George S. Hishmeh
Gulf News
December 18, 2008 - 1:00am

Unlike the just-concluded American election, where everyone is eagerly awaiting the change that has been promised, the ongoing election campaign in Israel which ends one month after President-elect Barack Obama settles in the White House, is noted for the absence of any similar commitments. If anything, the positions of the competing Israeli frontrunners have not been encouraging and even very alarming.

In the first weeks of the election campaign, there has been widespread disappointment over the news that the former Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a notorious hawk, was seen as the frontrunner. But during the primary election of his Likud Party, the extremists within his midst, led by Moshe Feiglin, a far right-winger, surprisingly managed to score unexpected successes, assuring themselves several of the top seats within Bibi's cabinet should the Likud win the elections on February 20. However, the triumph was short-lived since the Likud Party has come up with a tactical manoeuvre that downgraded their early "success," making it unlikely that Feiglin or his supporters may end up holding cabinet posts.

Thereafter, Netanyahu, or Bibi, as he is popularly known, began to focus on improving his international image. First, he depicted himself as a "moderate" when compared to the rightist Feiglin whose Jewish Leadership group rejects all territorial compromises with the Palestinians. He then introduced a new idea, an "economic peace" plan that will reportedly focus on raising the Palestinians' living standards, improving their economy, building government institutions and strengthening their defense capabilities.

But few are taking him or his plan very seriously. A source close to his Israeli competitor, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, was reported saying that "the world remembers very well who Netanyahu is and needs no reminders of it from us." Even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not buy into his scheme.

Shocking remarks

But neither Livni nor Rice have fared any better. The Israeli foreign minister, now chairperson of the ruling Kadima Party, has made some unbelievably shocking remarks last week when speaking before Israeli highschool students. She echoed a view that is the mantra of many Israelis, namely the transfer of Palestinian Arabs in Israel, now numbering around 1.4 million or a fifth of the Israeli population, to the projected Palestinian state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Her view was couched in diplomatic parlance:

"Once a Palestinian state is established, I can come to the Palestinian citizens, and say to them, 'you are citizens with equal rights, but the national solution for you is elsewhere'," adding, "My solution for maintaining a Jewish and democratic state of Israel is to have two nation-states with certain concessions and with clear red lines."

Livni's remarks touched off a public uproar, especially among the Palestinian Arabs in the 1948 areas and their Knesset members. Although her view is now being explained by some Israeli politicians as a bid to project a hardline image in order attract voters from the right-wing Likud Party, her clarification on the following day was not all-assuring. "There is no question of carrying out a transfer or forcing them [Israeli Arabs] to leave," she told the Israeli public radio. "I am willing to give up a part of the country over which I believe we have rights so that Israel will remain a Jewish and democratic state in which citizens have equal rights, whatever their religion."

All said there does not seem to be much difference between a future Israeli government whether run by a Netanyaho or a Livni, who has been negotiating without much success for more than a year with the Palestinian National Authority's top negotiator Ahmad Qorei.

Israeli intolerance has once again been manifested by an unprecedented brief detention and expulsion of a visiting United Nations human rights envoy, Richard Falk, an American Jew and a former professor emeritus at Princeton University, at Tel Aviv airport because of his past criticism of Israeli policies, particularly in the Gaza Strip which is under Israeli siege.

The unprecedented Israeli measure was criticised by UN General Assembly President Miguel D'Escoto Brockman and coincided with the visit of Secretary Rice to the UN Security Council in an attempt to gloss over her failure to bring about any evidence of success in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations despite the promises voiced at Annapolis last year.


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