Weighing the Options: The Next Path for Israel / Palestine

Given the recent political death of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, many in Israel and the Occupied Territories are wondering who will the former premier’s spot. Likewise, Palestinians and Israelis are closely watching to see who will govern Palestinian society. The Palestinians engage in the political process first–”with parliamentary elections on January 25. The question on how smoothly they will run still remains. It is of the utmost importance that Palestinian elections proceed unobstructed by Israel, including Occupied East Jerusalem. Differing reports emerged regarding whether or not Israel will allow voting in East Jerusalem, yet the latest reports state acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will give into US pressure and allow Palestinians to vote by absentee ballot.

The outcome of the January elections may affect Israelis at the polling stations this March. It is thought that the militant group, Hamas, will do exceedingly well in the upcoming parliamentary elections, mirroring what they accomplished in local municipal elections over the last year. Hamas unexpectedly won 73 percent of the vote in local municipal elections in the West Bank town of Nablus last December. It is not clear how many of the 132 seats Hamas (running as the Change and Reform ticket) will win on January 25. Recent polls suggest Hamas may capture 40 percent of the vote, as Fatah falls further out of favor in the eyes of Palestinians. According to United Press International, the Shin Bet–”Israel’s internal security agency–”predicts that Fatah will edge out Hamas for the 66 parliamentary seats that are distributed on a national proportional basis but foresees Hamas dominating in the 66 seats elected by districts.

Hamas’ rise to power can be attributed to its extensive social programs for poor Palestinians coupled with the disarray and corruption that has consumed Fatah–”Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen’s ruling party. Fatah’s infighting, between the younger generation, who is infuriated by Fatah’s lack of reform, and the old guard, strengthens the unified position of Hamas.

The Israeli reaction to a strong Hamas showing and possible victory can go a few ways. The likely reaction is to elect hard-core Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who incidentally has led the party further to the right in recent weeks. Yet the Israeli public will have two months to digest the results of the elections. Israelis were given a taste of the new Hamas when multiple Israeli newspapers indicated that a more “tempered” Hamas may be arising. The Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, stated that Hamas did not call for the destruction of Israel in its platform and “Diplomatically, the platform does not differ substantially from that of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction.” This “tempered” Hamas position was reinforced by an earlier Shin Bet report which found that only one Israeli death in 2005 could be attributed to the military wing of Hamas. The majority of the Israeli public has a strong disdain for the group, following suicide bombings carried out in the 1990’s and more recently in the first few years of the second intifada.

It must be noted that the Sharm Al Sheik cease-fire expired at the end of December and though remaining cautious, Hamas reserves the right to use armed resistance against Israel. One assumes the right to armed resistance will be used if Israel begins a large military campaign against the group. Haaretz reported that insiders believe Acting Prime Minister Olmert will step up attacks against the Occupied Territories to show Israel that he’s strong enough to lead, while it was not said whether or not this would include Hamas. Although military action has not been used against Hamas yet, Israel has arrested many members leading up to the Palestinian elections.

An aggressive military stance against Hamas could lead to Olmert’s demise. Since the group has restrained itself, inducing a fight or resumption of violence may swing voters over to hard-lined Netanyahu. It is in the interests of Olmert to have a “tempered” Hamas, so that he can continue down the “road to peace,” as Ariel Sharon was supposedly doing.

Olmert must remember the Sharon model: replace peace with security. During the last year of Sharon’s reign, the suffering of Israelis lessened, while off the brutality of the occupation raged on–”which in large part can be attributed to the Sharm Al Sheik cease-fire as the Shin Bet asserted. Continuing the trend of a “safer” Israel is vital if Olmert wants to be the next prime minister of Israel.

Many Israelis argue that Netanyahu is what the Israeli people need; a strongman that can confront the militant groups in light of the Palestinian Authority’s hands off approach. But a fight for a third intifada will only lead to more death, more suicide bombings, more dead Israelis, many more dead Palestinians, and the deplorable face of occupation will only become worse. Electing Olmert, however, is electing more of the same–”a Netanyahu-light. Under Olmert, the occupation will continue unabated, as will extrajudicial assassinations, the construction of the Apartheid Wall, home demolitions, land confiscations, mass arrests, checkpoints, flying checkpoints, curfews, and the endless restrictions that strangulate Palestinian society.

The question remains: what is best for the Israeli and Palestinian people? First, the implementation of the principals of democracy without interference is essential in the Occupied Territories. This will not only reinforce a democratic foundation in the territories but will give Israel a true representation of the Palestinian people, although many in the Israeli government may not want this. Unfortunately, the majority of the Knesset rarely reflects popular opinion on the occupation. As noted by former Knesset member and longtime peace activist Uri Avnery, leading candidates for the premiership obsess over the Judaization of Jerusalem, while 49 percent of Israelis recently polled would divide Jerusalem to reach a peace deal with Palestinians.

Despite the fact that many in the Israeli government are out of touch with the public, new choices are sprouting in both Israel as well as the Occupied Territories. The new head of the Labor Party in Israel, Amir Peretz, a Moroccan Jew who was first elected to the Knesset in 1988, is a new way “forward” for Israelis. Peretz is a firm believer in social justice: part of his platform includes the eradication of child poverty, the protection of worker rights, the raising of minimum wage, and the strengthening of the middle class. Peretz is seen as a strong advocate of a two state solution and endorses the Geneva Accords. Peretz stated in an interview with Labor Start “I see the occupation as an immoral act,” however, he sees ending the occupation as “an Israeli interest” rather than ending the occupation “because of international or Palestinian pressure.”

We must be honest with ourselves; Peretz is not the perfect candidate for the Palestinian people. With his election alone, peace will not flourish. While he is a proponent of the Geneva Accords, the initiative would fail like the Oslo Accords, which were both co-created by “dovish” Yossi Beilin. The “fruits of Oslo” was the Camp David summit in 2000 which offered the Palestinian people more than had ever been offered before (as said by Phyllis Bennis). But this doesn’t make it acceptable on the basis of international law or a population’s indigenous rights. The Geneva Accords like the Oslo Accords pushes a system of Apartheid, yet it’s presented as autonomy.

Nonetheless, Peretz is surely leaning in the right direction, and it must not be discounted, that given the right political climate, he would make further concessions to expunge the “immoral act” of occupation. Uri Avnery wrote, “Amir Peretz supports a serious peace program: negotiations with the Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian state, on the basis of the borders of 1967.” The first ingredient to formulate the realization of a Palestinian state, autonomy and viability for its people relies on the election of Amir Peretz.

Similarly, a new choice must emerge in the Occupied Territories. The Palestinian Authority, led by Fatah, is an ineffective representative of the Palestinian people. Regrettably, Abu Mazen is not interested in what’s best for the Palestinians. He has been too busy juggling the interests of America and Israel to realize that, first and foremost, he is the representative of the Palestinian people. Appeasement and consolidating political power will bring Palestinians nowhere. It will not rebuild their schools, pave their roads, or feed their children. And it will surely not end the occupation that has plagued their lives for the last 38 years.

The election of Hamas may shake out the corruption of Fatah as well as positively affect the social aspects of Palestinian society and the essential rebuilding process. Nevertheless, Hamas is not the answer. Palestinians must drive on democratic principals (not western democratic principals), as the late Edward Said said, by implementing “a concept of citizenship whereby every individual has the same citizen’s rights, based not on race or religion, but on equal justice for each person guaranteed by a constitution.” While Palestinians recognize the right to armed struggle, they must also realize that armed struggle in the past five years has led them nowhere, only pushing away the inevitable, living in peace in a land also inhabited by Jews. The answer to the oppression of occupation is not the taking up of arms, but the movement of mass non-violent demonstration, civil disobedience, and an outreach to the world that says yes, Palestine is occupied, Palestine is suffering, yet Palestine is resisting with the moral upper-hand.

Two important lists are running on independent tickets. The first is the Third Way, which, albeit headed by Salam Fayyad, includes long time PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) spokeswoman and secretary-general of MIFTAH (The Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy) Hanan Ashrawi. An ardent subscriber of Palestinian rights, equality and the spread of democracy, Ashrawi is a tough and dedicated candidate for the Palestinian people. The Christian Science Monitor quoted Ashrawi, “We’re using the elections as a launching pad. This is a group of people who are likeminded, who want good governance, peacemaking, and democracy to be part of the vision.” The ticket under which she is running received 5.5 percent support under a recent Palestinian poll conducted by An Najah National University: The Center for Opinion Polls and Survey Studies. Ashrawi is known in international circles as an intelligent, articulate spokesman for the Palestinian people.

The other ticket that has come forth is Independent Palestine led by Mustafa Al Barghouti. Running second to Abu Mazen in the presidential election last year, Barghouti is a longtime grassroots activist and writer. He co-founded the Palestinian National Initiative with Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi, Mr. Ibrahim Dakak and the late Edward Said. In the An Najah University poll Independent Palestine garnered 10.4 percent of the vote.

In an article entitled The Truth You Don’t Hear Barghouti wrote, “Our [Palestinian] demand is for an international peace conference where resolution to the conflict would be returned to its basis in international law, and where the ICJ [International Court of Justice] advisory ruling [on the Apartheid Wall] would be addressed.” Barghouti further stated, “The Palestinians deserve to be freed from the long-term suffering they have endured through 600 years of foreign rule, 58 years of dispossession and 38 years of a military occupation that has become the longest in modern history.” Rejecting colonial rule in return for negotiations and non-violent activism is concept that both Barghouti and Ashrawi promote.

The Palestinian people cannot see independence with only the election of Amir Peretz. The Israeli people cannot see security with only the election of democratic progressives such as Barghouti and Ashrawi. They need each other. Two people: one land. Bilateral negotiations are fundamental in recognizing and engaging with the other side. The way of the future for Israel and Palestine is not Apartheid, not separation, but unification and integration. Nobody is so foolish to think this process will happen overnight. But with the elections in January and March, the Israeli and Palestinian people can take the first step toward a just resolution to the conflict.