Sunday, March 26, 2006

Israel elections: Not boring at all

Remind me why the current parliamentary elections taking place in a small country in the Middle East with about six million citizens is probably receiving MORE coverage in the American media than a race for the Governorship of, say, New York or California? There was a time when the results of an election in Israel could have determined whether the U.S. would have been able to pursue the "peace process." Well, no peace processing is going to take place any time soon. If you want to know why read my recent analysis "How to Handle Hamas. The Holy Land needs a more modest peace plan. Think Cyprus," in The American Conservative which was posted earlier on this blog, in which I argued that the peace process is for all practical purposes dead. I suggest in my piece that all we can hope for under the current conditions is some sort of a separation between the two communities. I agree with what The Economist suggested in recent leader, "The remarkable survival of Kadima",that Kadima under Ehud Olmert is going to win and that it will continue to pursue a policy of unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank because that's what the majority of Israelis want to see happening. But I also agree with the Economist that:
There is, however, unilateralism and unilateralism. If Mr Olmert's ultimate objective is peace, his unilateral steps must be designed to make negotiation feasible, not to block it altogether or harden the hearts of Palestinians still more. That requires moderating Israel's territorial appetite. As presently envisaged, Mr Olmert's barrier bites big lumps off the West Bank, locks the Palestinians out of Jerusalem and inflicts severe hardship on the people who live in the barrier's path. If the years of killing prove anything, it is that neither side can impose its terms on the other. Hard as it will be now that it is Hamas that is its counterpart, Israel needs to show that when negotiation comes, there will still be enough room left for an independent Palestinian state worthy of the name.
I'm not sure that Olmert is going to follow this advice and I doubt very much that the Bush Administration is going to press him to move in that direction because of many reasons, including American politics.
But... I also think that the Israeli elections are very, very interesting and quite remarkable. I pointed out why in a recent commentary on post-Sharon Israeli politics: "Goodbye, Greater Israel; Hello . . . What?"::
Even if Mickey Mouse were elected as the next Israeli prime minister, there would not be any major change in the current Israeli approach. Most Israelis accepted Sharon’s nationalist agenda as an alternative to the two competing fantasies—on the one hand, the messianic Greater Israel in which the Jews would be able to maintain forever their control over the entire land between Jordan and the Mediterranean, and, on the other, the New Middle East vision, according to which the region was to enter the postnationalist age of globalization in which Israelis and Palestinians would do “cool stuff” together on the internet and forget about insignificant “old” issues, such as religious sites, territories, and refugees. According to the latest statistics, there is already a non-Jewish Arab majority in the area that encompasses Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and the majority of Jewish voters in Israel recognize that perpetuating Israeli control over the occupied territories, or Greater Israel, would mean that their state would either be transformed into a Middle Eastern South Africa or cease to be an exclusive Jewish state and become a binational one. Israelis have concluded, in the aftermath of the second Intifada and September 11, that the New Middle East has remained the same old Middle East. That is why the majority of Israeli voters, bidding farewell to Greater Israel and the New Middle East, were planning to vote for Sharon’s new party, Kadima. And that is why the party, even under the leadership of the less charismatic Ehud Olmert, will probably win the coming parliamentary election.
There is something comforting in the nonromantic nationalist vision that Sharon has projected and which Olmert and his political allies want to implement: a compact Israeli state, protected by a security fence, a strong military, and a few nuclear bombs, that has a clear Jewish majority and is supported by the United States and the West. In a way, it is an “isolationist” vision that assumes that Israel could “disengage” herself from the old Middle East and all those crazy Arabs, including the angry but weak Palestinians who will reside in a congested Gaza and in a few Bantustan-like small and dispersed cantons in the West Bank, which could perhaps become once again part of Jordan. According to this least-bad scenario, the Jewish commonwealth will live in security—but not in eternal peace—and focus its energy on building a sophisticated economy that could one day become an associate member of the European Union.

But here is the problem, as pointed in the same piece:
The problem is that, while the United States could disengage from the Middle East, and the Europeans, notwithstanding their large Arab immigrant population, have the luxury of a Turkey and the Mediterranean separating them from the Arabs, Israel is an integral part of the Middle East, located smack in the center of the Arab world. Even if the Israelis were to withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank, as they had done in the Gaza Strip, the Jewish state would still have a large minority of close to 25 percent, consisting of Palestinian-Arab citizens (as well as about a half-million “other” non-Jews, including Russian immigrants and foreign workers). These Arab citizens make up a majority in such areas as Galilee and have very high birthrates—“Ahmed” is now the most popular name for Israeli babies—and will insist on maintaining their cultural and political autonomy and will perhaps even attempt to secede from Israel. And will the more than two million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza just disappear into the Middle Eastern sunset? Against the backdrop of growing economic desperation, political chaos, and rising crime, the militant Hamas is gaining more and more power among the Palestinians (as demonstrated by their recent election victories); as it gets closer to power, Israel will discover a ticking time bomb right next to her security fence.[This was written before the Hamas victory]While the scenario drawn up by the “Sharonists” suggests that the withdrawal from Gaza and most of the West Bank is a process aimed at consolidating the Jewish state and ensuring its viability as a political entity in the Middle East, a more depressing scenario advanced by the Palestinians and mirroring the fears evoked by Sharon’s critics on the political right sees these withdrawals as a sign of the weakening resolve of the Jews in the Holy Land and the first stage in the crumbling of their state. Sharon was confident that all the Israeli Jews need in order to avoid that tragic fate was strong military power. But Sharon’s successors should ask themselves whether security fences and nuclear bombs alone can guarantee Israel’s long-term survival.

So... this elections are very interesting because the Israelis have decided to withdraw from most of the Palestinian territories and to do that without any peace agreement with the Palestinians and at a time when Hamas has gained power. The Israelis are doing that because they are very exhausted and hope that a unilateral withdrawal behind a fence would provide them not only with security but also with a sense of "normality." Olmert, the first Israeli Prime Minister without any national security experience, either as a combat military officer or as a member of the national security establishment, reflects that Israeli mood. I'm not sure that this strategy is going to work. It would not only face a challenge from Hamas and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who will continue to demand complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, but also from the large Israeli-Arab population (about 20 to 25 percent of the citizens) as well as the angry radical Zionists who support the Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
There are also two other interesting developments that the elections have highlighted: First, the rising power of the Russian immigrants who are going probably to provide one of their own, Avigdor Lieberman who leads a nationalist party (Israel Beitenu) with at least ten seats in the Knesset. Secondly, the transformation of Labor into a "normal" social democratic party that draws most of its support from Israel's working class.