After the presidential elections of 2000, Americans are no strangers to election controversies. Nor are Israelis strangers to controversies around political fundraising or alliance building, as allegations of impropriety dogged both of the last two Prime Ministers. But the current scandal surrounding Prime Minister Ariel Sharon threatens to be possibly the greatest in Israeli electoral history. Sharon first crossed the line during the 1999 election when his campaign for leadership of the Likud accepted an overly large contribution from a shell corporation which funneled money to his campaign (some may recall similar allegations rocking the Nixon campaign before the Watergate controversy hit back in 1972). In order to escape a four-fold fine, Sharon got a loan, through his son, from a South African millionaire, Cyril Kern to repay the money. Kern has refused to comment on the matter at all. But that loan, which came via a circuitous route, has only raised more suspicions, as contributions from abroad for Israeli elections are forbidden.
This all comes on the heels of a Likud primary race that was alleged to have seen intense involvement from organized crime in Israel. One Likud Knesset member, Deputy Minister of Infrastructure Naomi Blumenthal, has already resigned after declining to answer investigatorsâ€™ questions. Votes were sold and traded for favors. But despite the controversy, nothing has changed on the Likud ticket. Their list now features Sharonâ€™s son as well as the daughter of a prominent casino owner (who is well-known as an organized crime figure and whose daughter has no political experience), in spots likely to secure Knesset seats, in addition to one Tzachi Hanegbi, who boasts in his history the brutal beating murder of a handcuffed Palestinian.
The Labor Party has also seen allegations of impropriety, but they have not reached the magnitude of the accusations leveled at Likud. But these scandals, which have absorbed an Israeli public that does not believe that either Sharon or Labor leader Amram Mitzna has a solution to the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, have served mostly as a distraction from greater issues. Ideas about the most important political issue, the occupation and its concomitant bloodshed, are pushed to the sideline. Instead, Sharon goes on Israeli television to denounce a â€œLabor plotâ€ against him in the form of these corruption allegations, then, when the broadcast is terminated (it is illegal to use the public air waves for â€œelection propagandaâ€), Sharon attempts to play the persecuted. Thus far, this strategy has failed.
Similarly, an earlier controversy also served as a mask. The Central Election Commission ignored the counsel of its own chief, Mishael Cheshin (the same man who ordered the termination of the broadcast of Sharonâ€™s speech), and barred Arab candidates, MKs Azmi Bishara and Ahmed Tibi, from running in this election. They also ignored Cheshin when they permitted Baruch Marzel of the far-right Herut Party and formerly of Meir Kahaneâ€™s Kach Party from running. The basis of their decision was the Israeli law which says that Knesset candidates must uphold the ideal of Israel as a democratic, Jewish state. Marzelâ€™s candidacy was called into question because of his past support for Kahane, who supported the expulsion of all Arabs (including Israeli citizens), and thus would be in violation of the â€œdemocraticâ€ condition. The uproar this caused was directed at the exclusion of Bishara and Tibi, and rightly so. Most Israelis were displeased to see such a blatant example of Arab citizens being excluded from the political process, such an obvious admission to the lack of democracy for Arabs in Israel. And the High Court did in fact overturn the CEC ruling, allowing Bishara (whose entire party had been barred) and Tibi to run. What got lost was that Marzel was also allowed to run, as the outrage was not directed at the CECâ€™s decision to allow him, and the Supreme Court did not overturn that part of the CEC decision. The irony there is that the addition to the Basic Law that was in question was enacted precisely to keep Kach members from running for the Knesset.
According to recent polls, the Likud has lost a good number of seats, dropping from a projection of 41 seats in the next Knesset to 27. Yet the Labor Party has gained very little from this, as the same polls only show an increase in their projected Knesset seats from 21 to 24. The centrist party, Shinui, whose basic tenets are opposition to any religious influence in state affairs and free market conservatism (and whose leader, Yossi (Tommy) Lapid has a well-known reputation for anti-Arabism), has been the big winner in the polls, with a projected gain of 11 seats over what they have now (6). The odd mix that the Labor Party presents, with a ticket headed by Amram Mitzna, but followed by a list that includes the major hawks of the Labor Party is not winning over many voters. Mitznaâ€™s continued support for the separation wall mitigates his appeal to the Israeli left, who might otherwise be enthused over his willingness to withdraw from Gaza and talk to Arafat. Mitzna instead has tried, with little success, to attract more centrist voters, not only with his support of the separation wall, but also by hedging on his earlier promise to withdraw immediately from Gaza. But mostly, Mitzna has focused on the Likud scandals, which is doing much to discredit Sharon, and little to endear himself to the Israeli voters.
While distractions have provided opportunities for the most extreme right-wingers like Hanegbi and Marzel, they have also served very well to divert attention form the root cause of Israelâ€™s problems, the ongoing occupation. For the candidates, that may be for the best, as neither Sharonâ€™ s unbridled brutality nor Mitznaâ€™s separation plans are likely to bring about a reasonable solution. Yes, a Mitzna victory is likely to mean less bloodshed in the near term, and this is something (perhaps, in these dark times, the only realistic thing) to be hoped for. But his ideas about withdrawal (from Gaza, which is of no use to Israel anyway, and some 60% or so of the West Bank) will do little to quell the conflict, and, to a great degree, do not even promise an end to the occupation in a real sense. Most Israelis want a way out, even if they disagree on what that means and how to go about it. But to find one that will work will mean that Israelis need to recognize that their future is inseparable from that of the Palestinians, and that they must find political leadership that will pursue a solution with the Palestinians, not without them. There may be different ways to formulate such plans, such as two states with economic relationships, or other ideas. But the only road to a decent future for everyone in the region is paved with the recognition that their future is one. Israeli leaders must recognize that the occupation has not only spilled a river of blood, the majority of it Palestinian; has not only destroyed what was left of Palestinian infrastructure, and many Palestinian homes and families; it has also done enormous damage to the Israeli economy and the Israeli social fabric. It is Israel, as the occupier, that must recognize that the only peaceful and just future is one where they are living with the Palestinians, as part of the Middle East, as a neighbor among equals, rather than as a dominating force and military base for the United States. And it is Israel that must realize that the only way to start toward that future is to end the occupation. Until that is the promise of a potential Prime Minister, there is little hope for sustained progress, and the best one can hope for is a few less people killed.