The Israeli people want peace. They just don’t seem to know who to get it. The trouble is they want peace on their terms. Every opinion poll suggests a yearning for peace and a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. But every time an Israeli leader goes into negotiation, usually in the US, he has to worry about voter backlash. Inevitably, obvious and reasonable concessions to the Palestinians are not made. The Palestinians despair. Their leaders, too, worry about their political support. Violence erupts. Israelis and Palestinians on the street become more hard-line and peace, so close, becomes even further away.
It seems that every time Israelis elect a new leader the hawk of the election campaign becomes more dovish at the negotiating table and the dove of the election campaign becomes more hawkish as he realizes the prospect of electoral back-lash at re-election time. But either way, hawk or dove, no Israeli leader has been able to secure a complete peace agreement that sticks. Ultimately, the Israeli people are too fearful of the concessions it would take: acceptance of a Palestinian state; of a shared Jerusalem; of access to holy sites for all religions; and some concession about returnees.
The election of Ariel Sharon yesterday (Australian time) is unlikely to be a mould-breaker.
Fitting the pattern, Mr Sharon, who before the election portrayed himself as more hardline and more hawkish, upon election announced immediately that he would resume immediately the peace negotiations left of by his defeated predecessor, Erhud Barak. He went further. He announced he would seek to form a national unity government. On that score, however, he had little choice. Mr Sharon is in a uniquely weak position as Prime Minister. Hitherto, Israeli Prime Ministers were elected at the same time as Parliament. Until recently, an aspiring Prime Minister had to obtain a majority in the newly elected Parliament. In the past several elections, the Prime Minister has been elected separately and directly, but at the same time as the Parliament. But this election (called before the Prime Minister’s term was up) was for the Prime Ministership on its own. Whoever was elected had to work with the existing Parliament for the balance of its term. So although, Mr Sharon was elected with a 24-point majority over Mr Barak, that vote is not reflected in a parliamentary majority. He must therefore work with other parties if he is to carry legislation or a peace settlement.
The task before Mr Sharon verges on the impossible. He at once has to make sufficient concessions to the Palestinian leadership to bring them to serious peace negotiations and to order a moratorium on violence; he has to convince his own party that he is not selling out; and he has to convince enough MPs in the Parliament to put aside short-term political grand-standing and support whatever peace plan he can hold together.
restrain those among them from inciting violence.
Mr Sharon, like so many of his predecessors, has begun with high hopes. In words reminiscent of those spoken by Mr Barak upon his election as Prime Minister 19 months ago, Mr Sharon said, “”Today the state of Israel has embarked on a new path of security and harmony.”
But it will require more than words. It will require more than an expression of a desire for peace by so many Israeli people. It will require a leap of trust which defies long enmity and religious animosity to give ground (literally) to the Palestinians. It is for the Israelis to give because they are in the stronger position and they, over the years in the past, have taken so much territory from the Palestinians, however defensible that might have been in the face of so much provocation.
Mr Sharon cannot succeed without a change of heart by the Israeli people, its MPs and members of his own party.