Israeli elections coming at a desperate time

January 26, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

Israeli voters go to the polls Tuesday at a time of grave danger to the survival of the Jewish state founded 55 years ago. But it's unlikely that anything will change. The forecast is that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will stay in power.

When Sharon was elected two years ago he promised Israelis security and painful concessions that could lead to peace with the Palestinians. Neither promise has been fulfilled.

Sharon was elected in 2001 largely because Israelis believed his stern military background would help to protect them from Palestinian attacks. Since then, more Israelis have been killed than in the time before he came to office, and many, many more Palestinians have been killed in retaliation. Fighters on both sides have been among the casualties, but hundreds of innocents have died, too.

"Vote Sharon," Yoel Marcus, a columnist for the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz, urged in the newspaper Friday. He was being bitterly sarcastic.

"Vote Sharon. ... For the sake of your children, who'll be killed as they safeguard outposts and settlements which have no reason to exist, politically or militarily.

"If you want a prime minister who talks about a Palestinian state but is slowly occupying it; if you want to know what happened to those painful concessions, of which all that remain are the pain of bereavement and the fear of the next attack; if you feel that after 700 Israelis have died and 1,600 have been injured, your life has improved immeasurably - then Sharon is your man."

And barring an extraordinarily stunning upset, Sharon will be re-elected.

But the responsibility for the appalling conditions in Israel and in the Palestinian territories does not lie solely with Sharon. If anything, the 73-year-old former general has remained true to his belligerent character, no matter what he promised two years ago. If he had kept those promises - or been able to keep them - it would have been a stunning surprise. As stunning a surprise as Menachem Begin's signing a peace treaty with Egypt nearly a quarter-century ago.

No, it's not all Sharon's fault. He's had three indispensable accomplices.

One is Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whose incapacity to move past armed struggle is overwhelming and whose people have paid an even greater price for it.

Another is Israel's Labor Party, which felt that a seat at the table of government under Sharon was more valuable than standing as the voice of an alternative - until, that is, it became politically expedient to walk out of the so-called unity government.

And the third is President Bush. His administration's conduct in the past two years has had three phases - the first was irresponsible; the second was too late; the third was severely damaging.

The Bush administration began with a hands-off posture, abdicating America's historic and indispensable role in coaxing Arabs and Israelis toward peace. Instead of continuing the search for ways to compel the two sides to talk to each other, it looked the other way while the careful work of preceding peacemakers unraveled.

When the administration realized what a serious blunder this was, it tried to get involved, but the damage was done.

Then the 9/11 terror attacks against the United States appeared to create an emotional bond between Washington and the Sharon government, as if to say, "We're in this together." And since then, with a few exceptions - when Israeli retaliation against the Palestinians reached levels unacceptable even to the hard-nosed hawks in Washington - the Bush administration has all but formally endorsed Israel's conduct in its war against terrorism. Here and there, the United States is engaged behind the scenes to try to quell the awful violence. But the historically determined mission of previous administrations - Republican and Democrat - to keep the sides talking rather than fighting does not exist.

Two forces important to Bush have been even more enthusiastic in their support of Sharon's tactics: the conservative media commentators and the Christian fundamentalists whose vision of the future is even scarier than Sharon's.

Polls show that most Israelis are not satisfied with the status quo. In fact, they are literally terrified. Most of them would like to just separate completely from the Palestinians, letting them have most of the West Bank and Gaza. Most Israelis do not support the Jewish settlements in those areas; they view them as expensive and non-essential provocations. Most Israelis - the majority are secular - also are fed up with the influence of the right-wing religious parties. All of this helps to explain why the votes that Likud has lost in recent polling are not going to Labor. They are drifting to Shinui, a party that wants separation from the Palestinians and wants to take power and influence away from the religious parties.

The Labor Party candidate for prime minister, Amram Mitzna, mayor of Haifa, highly decorated former general and former military commander of the West Bank, seems to be more in sync with Israeli popular opinion, but no one believes he could pull it off. So he won't be the next prime minister.

This election won't change much in the conflict, except possibly to make matters worse, especially if the United States goes to war against Iraq. Old age there - both Sharon and Arafat are ancient - and presidential term limits here eventually will change the characters.

But that's a long way off. Too long for most people on both sides who just want to live in peace and get on with their lives.

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