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The Irony of the Israeli Elections

Does Kadima’s Victory Put the Peace Process in Reverse?

by NEVE GORDON

Tel Aviv, Israel.

Israelis went to the polls this week with the hope of resolving the Israeli Palestinian conflict once and for all. The new political party Kadima, which means ìforwardî in Hebrew, promised as much and therefore won the day, while the country’s long-established ruling parties, Labor and Likud, lost their traditional place at the helm.

Although the refreshing social justice discourse introduced by Labor’s new leader, the Moroccan born union advocate Amir Peretz, did inject energy into the shattered party, he failed to reap the support many had hoped for. His position regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been rightly criticized as incoherent, and it also appears that many of Labor’s longtime Ashkenazi voters have deserted the party ranks because they are unwilling to be led by a Mizrahi Jew.

Likud’s situation is much worse. Following the creation of Kadima it lost almost 75 percent of its cohorts not least because it has been increasingly characterized as an extremist party that represents the settler’s uncompromising ideology. Perhaps more importantly, during his tenure as Minister of Finance, Binyamin Netanyahu introduced unpopular Thatcherite policies that pushed hundreds of thousands of Israelis under the poverty line. After the election’s humiliating results — in which Likud won less than 10% of the Knesset seats and has been relegated to the fifth largest party — many believe that Netanyahu should resign.

Even though the extreme right lost many seats, Avigdor Liberman’s party Israel Beiteinu (Israel is our Home), garnered 12 seats, four times more than it won in the previous elections. This is a worrisome development since Liberman is Israel’s version of France’s Jean Marie Le Pen, a shrewd politician who captivates right wing voters by appealing to atavistic sentiments of Jewish blood and soil.

Whereas Liberman may have been the election’s surprise, Kadima was its victor, gaining 28 seats. Kadima’s meteoric ascent in the polls is due, in part, to a pervasive yearning for a centrist party that will solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the party has very little to say about the country’s other social ills, Ehud Olmert’s bold declaration that Kadima will unilaterally determine Israel’s international borders is one of the secrets behind its noteworthy achievement.

It was actually the party’s founder, a man who is currently lying in a coma, who managed to persuade the public that he will make the Palestinian problem disappear. In the weeks leading up to the elections Kadima simply exploited Ariel Sharon’s promise, and much of the support the party enjoys reflects the enormous respect many Israelis developed for the former prime minister.

Kadima had a straightforward message and the Israeli public bought it. The thrust of its claim is that there is a contradiction between Israel’s geographic and demographic aspirations: as the settlement project deepened its hold on the Occupied Territories, the very idea of Israel as a Jewish state, where Jews are the majority, has been undermined. In other words, the fact that the majority of people living between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea are not Jewish underscores the impossibility of achieving the vision of a greater Israel while maintaining a Jewish state.

The party’s idea is to unilaterally redraw the borders between Israel and the Palestinian territories, and thus to radically alter the region’s demographic and geographic reality. Last summer’s Gaza pull-out constituted the plan’s first stage. This move was regarded both in Israel and among the international community as a positive step towards solving the conflict. Few seemed to care that it was carried out unilaterally and that the new reality limited Gazans even further in terms of resources, mobility and decision-making.

In a recent interview for Ha’aretz, Olmert outlined the plan’s next stage, explaining that Sharon’s so-called security barrier will become Israel’s political border. But he failed to explain what exactly will the conversion of the security barrier into a political border entail.

Demographically, the barrier will surround 48 Jewish settlements from the east, so that 171,000 of the West Bank’s settlers will be incorporated into Israel’s new borders. The wall being built in East Jerusalem is meant to reinforce the 1967 annexation of this part of the city, and to further consolidate the 183,800 settlers living there. In this way the government will not have to evacuate 87 percent of the settlers now living in the West Bank, and Jews will have a clear majority within Israel’s unilaterally determined borders. The price Israel will have to pay for such a solution is the evacuation of 52,000 settlers.

Geographically, however, the barrier qua political border (including Israel’s plan to maintain control of the Jordan valley) does not resemble either one of the two traditional visions for peace: the two-state solution or the bi-national polity.

An examination of the barrier’s route reveals that the future Palestinian ìstateî will be divided into three if not five areas (including Gaza). Each area will be closed off almost entirely from the others, while Israel effectively continues to control all of the borders so as to enforce a hermetic closure whenever it wishes. What is new about Kadima’s vision is not the attempt to create isolated enclaves in the Occupied Territories, but rather the effort to transform these into quasi-independent entities that will ostensibly constitute a Palestinian state.

Examining the make up of the new Knesset, it appears that anywhere between 65 and 85 members out of 120 will support Olmert’s proposal. The brilliancy of Kadima’s political plan is that it solves Israel’s demographic problem and presents its solution as the two-state option, regardless of the fact that this will be the first time in history that a so-called ìindependent stateî will not have power over any of its borders. Indeed, Kadima’s plan elides the fact that Israel will continue to control the Palestinians, whose living conditions will be even further limited. The methods of control, though, will have to be more remote and technologically sophisticated, using biometrics, video cameras, robots and surveillance aircraft.

The Palestinians, in turn, will no doubt employ all means at their disposal to resist Israel’s attempt to transform the West Bank and Gaza into remotely controlled Bantustans. Consequently, one should not be surprised if Olmert’s plan were to be met by Qasam missiles being launched from the West Bank towards Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv.

The ultimate irony is that Kadima’s political vision actually puts the peace process into reverse. On the one hand, it is trying to persuade the public that it can make the Palestinian problem disappear by reintroducing the age-old Zionist trope of an iron wall. On the other hand, it has abandoned all forms of dialogue and negotiation, which Israeli leaders since the early 1990s understood to be the only way to reach a solution with the Palestinians. Kadima is accordingly an oxymoron. While the party’s name means forward its political program will effectively take Israelis several steps backwards.

NEVE GORDON teaches human rights at Ben-Gurion University in Israel and is the editor of From the Margins of Globalization: Critical Perspectives on Human Rights. He Can be reached at nevegordon@gmail.com.