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Eyes Wide Shut

Likud Rising

by URI AVNERY

Two  documents appeared side by side in Haaretz last week,  on November 21: a giant advertisement from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the results of a public opinion poll.The proximity was accidental, but to the point. The PLO ad sets out the details of the 2002 Saudi peace offer, decorated with the colorful flags of the 22 Arab and the 35 other Muslim countries which have endorsed the offer.

The public opinion poll predicts a landslide victory for Likud, which opposes every single word of the Saudi proposal.

The PLO ad is a first of its kind. At long last, the PLO leaders have decided to address the Israeli people directly.

The ad discloses to the Israeli population the exact terms of the all-Arab peace offer: full recognition of the State of Israel by all Arab and Muslim countries, full normalization of relations – in return for Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders and the establishment of the Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The refugee problem would be solved by mutual agreement – meaning that Israel could veto any solution it considered unacceptable.

I have said it before: if this offer had been made on June 4, 1967, the day before the Six Day War, Israelis would have felt as if the Messiah had arrived. But when it was published in 2002, many Israelis saw it as a cunning Arab ploy to rob Israel of the fruits of its 1967 victory.

The Israeli government has never officially reacted to this historic offer. Public opinion and the media ignored it almost completely, walled in by the national consensus that there is no chance for peace.

Recently, the old offer woke up to new life. Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak discovered it suddenly, as if they had found a treasure in a hidden cave. Tzipi Livni discovered that it has some interesting points. That is the background to the blessed initiative of Saeb Erekat’s “PLO Negotiation Department” to publish the ad.

Israeli public reaction: nil.

The public opinion poll, on the other hand, made a deep impression. It cast its shadow over the entire political arena.

True, there are still 80 days to go before election day, and in Israel 80 days is a very, very long time. Moreover, unlike American polls, Israeli polls conducted for the media are notoriously unreliable. Nonetheless, the poll caused a shock.

It says that if the elections were held this week, the Likud would have 34 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, three times more than it has now, and become the largest faction. Kadima would get only 28 seats, one less than in the present Knesset. (Explanation: Kadima would lose many voters, who would return to Likud, but gain almost the same number from Labor.) The Labor party would come down to 10 seats, half of their present miserable number. Shas would get the same number, as would the ultra-right Liberman. Meretz would rise from 5 to 7. (In Yediot Aharonot’s competing poll, Likud got 32, Kadima 26 and Labor 8.)

The dazzling ascent of Likud is an ominous phenomenon by itself, but even more important is the general picture: the bloc of all the parties that support peace, whether by paying lip service or sincerely (called “the Left”) will have, according to the polls, 56 seats at most, as against the 64 seats of all the anti-peace parties combined (called “the Right”).

Meaning: if the election had taken place this week, the outcome would have been a Knesset devoted to the continuation of the occupation, the settlements and the annexation. Binyamin Netanyahu would be Prime Minister and would be able to choose freely between a dozen possible compositions of the next government coalition.

How did Netanyahu achieve such a status? After all, 10 years ago he was shamefully thrown out of the Prime Minister’s office by a public that had decided that they could not stand him for one more day. No other previous prime minister has attracted so much opposition, disgust and even loathing.

For several months now Netanyahu has been behaving like a model pupil. He kept silent when it was right to keep silent. He acted in a statesman-like manner. And then, like a magician at a children’s birthday party, he pulled one rabbit after another from his top hat. Every few days another personality joined Likud with much fanfare, in a well controlled selection and dosage: Binyamin Begin, a man of the extreme right and Dan Meridor, of the moderate right, Assaf Hefetz, former police chief and Moshe (“Bogi”) Yaalon, former army chief, and more and more. Big and small stars, who gave the impression that Likud is now regarded by everybody as the coming governing party. A multicolored party, a party of renewal, headed by an experienced and responsible leader. A party in which there are many shades of opinion, but which is united by a platform that says no to withdrawal, no to a Palestinian state, no to any compromise on Jerusalem, no to any meaningful peace negotiation. And, of course: no to the Arab peace offer.

Is there a yes? I almost forgot: Netanyahu proposes an “economic peace” – to ameliorate the situation of the Palestinians in the West Bank, so that some day in the future, before or after the coming of the Messiah, Israel could perhaps reach an accommodation – and perhaps not. But economic amelioration under an occupation regime is, of course, an oxymoron. Occupation arouses resistance, resistance arouses repression, repression means economic punishment. Nobody is going to invest money in an occupied territory.

If Netanyahu is elected, we must expect four years in which we shall not only not advance toward peace by one single inch, but, on the contrary, the ongoing thrust of the settlement enterprise will push peace ever further away.

The flight  of Tzipi Livni, on the other hand, is not gaining any height. That is another clear conclusion of the polls.

She has had a few months of grace. When the whole country was mesmerized by the corruption affairs of Ehud Olmert, Livni looked, in comparison, like a shining white dove. An ideal candidate: also a woman, also honest, also speaking the language of ordinary human beings, also one who believes what she says.

But after Olmert’s resignation, corruption disappeared as a central theme of the elections. So what does Tzipi have to offer?

She has no overpowering charisma. She is no orator (and that is perhaps to the good). She does not excite. She does not appeal to the emotions. She does not touch the heart of people. She is compelled to rely on rational arguments.
But what is her rationale? She is a great believer in “peace negotiations”. But “peace negotiations”, like the “political process”, can easily become a substitute for peace itself.

Livni does not offer an exciting peace message. She does not draw up a peace proposal of her own. She is “diplomatic” and keeps her cards close to her chest. No clear solution for Jerusalem (Don’t even mention it! It may provide ammunition for Bibi!), nor for the refugee problem (God forbid!). She has promised the No. 2 spot on her list to Shaul Mofaz, who could easily find his place between Bibi, Begin and Bogi. This is not the way to change the hearts of the hundreds of thousands of indifferent and/or tired citizens, who believe that “there is no partner for peace”. Neither are there any new acquisitions: no new personalities are joining Kadima. There is no sense of an approaching victory. The chances don’t look good.

The situation of the Labor party is even worse. Much worse. The polls give Labor 10 seats at most, perhaps only 8. The party that in its former incarnations kept absolute control over the Yishuv and the new state for 44 consecutive years may shrivel in the next Knesset to the status of fifth largest faction (after Likud, Kadima, Shas and Liberman.)

No wonder. Like an aging strip-teaser, the party has dropped all its garments. It has embraced “swinish capitalism” (a Peres coinage) like the other parties. As far as peace is concerned, it limps behind Kadima, and sometimes even tries to outflank Likud on the right. It seems that its real platform is down to one single clause: Ehud Barak must remain Minister of Defense under whoever will be the next Prime Minister, Netanyahu or Livni.

It is not an attractive sight: not only the rats are leaving the sinking ship, but also the admiral himself: Ami Ayalon, former commander of the Israeli navy, announced this week that he is leaving the party. The incumbent 19 Knesset members are squaring up for a fight to the death over the few remaining “real” seats, competing with each other and with the handful of new joiners (including the director of “Peace Now”, Yariv Oppenheimer, and the journalist Daniel Ben-Simon).

Ehud Barak is a walking disaster. But he cannot be removed from the leadership of Labor before the elections. The party is crawling towards its rout with eyes wide shut.

Several men of letters, professors and political consultants, some of them refugees from Labor, have done something: they got together and announced that they would ally themselves to Meretz, in order to create a kind of super-Meretz.

They did raise an echo, but the recent polls still give the reinforced Meretz no more than 7 seats (compared to the present 5). Not quite a revolution.

Why? The initiators are well known. They are members of the Ashkenazi elite, like all of Meretz.

The public got the impression that instead of the past and far-past leaders who have left the Meretz leadership one after another (Shulamit Aloni, Yossi Sarid, Yossi Beilin, Ran Cohen, all of them with positive credentials), other people are coming in, good people but not really different, with the same good but failed slogans. They have no new message for the new generation, for the Oriental Jews, for the Arab citizens, for Russian immigrants, for the secular people who want to fight against religious encroachment.

The active peace groups, with their young and enthusiastic members, were not invited, so as not to give the party a “radical” look. In the best case, the renewed party might take a few seats from Labor. As far as the general picture is concerned, that would be quite unimportant, since only changes in the balance between the two large blocs have any real effect. Many new voters must be mobilized.

There is a place for a new Left party, with a new name, a new spirit and a message of hope, that will do an Obama: arouse the masses of the young generation, infect them with enthusiasm, promise real change.

Such an experiment was conducted just now in the Tel-Aviv municipal elections with astonishing results. A new election list appeared out of nowhere, the young generation of Tel-Avivians joined it with gusto. It attracted the new voters, as well as voters who are disgusted with all politicians, people with a green agenda, people with a social conscience, gays and lesbians, and many others. Hundreds volunteered for it, their candidate attracted a third of the votes against a popular incumbent mayor.

Meaning: yes, it is possible. But it will not happen this time.

Barack Obama  will enter the Oval Office twenty days before the Israeli elections. He has still got a chance to have a decisive impact on the outcome. Nobody in Israel wants to quarrel with the United States.

If the new President announces immediately after taking office that he is determined to achieve peace between Israel and the Arabs in the spirit of the Saudi peace initiative, before the end of 2009, this will influence many voters.

If Netanyahu is elected, President Obama will be faced with a dilemma: either to enter into a serious conflict with the Government of Israel, with all the American domestic implications, or to leave peace in the freezer, like his predecessors.

The American elections were important for Israel. The Israeli elections will be important for America, too.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.