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http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,823705,00.html The US must now redraw Israel’s ‘road map’ to peace

The Sharon government has offered revenge, but no resolution

Martin Woollacott Friday November 1, 2002 The Guardian

It is an indication of how weirdly oblique Israeli politics can be that the Labour party could only raise the profoundly moral issue of the settlements by staging a row about what they are costing the government.

That the settlements are the cause of a war which takes lives every day of the week somehow takes second place to the fact that they are burning a hole in the pockets of taxpayers. To break up the ruling coalition on the grounds that pensioners are not getting enough while settlers are getting too much is akin to divorcing a violent husband on the grounds that he has been pinching the housekeeping money. And it is an indication of how much the world has to dance attendance on the chaotic ups and downs of democracy in Israel that the manoeuvres of the country’s present set of pretty dismal leaders could be of especially critical importance in the next few months.

As the US prepares for a war against Iraq, the dangers of which will be increased by any worsening of mood in Arab and Muslim countries, Israel’s contribution could well be a period of political instability and, very possibly, of worse violence between Israelis and Palestinians, if Ariel Sharon hangs on in government by appeasing his even more rightwing allies – or if the story ends with Benyamin Netanyahu returning to power.

Yet it would be hard indeed to argue, even in these threatening circumstances, for the continuation in office of Sharon, whose leadership of Israel has been an utter disaster. Ever since he took over, his opponents inside and outside the country have been turning and twisting the Rubik’s cube of the Israeli political system in the hope of chancing on the sequence of moves that would lead to his removal and then, perhaps after further vicissitudes, to the election of a government able to make peace.

It can be said in defence of Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the defence minister whose calculations led to this break, that he has such a long-term strategy in mind. But even in purely Israeli terms it is surely risky to precipitate such a period of struggle and inevitably distracted government at a time when conflict with Iraq is not far away. Life-or-death decisions may soon be needed on such questions as whether Israel should respond to Iraqi strikes on its territory – conceivably by missiles carrying chemical, bacteriological or radiological warheads – should Saddam Hussein be able to stage such attacks.

Careful judgment on how to respond to events in the West Bank and Gaza, events which Saddam will certainly try to influence in the worst possible direction, may also be needed. Whatever the stance of particular parties or their leaders on theterritories and on reacting to Palestinian actions, especially those of suicide bombers, this will be a time for the utmost prudence.

That becomes more problematic if the government is wobbling or playing to the gallery. The answer may be that national government would be reconstituted as these dangers draw closer, which may happen in any case if Ben-Eliezer beats his rivals in the coming contest for the party leadership and then comes back for a while into coalition with Sharon.

Supporters of Ben-Eliezer may claim, too, that by pulling out at this stage he increases the chances that Sharon will lose his position to Netanyahu in the Likud contest for leadership that must precede an election. Then, perhaps, Labour can go into elections as the peace party – or at least as the party which offers, in Ben-Eliezer’s words, “a diplomatic horizon” to the Palestinians, and win, next time if not this time. Israelis themselves understand the peculiar nature of their political system, the way in which it enshrines division and staggers from bargain to bargain, the way in which issues are coded, and the way in which objectives are almost always approached indirectly. They enjoy it, while often deploring it, they make jokes about it, and they have to live with it as a product both of their history and of ill-judged efforts at reform. But among the many factors that keep most Israelis from facing up to the reality of their relationship with the Palestinians, the complex nature of their own political game is not the least important. There are so many political trees that the forest is not easily seen.

Even in more normal times the US is a constant presence in Israeli politics, but one that has far less influence, for often noted reasons, on Israeli policy than its weight and importance in Israel would allow.

The Bush administration now has an opportunity to reinforce trends which, even if they are not the basis for instant optimism, could be an improvement on what went before. In particular it could try to ensure that the eventual choice between Israeli parties which want to perpetuate the occupation and parties which want to end it will be a clear choice, and one which could be made in the absence of significant continuing violence by the Palestinians. The way to do that would be to transform the so-called “road map” to peace, which the administration revealed last month, into a genuinely balanced plan which promises the Palestinians a state in all of the occupied territories except where they might freely decide to trade small portions for lands of equal value in Israel proper.

The present plan does not do that. Instead, in return for reform of Palestinian institutions and, of course and as usual, for a complete or near complete end to violence, it offers a provisional state on 40% of the territories, with negotiations to follow to settle permanent borders later. Like all the schemes that went before it, including Oslo itself, this asks too much of the Palestinians and gives too little. Even this half a loaf is only available, Sharon has insisted, if Israel judges the Palestinian performance to be acceptable, a judgment which one can be pretty sure would never be made as long as he is in power.

What both sides need is a plan, laid down in general terms by the US as the only nation capable of leading the effort to monitor and enforce it, which has at its centrepiece a clear vision of the end point for the two peoples – security for Israel in its pre-1967 borders, a state for the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Palestinians, a majority of whom are showing clear signs of readiness to desist from attacks on Israeli civilians if only another way could be opened up, are ready for such an intervention. So perhaps are Israelis, disillusioned with policies which offer revenge but no resolution. An American-led return to these earlier simplicities, with which everyone is familiar but which have been so obscured, would alter both Israeli and Palestinian politics, strengthening the moderate and pro-peace elements in both nations. Whether the Bush administration is capable of seizing the opportunity is another question.

m.woollacott [at] guardian.co [dot] uk

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