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Until November 10, my prognosis of the progress of apartheid in Israel/Palestine was right on track. Sharon was on a tight time-table. With a stable government that would last until the elections in November 2006, he would move quickly to nail down the last elements of his life’s work: determining Israel’s final borders (marked by the settlements and the route of the "Separation Barrier" to the west and by the Jordan River and Dead Sea to the east) and confining the Palestinians to a truncated mini-state comprised of five or so cantons with no unsupervised borders. This would have to be done unilaterally, since Israel has absolutely nothing to offer the Palestinians that they could conceivably accept. Sharon had completed his 28-year project of establishing irreversible "facts on the ground" in the West Bank and "greater" Jerusalem. He enjoyed the support of the Bush administration and, even more important, of both parties of both houses of Congress which, in June, 2004, endorsed almost unanimously the Bush-Sharon exchange of letters that recognized Israel’s de facto annexation of its major settlement blocs. The Road Map, the only diplomatic initiative that could have salvaged the two-state solution, had become a dead letter. Within six months, I predicted, apartheid would be a done deal. Israel would officially expand to 85-90% of the country west of the Jordan, the Palestinians would be granted their cantonized (Sharon’s term) state on the remaining 10-15% and Israel’s version of the "two-state solution," shared by Likud and Labour alike, would come to fruition. Sharon could retire to his farm, having no more reason to run for a third term.
The election of Amir Peretz to head to the Labour Party changed the time-table; it remains to be seen whether it will really alter the prognosis. Not because of Peretz himself. I have no doubt that he understands the importance of a just peace for everyone concerned, the working classes of Israel first and foremost. His stated desire to resolve the conflict stems not only from a commitment to peace with the Palestinians, but arises from an understanding that the resources, distorted priorities and social polarization demanded by the Occupation cannot be reconciled with social and economic justice. "I have no intention," he stated in an interview for the Hebrew newspaper Yediot Akhronot on November 18, "of continuing the mad and fanciful campaign of massive investment in the settlements, of constructing thousands of housing units that will remain empty and highways that no one travels on, only later to have to invest additional billions to demolish them as happened with the disengagement. For years the fanciful dream of the Greater Land of Israel drained all the budgets that could have been used to close the social gaps, for health, for education, for welfare, for culture, for infrastructure. I will tell the residents of Yeruham and Kiryat Shmonei [two depressed towns in the Israeli "periphery"] that the heart-rendering drama they witnessed in Gush Katif [in Gaza, during the disengagement] when the bulldozers demolished the villas with their red-tile roofs that buried their educational and health budgets ended the era of the settlements." This is a message the Israeli peace camp has long tried to convey to the working classes. Coming from Peretz it might actually be received and make a difference.
Peretz’s election has generated great hope among many Israelis of all persuasions who have had to hunker down in sullenness over the past decade. One overriding question is, however, if Peretz is too good to be true. He is a breath of fresh air but in a party reeking of putrification. Labour has long ceased to be an alternative to the Likud; Peretz had to pry the Labour ministers out of their ministerial chairs by personally presenting them with letters of resignation they had only to sign. Peres may yet join Sharon’s party, as has another senior Labour MP, Haim Ramon, (although Peres’ family seems to be prevailing upon him not to). Top-heavy with "centrist" generals, Labour could still do to Peretz what it did to one of their own, Amram Mitzna: leave him isolated so that he loses the election and "returns" the party to them. Already one of the so-called "peace generals," Ami Ayalon, has taken upon himself the task of fashioning an "acceptable" Peretz: shedding the image of a "leftist" and avoiding complimentary comments on the Oslo process or the Geneva Accord ("I am not Geneva!" Peretz shouted repeatedly from the platform at a recent Labour meeting). In a depressing appearance on TV, Ayalon said that Labour-Peretz would insist on Israel retaining the West Bank and East Jerusalem settlement blocs and would never agree to "a single Palestinian returning to Israel proper." Whether he can retain the integrity of his ideas within his own party remains to be seen.
The up-coming election in late March is presented as a three way one pitting the left (Peretz) against the center (Sharon) and the right (Netanyahu). But it is actually a two-way race. Peretz, who can truly be called a candidate of the left in both his progressive social views and his commitment to a just peace with Palestinians, is pitted unevenly against an array of three right-wing forces: Netanyahu’s Likud which rejects any Palestinian state whatsoever; Sharon’s new "center" party which appears to favor a two-state solution but which in fact is heading for unilateral apartheid; and a Labour Party more or less in step with Sharon.
Even if Peretz prevails in the election (which is possible, despite initial polls which give Sharon a 37% to 22% lead), he faces daunting challenges. He has many fewer coalition partners than does the right. So even if he increases Labour’s share of the seats of Parliament from the present 22 to 30 (or even 35, out of 120), he is left with only tiny Meretz (maybe 5-6 seats) as a partner and perhaps an Arab party or two, making it doubtful if he can put together a government. (Rabin’s government, we should recall, suffered delegitimization because it lacked a "Jewish majority.") Sharon and Netanyahu, by contrast, will likely garner more seats separately than the Likud has today (up to 45: 30 for Sharon and 15 for the Likud), and their coalition partners extend from the secular middle-class party Shinui through the ultra-orthodox Sephardi party Shas and into coalition of extreme right-wing factions. Thus with some fence-mending and finessing between secular and religious parties, the right could probably form a government. In fact, Peretz is already under pressure from his Labour colleagues not to close the door on future coalitions with the right – a bad sign.
It’s hard to decide if the biggest threat to Peretz is the right-wing or his own erstwhile Labour Party. The danger exists that a "packaged" Peretz would lose the charm, spontaneity, sometimes brutal honesty and grassroots instincts that make him – and potentially his message and program – so attractive and different. Today’s political cartoon in Ha’aretz shows Sharon, Netanyahu and Peretz all pushing against each other to be in "the center."
Can he prevail over the system? It is doubtful, if only because of Israel’s proportional system of elections which disenfranchises voters and empowers political parties to form coalition governments that frustrate, at times even defy, the public will.
Prognosis? Gramsci speaks of "the pessimism of the intellect, the optimism of the will." If Peretz wins – a not totally impossible proposition – then the forces of peace still have a fighting chance to stave off apartheid and reach an acceptable, if not wholly just, two-state solution with the Palestinians.
If Peretz loses or fails to form a stable government, Sharon’s march to apartheid will have suffered only a minor snag. Sharon might even return with an enhanced mandate to impose a unilateral "peace." Just today he is quoted in Ha’aretz as telling the first meeting of his new party that his main goal would be "to lay the foundation for a peace in which we set the permanent borders of the state, while insisting on the dismantling of the terror organizations." He would offer the Palestinians "independence" while rejecting the fundamental principle of the two-state solution since 1967: land for peace. What does this mean? An expanded Israel incorporating the settlement blocs and a "greater" Jerusalem; the Palestinians locked into a truncated, non-viable, semi-sovereign Bantustan. The two-state solution will, in my view, have been dealt a death blow. At that stage the international civil society will have to reevaluate the nature of its struggle for a just peace in Israel/Palestine, shifting its efforts from a campaign to end the Occupation (which Sharon will claim he has ended by granting the Palestinians independence) to an anti-apartheid campaign. Since we have defeated one apartheid regime, the "optimism of the will" should sustain us in the dark times we may be about to enter.
Peretz, indeed, or bust.
JEFF HALPER is the Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.