The return of an Israeli opposition

The dramatic defeat of Shimon Peres and election of Amir Peretz as Israeli Labor leader, has spurred debate about the possibility of change on the internal Israeli political scene and its potential effect on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Since the change on the Palestinian side–the absence of Yasser Arafat and the election of Mahmoud Abbas–many have been looking for a change in Israel to match the Palestinian leadership’s enthusiasm for renewing negotiations toward a political solution.

Ariel Sharon follows an ideology and politics that is incompatible with a peace based on international legality, and the greater his strength the less are the reasons for optimism that the ongoing violence and unilateralism can be replaced with bilateral peaceful political negotiations. One of the characteristics of internal Israeli politics in the last three to four years has been the absence of any real opposition, thus leaving the right wing unaccountable.

The victory for Peretz has two interesting consequences. One is the near guarantee that Israel is going to move back to a two-party system after almost becoming a one-party state. In other words, the government is going to be faced with opposition. Furthermore, that opposition may not just be a rejuvenated Labor party under young and enthusiastic leadership: such a party might well be able to gather other forces around it clamoring for change, whether political, ideological or social. This has already led to the second consequence, a change in the composition of the Israeli government and early elections.

Recent Palestinian success in reducing violence, the obvious Palestinian desire to replace confrontations with negotiations, international recognition of Abbas as a partner for peace and the deep and extensive process of Palestinian democratization through the long season of elections have all exposed the unilateral practices of the current Israeli government for what they are. An Israeli opposition with a credible peace program might just be able to gain support both internally and internationally. This has created some excitement, in Israel and Palestine as well as in international circles, that we may soon see the end of the current political stagnation.

It has been extremely frustrating in the past few years, especially this last year, not to see any significant signs of life from the peace camp in Israel. Among the different reasons, one can specify the combination of a strong right wing government faced with a weak, even absent political opposition. The reemergence of the Labor party as a viable opposition force might revive the fortunes of the Israeli peace camp, which has traditionally played a significant role in raising awareness in Israel and in creating bridges through dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians on governmental, semi-governmental and non-governmental levels.

The Palestinian side, which has rightly tried to keep its distance from internal Israeli politics, is watching developments carefully in the hope that they will lead to an end to the Israeli unilateral strategy–and unilateral practices establishing facts on the ground such as the ever-continuing and illegal settlement expansion program so hazardous to the two-state solution–and its replacement by bilateral peace negotiations.

The international community is also watching with interest to see if the coming Palestinian elections in January and early Israeli elections in March will create respective internal situations more conducive to peace.