With the election of Ariel Sharon as prime minister, Israel seems determined to legitimize its lost confidence in the peace process and to give notice that a military “solution” to its conflict with the Palestinians could be a very real possibility, if all else fails.
Sharon, apparently believing that Israel’s military clout is superior to that of all the surrounding Arab states combined, must surely know that a strength-based military response would inevitably entail a high death count on both sides, but especially among Palestinians.
Whatever his government’s public stance, however, it is doubtful many Israelis really believe that the recent change in leadership will bring security. War? possibly. Or, at best, an edgy state of prolonged “non-belligerency” — but not security.
So why did they vote for him in the first place? After seven months of the current Palestinian Intifada and the death of more than 70 Israeli Jews, the answer appears to have been the oldest political reflex of all — revenge.
Ehud Barak had tried using brutal force to stop the Sept. 29/00 Intifada, but only succeeded in prolonging it. The killing of more Palestinians by the Israeli army led to more funerals, followed by an even greater determination of Palestinians to achieve freedom. Now, so many families have lost loved ones to what they believe is a legitimate war for independence, that a fatal corner might have been turned.
Yet Sharon cannot afford to avoid the peace process. The world saw ex-U.S. president Clinton’s relations with Benjamin Netanyahu deteriorate because of the latter’s refusal to cooperate in peace initiatives, even though it would have been highly favourable for Israel to do so. Sharon should beware of letting the same happen in his relationship with the George W. Bush administration.
Just what are the chances, then, that two new participants, carrying some of the same old baggage, can succeed in renewing hopes for the peace process? Or could a state of total chaos engulf the region despite their best efforts?
One real danger is that Bush will be tempted to respond on the same wavelength as Sharon. Although the Jewish lobby in America is very close to the Democratic Party, the Christian far right (which is very close to the Republicans) is also strongly pro-Israeli.
So both Bush and Sharon have been employing a policy of “effective distraction” in the region. Bush is escalating the confrontation with Iraq and tightening the decade-old economic boycott against it even further. And Sharon in turn would reoccupy Southern Lebanon, as well as more Palestinian centres within the West Bank and Gaza.
But do they realize how different the climate is now, as compared to ten years ago? Today, more Palestinians than ever firmly believe that — as in any struggle for independence — they must be willing to lose many loved ones in the struggle to end Israeli occupation. That belief is their only strength.
And in the surrounding Arab states, government and civilian populations alike now know how the U.S. has exploited Iraq to dominate all their lives. The effect of a popular campaign to boycott American goods is beginning to be felt; and while this alone may not trigger an American recession, it could accelerate one already looming over the horizon.
The tragic irony in all this is that both Palestinians and Israelis desperately want peace, lasting peace. But their two visions of what “peace” means are very different.
Hardline Israelis still think that, with overwhelming military power and almost unconditional U.S. support, their state can unilaterally dictate terms to the militarily and economically weaker Palestinians. They do not mind if Palestinians manage their own internal affairs, or even administer Christian and Islamic holy sites in occupied Arab East Jerusalem, but they will not bend one iota on accepting Palestinian sovereignty anywhere in “their” land, sea, or air.
Israel also wants most armed Jewish settlements to stay right where they are, expensively protected by the Israeli army, while rejecting any rights-of-return to Palestinians who fled their homes in 1948.
Palestinians want peace in their own independent state, with full sovereignty over the land, sea and air occupied by Israel in 1967, including Arab East Jerusalem. They want a guaranteed right-of-return to refugees and expatriates, similar to the demands of displaced people from East Timor, Kosovo and Bosnia.
They want armed Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza to be disbanded, but are willing to accept Jews as citizens of a new Palestinian state, just as there are now Palestinian Muslims and Christians living in the state of Israel. They feel this is a generous compromise, since they have already given up close to 80 per cent of historical Palestine to the state of Israel and deserve to live free in the 20 per cent that remains.
Can a mutually acceptable peace ever be possible between two such determined and historically antagonistic points of view? Despite all that has happened, and continues to happen, there is still cause for optimism.
After all, Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush — two “new kids” on a tired and battered block — may just surprise us all and, with the veteran Arafat, find an inspired alternate formula for achieving just peace in the region. I, for one, can still believe in miracles.
Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.