Bush Working to Ensure Sharon’s Re-election

Bush Working to Ensure Sharon’s Re-election By Stephen Zunes January 21, 2003 Editor : Tom Barry, Interhemispheric Resource Center ( IRC ) 0301sharon.pdf [printer-friendly version] On January 29, Israeli voters will be facing perhaps the most crucial vote in their nation’s history between the right-wing incumbent prime minister Ariel Sharon of the Likud Bloc and the more moderate Amram Mitzna—a former general and mayor of Haifa—from the Labor Alignment. The re-election of Sharon—who has refused to negotiate with the Palestinian leadership, pledged never to withdraw from the bulk of occupied Palestinian territories, and whose Likud Bloc is on record opposing Palestinian statehood—would set back any prospects for peace in the near future. By contrast, Mitzna has pledged to support a withdrawal of Israeli occupation forces from the bulk of the occupied territories in exchange for security guarantees on terms quite close to proposals made by the Palestinian delegation at the conclusion of the January 2001 peace negotiations in Taba, Egypt. These talks—which came far closer to reaching a final peace settlement than the U.S.-sponsored talks at Camp David six months earlier—were broken off by Sharon upon his coming to office the following month. Some Israelis, for religious or nationalist reasons, oppose the necessary compromises for peace. Other Israelis, for moral or pragmatic reasons, support the necessary compromises for peace. The majority of Israelis, however, are in the middle. Historically, Israeli voters have tended to lean towards the peace camp if they feared Israel’s close relationship with the United States and the resulting largesse of aid was threatened by a particular policy and lean towards the right if they felt Israel could get away with it. A blank check from the United States for the Israeli government to do whatever it pleases, therefore, significantly hurts the peace forces within Israel. By contrast, pressure from the United States has traditionally enhanced the position of Israeli moderates, since it enables them to convince the Israeli public that failure to compromise would jeopardize their country’s close relationship with the United States. In many respects, this upcoming election parallels the 1992 election between the incumbent Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir who, like Sharon, opposed talks with the Palestinians or territorial compromise and the Labor Party challenger Yitzhak Rabin, who supported the principle of territorial compromise in return for security guarantees. Seeing that peace was impossible as long as the Likud was in power, the senior Bush administration undertook a series of measures designed to encourage Israeli voters to support the more moderate Labor Party against the hard line Likud incumbents. Such efforts were successful, leading to Rabin’s election and the direct negotiations with the Palestinians that Shamir had opposed. As a result of the Oslo Accords, there were some major, if uneven, advances in the peace process until Sharon cut off negotiations in early 2001 and re-occupied Palestinian cities in 2002. By contrast, the current Bush administration appears to be doing just the opposite, undertaking a series of measures designed to encourage Israeli voters to support the hard line Likud Bloc against its more moderate Labor Party challengers. For example, the senior Bush administration—led by then-Secretary of State James Baker—publicly put forward a series of broad peace proposals, supported by much of the international community, prior to the Israeli elections. These proposals were responded to generally favorably by the Palestinians and other Arab parties as well as by the Israeli Labor Party, while being rejected by the incumbent Likud government. This helped make clear to Israeli voters that the peace process would move forward only by voting for Labor, resulting in Shamir’s ouster. This time around, however, the Bush Administration has blocked release of a similar roadmap for peace put together by the “quartet” of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. Rejecting requests by the other members that such an outline for a peace plan be made public to help Israeli voters choose, the United States insists that it will not be released until after the vote. This has been widely interpreted in Israel as an endorsement of Sharon’s re-election. As another example, just prior to the 1992 Israeli election, the senior Bush administration withheld approval of an Israeli request for a $10 billion loan guarantee until Israel put a freeze on their illegal settlements in the occupied territories. This threatened withholding of aid was a clear signal to the Israeli electorate that the Likud was taking positions so far to the right that it was losing Washington’s favor, thereby becoming a major factor in the defeat of the Likud. (Due to pressure from Democratic challenger Bill Clinton, Bush went ahead with the loan guarantees without the requisite freeze on settlement activity, but only after Rabin’s election.) This time, the current Bush administration has indicated its willingness to approve a $12 billion loan guarantee requested by Israel’s rightist government along with substantial increases in military aid for Israeli occupation forces, thereby giving a clear pre-election signal of U.S. support for the current Likud government’s policies. As long time Israeli peace and human rights activist Gila Svirsky observed, For decades, we in the Israeli peace movement have been struggling to get Israelis to compromise on the issue that feeds the conflict with the Palestinians. And then our work for peace gets doused twice: once by a prime minister who believes brutality will convince the Palestinians to give up, and then by a U.S. president who supports him on this. Bush has become a big part of the problem. He has to make up his mind: either he’s for peace, or he’s for Sharon. He can’t be both. Similarly, Israeli commentator Gideon Samet, writing in Haaretz, has noted that the United States has become “more Israeli than the Israelis…. Continuing to rage, raining abuse on ‘the other,’ and demonizing the Palestinians.” He adds, “With favors like that from our friends, we don’t need enemies.” (Stephen Zunes < [email protected] > is an associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He is Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project (online at www.fpif.org ) and is the author of the recently released book Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism < www.commoncouragepress.com .) Weekly multilateralism / unilateralism analysis via our Progressive Response ezine. 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