Unprecedented political euphoria engulfed the Middle East and western political circles during the days before the Israeli general elections, and as Ehud Barak’s strong victory over Benjamin Netanyahu unfolded. Despite the war in the Balkans, major international news networks, including CNN, BBC World Service, and the Doha-based Al-Jazira (the Arab equivalent of the CNN), dedicated hours to the elections. Palestinian Autonomous Authority (PAA) officials could not hide their pleasure at the defeat of the Likud government, and other Arab rulers began frantic preparations for the ‘dawn of peace’ anticipated with the arrival of Barak and Israel’s new, Labour-led government.
Such was the atmosphere that one Palestinian Islamist, referring to the liberation of Jerusalem by Salah al-Din in the eleventh century, said that this was no longer General Barak but Barak al-Din al-Ayyubi! In fact, Barak’s victory was of course neither a turning point nor a guarantee for justice and peace; it was rather an ordinary local event with mixed significance for the Israeli, Palestinian and Arab situations.
Ehud Barak, the most decorated officer in the Israeli army, is a former chief-of-staff and defence minister, and a protege of Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated Prime Minister who brought him into politics after he left the army in 1995. The man now celebrated internationally as a man of peace made his career leading some of Israel’s dirtiest operations, including assassinations, bombing civilians and blowing up airports. His rise to power will almost certainly boost the demoralized Israeli intelligence services and unleash a new campaign of terror and assassination against Palestinian Islamic activists.
The Israeli polls in mid-May were for both the appointment of a Prime Minister and the election of a new parliament. Barak’s victory is hailed as a mandate for the revival of the peace process; nothing could be further from the truth. Barak fought the elections on the head of One Israel List, which included his own Labour Bloc and two other formerly Likud groups. The defection of prominent Likud leaders, such as David Levy and Yitshaq Merdechi, to the Labour-led list, was the first blow to Likud and its leader, Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s response, playing on Israelis’ traditional fears, was to try to turn the elections into a referendum on the peace process and the Palestinian state, accusing Barak of selling out.
For Barak, however, the Palestinian issue was a non-issue. Supported by the Israeli and American media, Barak attacked Netanyahu’s untrustworthiness, arrogance and contribution to Israel’s increasing divisions. In many respects, Barak’s victory reflects Israelis’ lack of confidence in his opponent rather than support for him. Israeli voters know that Barak is no dove and that he will be as tough as Netanyahu with the Palestinians.
The results confirm that, contrary to popular perception, ordinary Israelis are generally more ‘hawkish’ than their ruling elite. Although Barak won a clear victory in the battle for the premiership, his Labour Party (like the Likud) lost a significant number of seats in parliament. In fact, the Israeli Left as a whole performed badly. The clear winners were the religious parties. Once the Arab vote, which constitutes 10-15 percent of the total electorate, is factored in, it is clear that that Barak was certainly not a victor in terms of the Jewish electorate.
Barak’s image as a peacemaker is based on two manifesto promises: to recognize a Palestinian state, and to withdraw the Israeli army from South Lebanon. Barak’s plan to withdraw from South Lebanon within a year of taking office has nothing to do with his views on the peace process. Both the Israelis and their allies in the South Lebanese Army (SLA) have been utterly defeated by the Hizbullah and the Lebanese resistance forces. Since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, successive Israeli chiefs-of-staff, Ehud Barak among them, have failed either to defeat the Hizbullah or to curtail mounting Israeli losses.
Antoine Lahd, commander of the SLA, decided on 31 May - weeks before Barak assumed office - to pull his troops out of Jezzine. Lahd’s army is deeply demoralized, and many among its ranks - hoping to save their own skins - have turned informers for the Hizbullah. If Barak succeeds in reaching an agreement with Syria and Lebanon, which is doubtful, Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon will be the first such move since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war to be undertaken because of a military defeat.
The situation on the Palestinian front is entirely different. Arafat and the PAA have been at the mercy of the Israeli government since the signing of the Oslo accord six years ago. Although both Rabin and Peres understood the implications of the PLO’s recognition of the Israeli state and agreement to a Palestinian national entity on part of Palestine, Netanyahu was largely a prisoner of the Israeli right and religious camp. The Likud government not only objected strongly to the emergence of a Palestinian state within the geographical borders of Palestine, but also could not keep to the terms of the agreements it signed with the Palestinians. Barak is apparently prepared to recognize a Palestinian state, albeit with crippling restrictions on its sovereignty, particularly with regard to foreign affairs.
More important is Barak’s view of the land issue. He believes that, in the final settlement of the Palestinian question, all the Jewish settlements on the West Bank should remain part of Israel, and their lands should will be annexed. The Palestinian parts of the West Bank must not be integrated in one geographical unit, and the Jordan river valley will be permanently under the control of the Israeli army. Neither will the Palestinians have any claim on Jerusalem. The Palestinian entity, therefore, will be cantonized, demilitarized, non-sovereign, and insulated from its Arab and Muslim environment.
Historically speaking, all this is mere detail. The issue for Muslims is whether the nationalist project of the PLO is still relevant. From its inception, immediately after the First World War, the Palestinian national movement revolved around the land of Palestine and its identity: Arab-Islamic or Arab and Zionist. The goal of establishing a Palestinian national entity, or a state, was always secondary to the struggle to preserve the Arab-Islamic identity of Palestine. During the 1920s, after the London conference of 1939, and again upon the passing of the UN Partition Plan of 1947, the Palestinians were offered the chance to establish their own state if they accepted that ‘Palestine is a country for two peoples, the Arabs and the Jews’. Each time, the Palestinian national movement, led by Hajj Amin al-Husayni, refused.
Fateh, the largest of the Palestinian resistance organizations, which came to lead the PLO after 1967, committed itself to the liberation of Palestine and the dismantling of the Zionist entity. In 1974, however, the PLO, under Soviet and Arab pressure, made the first step toward reordering the Palestinian national agenda. By making its ultimate goal the establishment of a state, the PLO abandoned the historical Arab-Islamic rights in Palestine. This was a declaration of defeat by the post-1948 generation of Palestinian leaders. Barak, and the European Jewish wing of the Israeli ruling elite, understand this profound shift in the Palestinian movement’s aspirations. Their readiness to recognize a crippled Palestinian state is hardly a concession.
Muslimedia: June 16-30, 1999