Monday, April 5, 2004

Sharon’s crisis

Crisis is writ large over current Israel politics. Sharon has announced that Israel is to pull out of the Gaza strip and disband the 20 settlements populated by 7,500 settlers. He is presently working out the details of his plan with the United States government and the finished project is to emerge from Sharon’s meeting with Bush in less than two weeks. The ‘new reality’ will, it appears, be consecrated in an exchange of letters between the two leaders.

Sharon’s intentions are both simple and clear. Israel must shorten its lines and solidify U.S. support for a new status quo which will include tacit, if not explicit U.S. approval for permanent Israeli control of most of the West Bank. . Inaction, according to Sharon, is dangerous in that it invites new diplomatic initiatives that would center on plans similar to the Road Map and the Geneva Accords.

Sharon has a slight problem. He, his own party and large segments of his coalition have been telling the people all along that any pull back is tantamount to a retreat in the face of terror. It is, therefore, not surprising that more than half his coalition and his own Likud parliamentary faction are against the pull back. His opponents on the right can simply quote his own recent statements and slogans against leaving the Gaza region.

Sharon was forced to agree to a poll of the Likud membership on the approval of the pull-out, as this was the only way he might show that he was speaking for the majority of his constituency. It is a very tight time table. Sharon meets with Bush on April 14, 2004 and 200,000 Likud members go to the polls two-three weeks later to decide the fate of the initiative. Spearheaded by the settlers (in the Gaza region) and the entire settler movement, the religious fundamentalists and their secular allies are mounting a do or die campaign against the planned evacuation of the Gush Katif settlements. The intense media coverage of the battles in the right convey a sense that we all have ring side seats for the greatest fight since the one between Gog and Magog.The media, and many naïve souls being lured into seeing this as a battle between a legally constituted government and its elected prime-minister, enjoying majority support in public opinion, on one hand, and the forces of the messianic fundamentalist radical right, on the other hand. In the looming battle, the settlers intend to exploit every conceivable legal and illegal option to thwart the pull-out. Could this be the great fissure in Israeli society? Are we approaching a new stage wherein hegemony passes from the annexationist right to a centrist government ready for a compromise with the Palestinians. Is Arik Sharon the DeGaulle, for whom many have hoped and dreamed?

Naturally enough, the main story in the media for the last two weeks has been Sharon and Co. versus the settler-based coalition. Tension is high between the factions. The settler right has even embraced the “rule of law” lobby in Israel, which is calling for Sharon’s indictment on graft and bribery charges. The settlers would like very much to see the pull-out initiative buried at Sharon’s political funeral. Sharon, it is assumed would have to resign if Israel’ s Attorney General, Mazoz decides to support an indictment, in line with the current consensus in the Prosecutor’s Office. Any way you look at the present situation, crisis is writ large over the face of the Israeli political system. Even without the corruption cloud hanging over his head - he might be forced to resign over the scandals, at any time over the next several months - it is far from certain that Sharon, or anyone else on the right for that matter, would deign to violate the sanctity of the settlement project. Media coverage to the contrary, it is still unclear whether Sharon, himself, is really willing to take on the settlers, or whether he can survive their determination to push the country to the edge of rebellion and even, civil war.

Even though it is assumed that Sharon and his challengers will hold this ‘democratic’ contest for the hearts of the Likud voters, after Sharon returns from his meeting with Bush , it is very far from certain that this 200,000 party member vote will ever take place. The full scale party referendum, for which there are no procedural guidelines, is a product of a last-minute face saving maneuver to hide Sharon’s weakness. Thus, both sides, locked in battle, will have ample opportunities to challenge the legality of the procedures involved. Even so, the battle for the votes of the Likud membership has begun and it is a dirty affair indeed. The settler-based faction is accusing Sharon of giving in to terror. In ‘reply’, Sharon’s campaign is being fueled with the blood of Palestinian leaders and activists and with threats for bigger and more atrocious acts against the Palestinians. As we write, his latest threat to assassinate Arafat and Hizballah leader, Nasrallah, is headline news of the day.

Sharon’s strategy is guided by his fear and hatred of the Palestinians and his goal of avoiding any meaningful negotiations. As much as he will chafe over his inability to maneuver the country as he sees fit, as much as he takes pride in his own political wisdom as distinct from the political blindness of the settler-based coalition of fundamentalists, it is questionable that he can meet their challenge head on and demonstrate real control of the country. As long as Sharon continues to spew anti-Palestinian hatred into the country’s body politic, he strengthens the credibility of his opponents on the right. If there is, according to Sharon, no chance of an agreement with the Palestinians and a peaceful resolution of the conflict, why let Bush and his advisors contemplate any restrictions, looking forward or backward, on the settlement project. The settlers are probably right in arguing that Sharon’s scheme will not and cannot alter the basic contours of the conflict and the positions of the major international players.

The Labor Party and Peres hope for a showdown between Sharon and the settlers and are eager for a crisis that would catapult them into the coalition. It is not enough for them to promise parliamentary support to Sharon for the pull back. Indeed, given the possibility of a straightforward Knesset vote for or against a pull-back- without annexationist riders - all the center and even the left (including Yahad, Hadash and the Arab parties), would probably raise their hands to prevent Sharon from losing the vote on the specific issue of the pull out of Gaza.

Unfortunately, there are political forces associated with the Labor Party and some influential people in the Yahad Party (formerly MERETZ) who feel the need to give either open or tacit support to Sharon’s overall policy by backing a unilateral retreat as the only solution to the current confrontation with the Palestinians. It is to be understood that backing for some sort (or any sort) of a unilateral pull-back has become the escape route out of the peace movement ever since Ehud Barak’s ignominious impact on the mainstream doves. Barak, it will be recalled, summed up the lesson of the Camp David fiasco by claiming that he had saved Israel by proving that there is ‘no partner’ for negotiations . For weak-willed and opportunistic doves, it is not really important whether or not it is true that there is no partner for negotiations. It is enough for them that it just too difficult, in the present stage of hostility and suspicion to try and convince the public otherwise. Sharon is against negotiations with the Palestinians in principle, while the weaker links in the center and the left follow his unilateral withdrawal scheme because they find it difficult to tell the truth to the public that there is a partner for peace and that any attempt to bypass the Palestinians is fated to fail.

For a while, immediately after the launching of the Geneva Accords, it had become rather difficult for Israel’s mainstream doves to tail after Sharon and his schemes. The Geneva success went a long way in overcoming the official mantra about Israel not having anyone with whom to negotiate. However, if there is ‘no partner’ (or, if it is unpopular to insist that there really is such a partner), then support for unilateral withdrawal seems more “in” than tolerating the status quo, especially, if one is tempted, despite all historical experience, into accepting Sharon’s credibility. Thus, we witness the unsavory spectacle of some ‘leaders’ in the Zionist center-left who find it convenient to turn their backs on the Geneva initiative.

It was especially unpleasant to see those in control Peace Now, slip and slide into the unilateral retreat trap. Peace Now, still traumatized by Barak’s line of making peace without the Palestinians, has been in a long-standing political and organizational identity crisis. It gave lip service to the Geneva Accords at the height of their popularity, but started a quick retreat when it turned out that Peres and the Labor Party were not interested in Geneva. Peres prefers, for the time being, to exploit Sharon’s troubles in order to pave Labor’s road back into the government. Peace Now’s announced a campaign this week aimed ‘against settlements’ – dropping its opposition to ‘the settlements’, and abandoning its previous more radical demand to leave all the territories. As there was not a word about Geneva or an agreement with the Palestinians in it, the campaign, was correctly interpreted in the media and political circles as thinly disguised support for unilateral withdrawal, and Sharon. It was clear to all concerned that the traditional leadership, to the dismay of many of its activists, had lurched to the right and turned its back on their own comrades in the Geneva formation.

Admittedly, it is rather convenient, for the moment, here in Israel, to turn one’s back on peace and the Palestinians, and to try and ignore international realities. It is simpler to line up along the momentary consensus in the broad public for Sharon against the settler-based fanatics. But, since there is really, after all is said and done, a Palestinian partner for meaningful negotiations and peace, Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal ploy is a phony alternative sabotaging the real possibilities for moving forward towards a settlement.