There Must Be A Better Alternative
Many questions have arisen since the collapse of Prime Minster Sharon's unity government: Will Mr. Sharon eventually opt for early elections? And if he persuades the ultra right-wing National Union Party to rejoin his government, how long will it last? Who will lead Labor, and for that matter, Likud, in the elections, which must occur within the next eleven months? These and many other questions will be answered sooner or later. The larger question is: Will either or both of the two parties submit to the Israeli electorate a credible peace plan before these election, a plan that can be implemented under any circumstances regardless of the Palestinians' position?
Both Likud and Labor obviously will try to position themselves to generate maximum public support. For Mr. Sharon, this means trying to hold onto his current government at least for the next few months. The Palestinian general elections, scheduled for next January; the prospect of war between the United States and Iraq; Israel's troubled economic situation, and the rivalry for leadership in both major parties, all make a brief postponement of the elections a more desirable option for Mr. Sharon than for Labor. Waiting a few months will give him the opportunity to monitor these crucial situations and then make the necessary strategic and tactical moves to enhance his position. This is apparently the basis of agreement with former prime minister Natanyahu that he become foreign minister–provided that Mr. Sharon calls for elections several months from now. Meanwhile, Mr. Sharon will make every effort to have the National Union Party join his government, thus shielding him from a non-confidence vote and securing a majority in the Israeli Parliament, although a slim one–62 to 58. If he accomplishes this goal, it will allow him to call for a new elections at the time Natanyahu has asked for, between now and October 2003.
Labor's situation is less optimistic. The party has been in disarray since the last elections. Its major problems are that it lacks the cohesiveness as a party and has no coherent Palestinian policy. Moreover, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Labor's current leader, along with Shimon Peres and other members of the party, not only joined the Sharon government but have been participated in forming its policies for the past twenty months, and this has created a serious split in the party. Their recent resignation from the government is a critical first step toward reorganizing the party, and it has not happened a day too soon. Whoever becomes Labor's leader, be it Ben-Eliezer, who is being challenged by Hayim Ramon, a former head of the Labor Union and a member of the Parliament, or Amram Mitzna, the Mayor of Haifa, the party has a small window of opportunity to put its house in order and present a united and viable alternative to the dominance of the right.
The next Israeli elections will be of immense value in that they will be a barometer of public opinion after nearly two years of horrifying violence that has shattered Israeli-Palestinian relations. Whereas Mr. Sharon has been able to demonstrate in words and deeds that Israel is here to stay and has disabused the majority of Palestinians of the notion that violence pays, his aggressive policy has come to a dead end in terms of peace. A new and enlightened policy that focuses on diplomatic means must guide any new government, and towards this end the Israeli public must demand a sense of clarity and purpose from their political leaders. It is the people themselves who must decide what it is that they want to concede to the Palestinians territorially and politically. Two things are clear: the second Intifadah has shown that there is no military solution to the Palestinian crisis, and Israel must not allow its policies toward the whole Palestinian community to be highjacked by Hamas or Jihad. True, suicide bombing and indiscriminate violence cannot be tolerated, and its perpetrators must be punished. That said, Israel must have a coherent end game about where it wants to be one year, two years, or three years from now, irrespective of Palestinian militancy. A blueprint for a two-states solution have been hashed over ad nauseam. A plan that falls somewhere along the lines of former prime minister Barak's, and is consistent with UN resolution 242, will have to represent the core of a permanent solution. Whether the Palestinians accept such a plan is entirely up to them. But Israel must begin to implement it unilaterally by creating the necessary physical and political separation between the two peoples.
It is extremely dangerous to assume that forcing the Palestinians into submission, as some of Sharon's coalition partners demand, is desirable, even if it were possible. Feeling betrayed, it would be only a question of time before a new generation of Palestinians rose up violently to demand equity and the restoration of national honor, resorting as this generation has done, to any means at their disposal to realize their objectives.
For these reasons the two major parties have both a moral and a practical obligation during the next election to present the Israeli public with a legitimate solution to the Palestinians crisis. Although this responsibility must be shouldered by the Israeli leaders, how the Palestinians conduct themselves (violently or peacefully) from now until election day, will have a dramatic impact, as it has traditionally, on the Israeli electorate. I cannot say that the Palestinians fully grasp how important it is to substantially reduce, if not eliminate violence all together. It will be tragic if they push the Israelis further to the right. If the Israelis choose Sharon again or Natanyahu, and the Palestinians keep Arafat as their leader, well, they will have only themselves to blame; after all, leaders, by and large, are the product of their own generation.