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Israeli Elections: The Roadmap Ahead

 December 15, 2002

Ami Isseroff

Polls predict an easy victory for the right-wing government of Ariel Sharon, but the reality of international politics, and the looming Quartet roadmap, indicate a rocky future for its hard line policies. It will be much harder for Israel to follow the roadmap with Ariel Sharon and the Likud in the driver's seat.

As elections loom in Israel, the right can point with satisfaction to poll results that give them an almost certain victory, with 59 to 62 seats versus 41 to 42 seats for the left bloc. Amram Mitzna will probably save the Labor party from the debacle forecast by earlier polls, as predictions have risen from 19 seats last month to 22 to 24 seats, just slightly less than the current representation.

The Israel Labor party might even exceed its current representation. The departure of Yossi Beilin gives Labor a more centrist image. The success of "hard line" people allied to Benjamin Ben Eliezer, a blow for the supporters of peace, will also help to make Labor immune to the "leftist" label, which has become a dirty word in mainstream Israeli politics.  Israeli election laws have changed, so that the prime minister is no longer elected separately. As more and more people understand the significance of this change, voters who may be justifiably fed up with Labor's nonexistent social policies and the kow-towing of both major parties to the religious lobby, may nonetheless vote for Labor as the least of two bad alternatives. Mitzna has enough appeal and daring to stir up enthusiasm and get out the vote, and he does offer a real alternative to the "war forever" policy being carried out by Ariel Sharon.

Nonetheless, we have to assume that Ariel Sharon will form the next government. His success is not due to his nonexistent economic policy, but to the fact that he has been able to win American support for a relatively tough policy against Palestinian violence, and enjoys an excellent working relationship with the White House. This contrasts with the cold relations that existed under Benjamin Nethanyahu, and is certainly appreciated by the Israeli public.

However, the special relationship with the USA that is Sharon's major political dowry is not due to Sharon. US support for Israel, contrary to popular conceptions, is not based on personal relationships of leaders, nor on the need for the "Jewish vote" (as James Baker allegedly said, "Fuck them, they didn't vote for us anyway) nor on the activities of AIPAC or the propaganda of neoconservative right-wing Zionist think tanks. As Yitzhak Rabin understood when he was ambassador to the United States, US support for Israel is contingent on the perception that Israel is a strategic asset. At present,  it is due to the special international situation that developed after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and the all-but-certain projected US attack on Iraq.

The special conditions that have given Ariel Sharon so much latitude to act against the Palestinians are about to change. From strategic asset, Israel is about to turn into a strategic albatross around the neck of US foreign policy interests.

After the war or resolution of the Iraq crisis, things will change, but not in the ways predicted by optimistic scenarios of right-wing Zionist pundits. In the coming months, the Iraq crisis will necessarily be resolved, one way or another. The US will then need to deal urgently with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and with the implications of the now neglected, but by no means forgotten, Saudi Peace initiative. We can surmise what the postwar demands on Israel will be like, based on the aftermath of the Desert Storm Iraqi war. The USA will discover that the Middle East is not so changed after all, because wars do not change basic geopolitical facts. They do not move oil reserves out of Saudi Arabia for example. Israel will discover that yet another war did not solve the Palestinian problem by magic. The vague and absurd dreams that some may have, of spiriting away vast numbers of Palestinians to Iraq or Jordan or some other destination under the cover of war, will evaporate. We Israelis will still be occupying the West Bank, and the Palestinians will still be there.

The USA and the Europeans will remember, or be forcefully reminded, of their dependence on Arab oil, and on the good will of a billion or more Muslims. As they did in 1991, the Arab countries will exert pressure on the USA to remove the embarrassing problems of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and US support for Israel, which are a source of political unrest for all Arab countries allied to the US. Now as in 1991, Israel will be called upon to pay the price, and to agree to a settlement. Now as then, some international forum will be convened to deal with the problem. We can already see the outlines of the probable US-engineered Israeli-Palestinian settlement in the "quartet" roadmap, which is actually US policy for all intents and purposes. It does not matter, for the Israeli right, if the roadmap will lead to Palestinian reform or if it contains real mechanisms to ensure performance. The problem for the Israeli right is that the roadmap entails withdrawal from most or all of the occupied territories and evacuation of settlements. That would collapse their whole platform and their whole reason for existence.

The Sharon government, reckons rightly that the publication of the quartet roadmap will remind the Israeli public of the inevitable "morning after" of the Iraq war. They have pressured the United States to postpone publication until after the Israeli elections, while the Palestinians and Europeans are pushing for early publication. In either case, the day of reckoning is coming. Now as after the first war with Iraq, Israel will be headed by an intransigent right-wing government, whose main goal will be to stall for time while expanding settlements. This policy will force a confrontation with the United States. Nobody in Israel should have any illusions about the outcome of a conflict between the United States and the Israeli government. We have mortgaged a good deal of our independence to the United States in return for support in the international arena, special trade agreements and $3 billion in annual foreign aid. Now, we are asking for another huge amount, some $14 billions in US-guaranteed loans. The largesse of the USA does not come without a price, and any Israeli government that is in power will need to pay that price. Israeli policy cannot continue indefinitely to leverage  the real threat of Al-Qaida and Palestinian terrorism as the basis for expansion of Israeli settlements, because it conflicts with US interests. As Israeli voters know, the day of judgment for the policy of settlement expansion and perpetual occupation is drawing nigh. It will be much harder for Israel to follow the roadmap with Ariel Sharon and the Likud in the driver's seat.

Ami Isseroff,



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Postscript - Even before the Iraqi war, the above proved to be prophetic. None other than US Iraq hawk Paul Wolfowitz stated explicitly that the US will expect Israel action on the settlement issue after the Iraq war (click for story and commentary)

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