George S. Hishmeh
Gulf News
October 29, 2008 - 8:00pm

And now it's Israel's turn to vote in a new parliament. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

The results of the elections in Israel and America are bound to affect the Middle East and, hopefully, the new leaders of the two countries will bring good tidings for traumatised Arabs and Israelis.

The Israeli election was precipitated by the failure of premier-designate, Tzipi Livni to form a new coalition government. As the outgoing foreign minister, Livni was chosen by her party in a primary election last month to take over from corruption- tainted incumbent prime minister Ehud Olmert who, as a result of Livni's failure, will continue to serve in that position probably as late as March, if not April, when a new government will be installed.

To her credit, Livni exposed the conditions outlined by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which controls only 12 seats in the Knesset (parliament), to join her government.

The party demanded more government assistance for its constituents as well as a pledge from Livni that she would not make any concessions on the future of occupied Jerusalem. The Palestinians want to return to the Israeli-occupied Old City as mandated by UN resolutions.

Tough call

Reacting indignantly to Shas's "unreasonable economic and political demands", she gave up her attempt to form a government and opted for a general election.

"Anyone willing to sell their principles for the prime minister's chair does not deserve to sit in it," she said.

What is strange about all of this is that the Shas party, recognised as "a crucial kingmaker in Israeli governing coalitions", has been a member of the still-functioning Olmert government which, in turn, has been negotiating for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement since it pledged to do so at the Annapolis conference last November.

The other side of Livni's coin is not promising. She has been holding talks with her Palestinian counterpart, Ahmad Qurei, for almost a year.

In this context, Akiva Eldar, a columnist for the Haaretz, observed that Livni "has not achieved significant progress toward understandings on any of the issues". In fact, he added, "she has not presented a map delineating borders, has declared that no refugee will be allowed to return to Israel, and has avoided serious discussion of Jerusalem."

A serious competitor to Livni in the upcoming Israeli election is Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish leader of the Likud Party, who has declared his unwillingness to share occupied Jerusalem with the Palestinians and reintegrate the Palestinian refugees who had left their homeland. Netanyahu, who was until this week a front-runner in the race for the premiership, is also on record as refusing to give up the occupied Golan Heights or major areas within the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Scathing criticism

The Israeli colonists in the West Bank, who are opposed to any evacuation and number about 460,000, have lately become a serious security problem. They have been attacking their Palestinian neighbours and even the Israeli military and police who intervene to break up the clashes.

This is exactly what happened in Hebron just days back. Israeli colonists rioted against Israeli forces and attempted to torch a police vehicle and then turned their anger at Palestinians, damaging more than 80 of their cars, breaking windows of Palestinian homes as well as desecrating a Muslim cemetery.

Haaretz, in an editorial, said the colonists' behaviour, "cannot be called anything but terrorism, in the literal sense of the word: sowing fear and intimidation."

The World Bank, in a report issued last week, blamed the violence and vandalism by Israeli colonists for deterring investment in the West Bank. The economy there continues "to gasp for air despite increased international aid", the bank said and laid the blame mainly on Israel because it keeps the occupied Palestinian territory in a stranglehold.

Of late there have been serious clashes within Israel's mixed Jewish-Arab cities, the ugliest of them witnessed in Acre. Other incidents took place in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa area and there is growing fear of bloody clashes in the divided city of Lydda or Lod.

The Mossawa Centre, which represents Israeli-Arabs, has charged that the Arab community within Israel, which numbers more than a million citizens, has been discriminated against in terms of access to housing, education and public services. This is a common complaint backed up by many human rights groups.

Whether the turmoil is a factor or not, Israeli leaders have belatedly discovered the six-year-old Arab Peace Initiative. Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak this week, and former prime minister Ehud Barak - the defence minister in the outgoing government - expressed interest in the Arab offer.

Reacting to Israeli suggestions that they wanted to negotiate the offer, Mubarak told Peres that the initiative is not up for negotiations and urged Tel Aviv to clinch agreement with Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese first for the Arab world to show interest.

Much like their American counterparts, the Israelis need to do some serious soul-searching about peace in the Middle East.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017