As the world woke up on a February morning to the much predicted election victory of the far-right leader, so the expressions of concern and moral indignation immediately began to mount.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair recognized that the election was democratic but warned that “It is also true the world has suffered horribly in the past century at the hands of leaders who have used the tools of democracy to undermine the spirit and purpose of democracy. There are reasons for us to remain watchful.”
The German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder dismissed suggestions that the principle in non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries prevented Europe from expressing its justifiable concern about what a man with a known record might do. Indeed it is Europe’s moral duty to speak out, said Schroeder, who also warned, “We will be watching very closely and will take appropriate steps. There is always concern when countries do not deal with their past.”
French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine warned that France might be “obliged to reduce bilateral relations to the lowest level.”
Even the United States, long an ally, said that it would have to review its relations. And so it was not long before Austria, found itself at the receiving end of unprecedented diplomatic sanctions and opprobrium for electing almost exactly a year ago the Freedom Party, led by Joerg Haider, a man said to have admired Hitler’s employment policies and to be opposed to immigration.
So Austrians could be forgiven if they start to feel more than a little exasperated when they read the congratulations–at worst muted rather than enthusiastic–that have been pouring in for Israel’s prime minister-elect Ariel Sharon.
U.S. President George Bush was the first to congratulate Sharon, saying he looked forward to working with him, and assuring him that U.S.-Israeli relations are “rock solid.” One wonders if Bush had even heard of Sharon more than a few weeks ago, so pleased does the American President appear when he manages to complete a sentence or pronounce a name without tripping up.
The very same Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder assured that Germany would “together with its European partners and bearing in mind its close relations with Israel, continue to work for a global, lasting and just peace in the region.”
And the same Mr. Vedrine was also much more cautious after Sharon’s victory saying that “France had no intention of prejudging Sharon,” and that “we will evaluate him in the light of his actions and the facts.”
Speaking for the United Kingdom, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook declared that “The Israeli people have made their choice and we will of course work with the person they have chosen as Prime Minister.”
Several Scandinavian countries have made mild bleats of concern, such as Sweden’s prime minister who said of Mr. Sharon’s program for making peace with the Palestinians entirely on his own terms that “There are of course many worrying signals in those statements. But on the other hand he is now elected, it was a democratic election, and he now has to take responsibility for the process.”
Indeed we shall see. But it is hard not to wonder at the breathtaking hypocrisy of those who seized on the Austrian election to castigate a man, Joerg Haider, who certainly had elements of an ugly ideology, but had none of the record of Sharon, whose racist Arab-hating philosophy and blood curdling record is well-known and need not be repeated here. There is no doubt at all that if Sharon were a Serb or a Rwandan the fact that he was democratically elected would not stand in the way of sealed indictments, demands he be handed over for trial to an international court, and sanctimonious admonitions that we must never never forget the past. It seems that only some of the past is worth learning from.
In the end, Sharon’s election may not make that much difference to the Middle East. Barak’s iron fist policy of mass killing and maiming and collective punishment of Palestinians, and his revival of death squads in the occupied territories were already pulling the region towards war. But a difference may yet be felt in the international approach to Israel notwithstanding the welcome Sharon’s election has received among his fellow democrats.
There is precedent for this: I have always thought that the man most unfairly treated by the “West” and particularly the media is former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He was the one Israeli that you were allowed to hate, that you were allowed to say bad things about in the media. And yet did he kill even a fraction of the number of Palestinians that Barak did? Did he open fire on Palestinian Israeli citizens then arrogantly refuse to take responsibility for the policies of a state that treats one fifth of its population as if their lives don’t matter? Did he build as many settlements as Barak? Did he impose collective punishment on a whole nation as Barak has done? Did he fail to implement an agreement he signed to withdraw from occupied territory as Barak failed to do? No he did not. And remember that when Netanyahu attempted and failed to assassinate one Hamas leader in Amman it raised more international outrage than the cold blooded executions ordered by Barak of nearly twenty Palestinian leaders and activists. The “West” did not criticize any of Barak’s actions because the “bold and unprecedented compromises” Barak was misleadingly said to have made gave him a blank check to do whatever he wanted to the Palestinians as long as they refused to sign onto the American-Israeli take-it-or-leave-it plan for a truncated statelet under permanent Israeli control. Barak we must never forget was a “peacemaker.”
But it is Barak’s record of ruthless brutality that leads most Palestinians living under Israeli military rule to conclude “Barak, Sharon, Netanyahu, they are all the same.”
So the lesson of Netanyahu is only that there may yet be criticism of Sharon, and this is the chief and perhaps only advantage of his election from the perspective of Palestinians. The question in the end is will any of it matter if the “West” is not willing to fundamentally reassess its relationship with Israel and its indulgence for a state that has violated and continues to violate almost every precept of international law. Will it continue to view the conflict between a dispossessed and occupied indigenous people and a militarily powerful European settler state as one “between equals” who must resolve their difference “through negotiations” as if an enormous imbalance in power did not dictate how those “negotiations” will turn out?
For Palestinians the only choice is to work harder to build solidarity among all movements for human rights around the world, of which the Palestinian struggle is only one part. The “West” too has a choice and perhaps an opportunity to help the Israeli people decide whether they want to move towards true peace based on full equality among all human beings and giving up the privilege of ruling over another people for their own benefit, as it helped the whites of South Africa to understand that they could not go on with Apartheid for ever. Or the “West” can continue to sit by and watch as the conflict between Zionists and Palestinians continues into its second century.
The “West” has a strange moral compass. On rare occasions it points where you think it will, but mostly it spins around in erratic directions and you never know quite where it will end up.