Jerusalem: As Israeli national elections approach, polls indicate that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is heading towards a landslide victory. Given Sharon’s performance during his short tenure, the widespread support he garners is an astounding feat.
Although Sharon is still considered to be Mr. Security, people are less secure today than before. Since taking office 20 months ago, Sharon has presided over the deaths of 600 Israelis and the wounding of 4,000 more.
His reduction of politics to a question of military tactics has foreclosed all diplomatic initiatives, and aided the collapse of the Israeli economy. This year, heslashed the budget by 11 percent, cutting social security pensions and basic health-care provisions.
Israel is experiencing negative economic growth of nearly two percent, foreign investors have fled, and tourists have become a rare species on the Israeli landscape. Unemployment has risen to over 10 percent, while a third of wage earners now live below the poverty line. Inflation at 8 percent has nearly tripled.
Any other prime minister with a record half as bad as this would have been driven out of office, tail between his legs; yet, paradoxically, Sharon is more popular today then ever before.
In an effort to explain the premier’s success, political analysts have claimed that during these extremely unstable times Sharon has managed to project a sense of confidence and solidity; he is perceived by the public as a fatherly figure, an Israeli Ataturk.
While this explanation carries some weight, the psyche of the nation is more complicated; it was, after all, only two years ago that Sharon’s name was identified with the infamous Lebanese debacle, and held “personally responsible” (by an independent Israeli commission) for the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Accordingly, Sharon’s newly acquired fame cannot be explained merely by his white hair and ironic smile.
His success has to do with the fact that Israel has been hijacked.
The kidnappers are not members of the Hamas or Islamic Jihad, but rather a small and highly organized group of Israeli religious zealots — the leaders of the Jewish settlement movement. These settlers have held the Israeli public hostage for the past 20 months by hijacking the national agenda. Since a just peace is antithetical to their interests, the settler leaders have been undermining all attempts to negotiate with the Palestinians disregarding the fact that without peace, blood will continue to flow and the economy will fall apart. In this sense, their agenda is similar to the one advanced by the Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Sharon, in turn, has for years championed the settlers’ cause and is consequently now benefiting from his ties with the movement. The Israeli public is exhibiting a form of national “Stockholm Syndrome,” the tendency of hostages to identify with their captors.
While his popularity will probably last for some time, the inherent contradictions underlying the settlement project are beginning to manifest themselves, suggesting that Israel’s next premier may finally have to face up to the project’s horrific effects. After all, the escalation of violence alongside the economic collapse resulting from the ongoing effort to uphold the settlement project indicate that the doctrine Sharon has advanced throughout his political career is no longer tenable — namely, that the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem remain under Israeli sovereignty for perpetuity, while the Palestinian population is given some form of limited autonomy without receiving full citizenship.
Israelis on both the left and right will, eventually, realize that the conflict cannot be resolved under the current conditions, regardless of the amount of military force employed. As Akiva Eldar reported in the Ha’aretz, even sections of the military establishment are now realizing that military force alone will not resolve the conflict. The new government will accordingly be expected to come up with new ideas, and although the situation is complex, there are only three obvious options if we are to break the current impasse.
The first is the two-state-solution. Even if the Labor Party’s new leader, former general Amram Mitzna, ends up forming the next government, which is highly unlikely, it’s not clear whether he will have the courage to radically alter the Oslo format. While Mitzna has stated that within a year of entering office he will pull Israeli troops out of the Gaza Strip and dismantle all Jewish settlements in this region, he is unwilling to make a similar statement regarding the West Bank. Moreover, he is threatening to unilaterally draw the borders of the Palestinian state-to-be if Yasser Arafat disputes his proposals. In this sense, Mitzna is not all that far from Sharon, who recently accepted the idea of a Palestinian state, albeit one that he will demarcate.
Experience teaches, however, that the two-state option will only be viable if Israel implements a full withdrawal to the 1967 borders and dismantles all Jewish settlements, which now contain almost 200,000 people, not including East Jerusalem. While this may currently appear politically impossible, but we should remember that when France finally ceded control of Algiers, it evacuated a much larger number of French citizens.
The second option is the one proffered by the extreme right: the expulsion of all the Palestinians from their lands, forcefully transferring them to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria or Egypt. The idea of expulsion as a political solution echoes a dark past that some Jews can still remember. Recently, however, it has gained broader support among the powers that be. Polls indicate that The National Union, a right wing party advocating expulsion, is slated to receive eight percent of the vote in the upcoming elections, and its ideas are winning support from beyond its ranks.
The third option is for Israel to annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip, bestowing full citizenship on the Palestinian population, and thus turning itself into a bi-national state, rather than a Jewish one. This solution, which had been perceived by Palestinians as a betrayal of the struggle for self-determination, has lately gained legitimacy within corners of the Palestinian establishment. While the bi-national option is, in a sense, the most democratic of the three, within Israel it is still considered an abomination not only by the right but also by Labor and Meretz.
So, if Israel’s next leader is to overcome the current crisis, he will have to decide whether to abandon the notion of a Jewish State, employ a policy used by the darkest regimes (not least the Third Reich), or dismantle the settlements and bring the Jewish settlers back home. Each of these options negates certain elements in the Zionist project, suggesting that the settlements are now destroying the very project that gave birth and nurtured them. The Jewish settlements are now helping to transform the Zionist dream, into its own worst nightmare.