Thursday, March 16, 2006

Israel and Palestine - a year of change

It should come as no surprise to an outside observer that the simmering dispute between Israel and the Palestinian people is a main cornerstone of many disagreements between the West and the Arab World. Arabs feel a sense of brotherhood with the Palestinians and hate Israel's treatment of them, and when we realize this disdain can be easily extended to those nations who are friends of Israel we can see the root of much of the angst towards the West in the Arab world, and the true catalyst of terrorism.

This being said, if someone figures out how to fix the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians, and build a lasting peace that is well accepted by both sides, it will cut off a major source of support for terrorism, and will likely lead to a wider détente between the Arab world and the West.

The possibility of fulfilling this dream falls within the hands of the Israeli and Palestinian leadership. Ten years ago, we almost had peace, thanks in large part to the pragmatic late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish extremist shortly before he could cement the deal with the Palestinians. In the years since then, Ariel Sharon came to power (a man reviled by Palestinians for his role in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon) , and the icing started to melt off Yasser Arafat's Fatah party as the Palestinians started to view them as corrupt and ineffective.

However, since Arafat's death a little over a year ago, the leadership of both Israel and Palestine have been greatly shaken up, and the results seem promising.

Palestinian Elections

The recent Palestinian parliamentary elections were a real shakeup, with Hamas winning a majority government. As I wrote previously, I am not convinced that Hamas winning this election is a bad thing - in fact, I tend to think it may be a good thing.

The Palestinian elections bore a striking relationship to our recent election in Canada. Like the Canadian Liberal party, the ruling Fatah party had gotten way too comfortable, and had allowed corruption, ineptitude, and apathy to corrode its ranks. The Palestinians voted in large numbers for the party they viewed as the most likely to put together a competent government, the least likely to fall prey to the temptation of corruption. Many of these voters were not voting FOR anyone, they were voting against corruption, against ineptitude, against apathy, and against Fatah, and so they cast their ballots for the party they viewed as most likely to beat Fatah: Hamas.

Unfortunately, Hamas also had a militant wing attached to it, has a policy calling for the destruction of Israel through armed conflict, and is viewed as a terrorist organization by much of the rest of the world.

However, as I had predicted a few weeks ago, power has a tendency to moderate one's views. It is easy for Hamas to wage violence and to complain about how someone else is running government, but when they're handed the reins of power themselves, a greater sense of reason is needed. For Hamas, their first swimming lesson was being thrown headfirst into the deep end, as Israel and some Western governments threatened to withhold the aid funding the Palestinian government is dependent on for its functioning.

Already, Hamas leaders have tempered some of their rhetoric and have hinted they would negotiate with and possibly recognize Israel under certain circumstances. In addition, since Hamas has more street credibility with Palestinian militants than the former government, it seems they would be more able to rein in militants in order to meet their end of any agreement they might accede to.

Changes in the Israeli Political Landscape

For most of his tenure as Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon has had to deal with a dichotomy of interests within his own Likud party. On one side, there were the hard-core Zionists, and on the other side the more moderate voices. Israel's recent Gaza pullout was strongly opposed by the hard-core Likud members, and resulted in Ariel Sharon leaving Likud and forming a new party called Kadima. Sharon was successful in bringing over a number of other moderate and popular Israeli politicians from both Labor and Likud.

Of course, just weeks after forming Kadima, Sharon himself was felled by a stroke, leaving behind him a huge power vacuum. And so, the party that was Sharon's brainchild will be going into its maiden election on March 28 without Sharon.

Israel's Election

Israel is having an election on March 28. Who Israel elects will have a huge impact on the prospects for peace in the region. Ariel Sharon, while popular in Israel, was reviled by Palestinians as the "Butcher" and was viewed by them as an obstacle to peace. For the prospects for peace to be revived, the Israelis will need to choose a leader who is strong and able to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians; to compromise without selling out Israel's interests.

Of course, for such a negotiation to be possible, it will also be necessary for Hamas to abandon its annihilistic policy towards Israel, and allow themselves to negotiate with an atmosphere of mutual respect. Good faith negotiation is a two-way street, you give things, and take other things, and if you do it right, both parties can come out satisfied.

I will be watching the Israeli elections very closely, as the ripples emanating from it will be felt around the world.