tendency of hostages to identify with their captors.
While Mr. Sharon’s popularity will probably last for some time, the inherent contradictions underlying Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are beginning to manifest themselves.
Israel is not only spending billions of dollars that it does not have to support these settlements but, more importantly, this policy has transformed the country into an apartheid regime.
It has introduced a segregated road system in the occupied territories, transforming all major arteries into roads for Jews only. Palestinian villages and towns have consequently been turned into islands, hindering the population’s access to medical facilities, work and education. (According to UNICEF, nearly 250,000 Palestinian children cannot reach schools.)
Not surprisingly, the Palestinian economy has also collapsed. A recent Israeli military report states that between 60 percent and 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, according to an article in the newspaper Haaretz that quotes Gen. Amos Gilad, the government’s coordinator in the territories. He based his data on a World Bank report.
The South African case teaches, however, that segregation and suppression ultimately lead to the oppressor’s economic collapse, particularly when massive military forces must sustain unethical government policies.
Accordingly, Israel’s next prime minister may have to face up to the fact that the settlements are destroying the Zionist project that initiated and supported them. They have come back to haunt the Zionist dream, turning it into a nightmare.
Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. Some of his articles recently appeared in The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent edited by Roane Carey and Jonathan Shainin (The New Press 2002).
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