The unexpected victory by Amir Peretz over Shimon Peres for the leadership of Israel’s Labor party this week, an event that Israeli observers described as a “political earthquake”, may finally revive that party’s role as the opposition to the political hegemony of the Likud. The absence of a viable opposition in the past five years has compromised Israel’s democracy and crippled its peace camp.
It will take some time for the implications of this “earthquake” to become more evident. In the meantime, Ariel Sharon, Israeli prime minister, continues to enjoy popular support for his policies, which are systematically closing the window of opportunity opened by his September withdrawal from Gaza.
One of the most dramatic changes to have occurred since the Gaza withdrawal – largely ignored by the media – has been a major shift in Palestinian public attitudes. According to the most recent survey by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in Ramallah, most Palestinians now feel that improving their daily lives is their first priority. Until now, ending the occupation was their top goal. That has slipped to second place by a margin of 15 per cent. The poll also found the majority of Palestinians supported a permanent ceasefire, even though they remained convinced that the Gaza pull-out was due to violent “resistance”. And for the first time, a majority favours the collection of arms from militants in Gaza.
This remarkable shift in Palestinian opinion was the reason Hamas, the militant Islamist group, agreed in February to a ceasefire organised by Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president. Hamas understood that defying the public’s desire for a non-violent path towards statehood risked losing popular support.
Although the ceasefire has remained largely in force, it has been violated occasionally by Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa militants who have resorted to suicide bombings, and the Israeli Defence Force has resumed targeted assassinations and large-scale arrests of leaders of these Palestinian groups.
Khalil Shikaki, head of the PSR, recently said that Israeli reactions to what are still only sporadic Palestinian ceasefire violations had “mistaken the trees for the forest”. Militants hope that the renewed violence, and the Israeli reprisals it provokes, will head off Palestinian demands for a crackdown on the militias. The new Palestinian optimism that progress can now be achieved by non-violent means is what constitutes the “forest”. Mr Shikaki warns that by seeing only the “trees” – that is, occasional ceasefire violations – Israeli responses that collectively punish the Palestinian public will help Hamas and other extremist groups regain popular support.
Far from encouraging the new Palestinian optimism, Mr Sharon has refused to resume political negotiations; increased – rather than halted, as required by the “road map” for peace – expansion of West Bank settlements; tightened rather than eased restrictions on the movement of people and goods; and closed the crossing points in Gaza, threatening to turn it into a vast prison. Mr Sharon’s promise earlier this week to ease these Gaza restrictions came about only as a result of intense US pressure. It is still far from implementation.
Mr Sharon has also kept up disparaging criticism of Mr Abbas for his failure to prevent ceasefire violations, dismissing him as “a partner for peace”. In fact, Mr Abbas’s capacities cannot be judged without reference to the Israeli bureaucracy of occupation.
As Amira Hass noted in Ha’aretz, the Israeli daily, an IDF soldier at a remote checkpoint has more to say about critical issues affecting Palestinians than does Mr Abbas. “[He] has neither the authority nor the power to ensure that students from Gaza or East Jerusalem can get to their classes in Nablus or Tulkarm . . . nor prevent the expropriation of [Palestinian] land for “Jews-only roads” in the West Bank. But [Mr Sharon] holds him responsible for the behaviour of the various militants, who in turn disparage him because he cannot ensure that a nursing mother will be able to get to the doctor.”
Measures that collectively punish the Palestinian public and undermine efforts to revive Gaza, if not reversed, will lead Palestinians to the conclusion that their optimism was misplaced. If that should happen, no one should be surprised if the intifada returns with unprecedented fury.
The writer is a senior fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former executive head of the American Jewish Congress. These are his personal views