Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Knesset holds the key to peace process

This piece was written in November, 2008
Kadima’s projected ascent to power will also mean that the Arab League’s peace plan (originally proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002), which has the backing of all major players in the region – Israel, Palestinian Authority, Arab countries and the US, will be pursued more vigorously. Livni has publicly voiced her support for the plan.

On February 10, 2009 Israel will go to polls to elect a new 120-member Knesset (parliament) for a four-year term. The composition of the Knesset will be a key determinant to the future of Israel and volatile West Asian peace process.

The election process that began on November 11 has already thrown up important indications about its composition. Electoral system of Israel is based on the list system of proportional representation and is different from the first-past-the-post system followed by several liberal democracies. Citizens here, vote for party lists based on which Knesset seats are assigned in proportion to each party’s percentage of total national votes. The voting is however, directly influenced by the profile and ideological leanings of the parties and to a certain extent, that of the candidates.

The major parties in the fray – Likud, Kadima, Labor and Meretz, with their divergent ideological positions have a direct bearing on the policies and programmes that will be pursued, the most crucial of them being the resolution of the worsening Israel-Palestinian conflict. However, Labor and Meretz are still marginal players in Israeli politics, without much reckoning in the peace process.

The main contest is between the centrist Kadima, headed by foreign minister Tzipi Livni (she was earlier a Mossad agent), and the right-wing Likud, led by leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Opinion polls conducted by Haaretz-Dialog in November, predicted a clear lead of 64 seats for the right-wing bloc as against 56 seats for the centrist parties (Elections 2009: Latest poll gives Likud big edge over Kadima, The Hareetz, November 24, 2008). But the scenario is likely to change significantly in the wake of a potential development – the possible election of hard-liners as party candidates for Knesset.

These hard-liners have displayed a highly belligerent posturing in the past with the potential to derail an already fragile peace process.

One of them, Moshe Feiglin, a settler is said to have advocated withdrawing Israel from the membership of the United Nations (UN) and barring Arabs from Knesset. The British government actually had to ban his entry to Britain. Another member is retired General Moshe Yaalon, who suggested in an interview that Israel should contemplate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinijad’s assassination.

These developments could not have come at a more opportune moment for Kadima, which can now position itself as the best alternative, both for Israel and for the international community that has interests in the peace process. With its centrist image, Kadima will be able to consolidate public opinion among Jews, who have veered to the view of a two-state solution and withdrawal of settlements from the occupied areas.

A recent report quoted a settler Monika Yzchaki (who moved in 16 years ago to West Bank) as saying: “It used to be that I thought it was my country and they (Palestinians) thought it was theirs. Today it is very clear it is their country.”

Kadima, along with Labor, has actively supported the passage of a law that proposes to re-settle Jewish settlers from the occupied areas to mainstream territories in Israel. The proposal is estimated to cost around $6 billion. It is widely perceived that should Kadima come to power, this would soon become a reality paving the way for a positive beginning.

It needs to be recalled that the outgoing Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert (Kadima) too had a mandate in 2006 that supported withdrawal of settlements, but not much could happen. The situation worsened due to the conflict between Israel and Lebanon in July that year, as a result of which public opinion in Israel became belligerent.

Kadima’s ascent to power will also mean that the Arab League’s peace plan (originally proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002), which has the backing of all major players in the region – Israel, Palestinian Authority, Arab countries and the US, will be pursued more vigorously. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has publicly voiced her support for the plan. It may not give Israel as some suggest “peace with the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco”, but certainly will render a consensual framework to work among the concerned players. The Arab League’s peace plan includes withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967 borders.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud’s leader, is opposed to any such move that demands withdrawal by Israel. A Likud government therefore, would be highly reluctant to carry forward the peace process. This will have serious consequences for the entire West Asia region – escalation of clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, halting of the (slow) withdrawal of settlements from the occupied areas and a further deepening of the rift between Israel and the Arab countries.

Politics being unpredictable in Israel, the likelihood of a Likud victory cannot be ruled out. If that happens, it would be an unfortunate development. The recent visits of President Shimon Peres and the outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to London and Washington respectively were perhaps to create a favourable environment in Israel, where the Arab League’s peace plan remains a strong reality. Israel also probably realises that the US, pre-occupied with its own domestic crises, may not attach as much priority as Israel would expect it to.
The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, addressing a Palestinian Investment Conference said, "Let us together seize the opportunity we have before us to make 2009 the Middle East year of peace.," One can only hope that the new dispensation in Israel translates it into reality.
It’s time that Knesset members remember the famous Greek philosopher, Thycidide’s statement, “It may be your interest to be our masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?” This may well be the question that every Palestinian will be asking to Knesset members.

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