Israel’s Election: Implications for Peace Process
Last December Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Barak resigned from office in order to attain a fresh mandate from the Israeli people to pursue the peace initiatives with the Palestinians, which by this stage were plagued by the violence in the areas they controlled. However if the polls are accurate in their forecasts of the result then Mr Barak’s election gamble has backfired. The direction and future of the Middle East peace process are the issues on which the election is being fought and its future now rests on the outcome.
Ultimately it is the violence that has engulfed the region for nearly five months and Mr Barak’s failure to stem it that have caused his electoral support to crumble. He was after all elected on the pledge that he could bring to peace not only with the Palestinians, but also with Israel’s Arab neighbours by a people tiring of decades of conflict and the constant threat to their country’s security.
However Mr Barak was unable to deliver the results he promised since he was swept to power in 1999. If the events of the past months have shown one thing then that is that is that the concessions he offered in order to secure a peace deal where to much for Israelis to accept. Not only is there the issue of Jerusalem, but also the demands of the Palestinians that refugees are allowed to return to their homes in Israel, which they say they lost after 1948. This has proved a major sticking point in recent negotiations between the parties.
The result of this failure is that Mr Barak has lost support from all sides and this has reached the point in that his premiership has become untenable.
Not only is there disillusionment among secular Israelis over the manner in which the peace process has been handled but also Mr Barak has lost valuable backing from within the Israeli Arab community who have supported him heavily in the past. Israel’s Arab community represent thirteen percent of the population and their voting support is crucial if Mr Barak is to have a chance at returning to office. However they are threatening to stay away from the polling booths in a bid to express dissatisfaction over Mr Barak’s handling of the violence, and his slowness in expressing regret for the deaths of thirteen of their community in clashes with Israeli forces.
His support has also eroded from within the Russian community also, who like the Arabs turned out heavily in favour of the Prime Minister eighteen months ago. This voting bloc accounting for eighteen percent of the Israeli voters are now reported to be willing to shift their allegiance to the challenger.
The irony of this election is that Mr Barak is running against the man who is not only seen as responsible for the outbreak of this latest wave of violence, but who many Israelis see as the man who can end it. Nicknamed “the bulldozer”, Ariel Sharon is the leader of the right wing Likud Party and is known to have a hawkish towards the peace process and the relations Israel has with the Palestinians and the Arab states. If Mr Sharon does become the next Israeli Prime Minister there is little doubt the nature of the peace process will change even to the point in which the process is halted altogether
Mr Sharon masterminded the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon in an effort to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organisation and remains a staunch supporter of Israeli settlement on Arab land. Mr Sharon has stated that if he becomes prime minister he would keep 42 percent of the West Bank and two-thirds of Gaza under Israeli jurisdiction. This is in contrast with Mr Barak who has discussed the idea of giving the Palestinians control of up to 90 percent of the disputed territories.
He has also stated his belief that the Palestinians do not want peace and that his visit to the Muslim holy site, which triggered the violence back on the 28th of September was proof of this. However this also showed that Israelis are not willing to support the concessions Mr Barak was offering and that issues such as the status of Jerusalem remain as intractable as ever.
Mr Sharon has frequently called on Mr Barak to enter into a unity government with his party, to which Mr Barak has refused. What this means that if Mr Sharon becomes the new Prime Minister and the Labour Party stays out of his government then Mr Sharon will have to rely on the smaller right wing religious parties for support in the Knesset and acquiesce to some of their demands. This will place a further limit on the extent of concessions Israel offers the Palestinians and no doubt the implemention of a harder line in the peace process. If those polls are correct and the hawks win this election then the future of the peace process is thrown in serious doubt. While it could be argued that this has been the case for the past five months, there has at least been dialogue and it is a concept that is still talked about. The next time this column talks about the Middle East, there may not be the term ‘peace process’ to discuss at all.