Since the beginning of the second Intifada, it has often been said that both the Israelis and Palestinians are afflicted with leadership that is not capable of making peace. Many people, across the political spectrums of both peoples have posited that the current leaders are simply entrenched in ways of thinking that have proven ineffective, and that new leaders, with new approaches, need to be tried. During his trial in Israel, Marwhan Barghouti recently called for a democratic change in leadership for the Palestinian people. Although Barghouti did not explicitly name Yasir Arafat, it was clear that he was calling for a widespread change in leadership for the Palestinians, and most understood Arafat to be included in that call. Still, so long as the United States and Israel continue to try to dictate to the Palestinians whom they should choose to lead them, it is likely that the people will respond by refusing to make any change that is demanded by their antagonists.
In Israel, the story is rather different. The recent victory of Amram Mitzna in the race for the head of the Labor Party does mark some departure from the old guard. Mitzna, a former general, had the relatively simple task of setting himself up as a clear option to the Labor leadership that had stayed in the unity government with Ariel Sharon’s Likud. Mitzna succeeded in doing so simply by appearing more reasonable than Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the former Minister of Defense of Sharon’s government and incumbent leader of the Labor Party.
Mitzna doesn’t need to go terribly far to accomplish this, but some of what he has to say is promising. For one thing, he has clearly stated that he opposes the policy, often stated (though sometimes not adhered to) by every previous government that Israel would not negotiate while the violence continues. He correctly identifies this as an absurdity-essentially a statement that one will not negotiate an end to combat until combat ends. He has also made it clear that, while he does still see Arafat as an enemy and terrorist, he sees it as the responsibility of Israeli leadership to negotiate with whomever the Palestinians choose as their leader, a welcome change from the diktats of the Sharon government, which would decide for the Palestinians whom their leaders would be. All of these are significant departures from current Israeli policies and are good reasons to support Mitzna’s candidacy. If he were to be elected, and followed through on these statements, it would mean at least some progress toward finding a way out of the current morass.
At the same time, it is important to avoid idealizing Mitzna’s candidacy. He is the man who was, as a general in the IDF, in charge of repressing the first intifada from 1987-1990, and he had no apparent problem coming down harshly on the Palestinians under the orders of Yitzhak Rabin. Mitzna is known as being a friend of big business, and also is in favor of the wall being built to separate the Occupied Territories and Israel. Yet it is also true that Mitzna has expressed opposition to the exact parameters of the wall, which seems to be on course to expropriate significant land in and around the Palestinian towns of Qaffin and Qalqilyah, and possibly other areas as well. And Mitzna has expressed some sympathy over demolishing homes in the late 80s.
Mitzna is a mixed bag. The Labor ticket he will head will have Ben-Eliezer and Shimon Peres in the other top spots, and the ticket is generally “balanced”, i.e. centrist, with a few right- or left-leaning candidates. But Mitzna himself has a good reputation among the Arabs of Haifa (although, whether through his fault or not, their situation has not improved much under his administration), displays none of the racism that Ehud Barak has espoused since his departure from office (see his interview with Benny Morris at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/15501) and he does seem to be pragmatic enough, to offer some hope of progress, rather than simply being a political double-talker.
What must be hoped for from the Israeli peace camp and its supporters abroad, then, is a very different approach than was taken with either Yitzhak Rabin or Ehud Barak. There needs to be a groundswell of support for the potential shifts that Mitzna promises. But that support must also come in the form of pressure to move further, both on the Israeli and American governments. Much in the same way as Mitzna could be, both Rabin and Barak were seen as welcome options to their extreme right-wing predecessors, Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu, respectively. This was, in part, the reason that many Israeli and Jewish supporters of peace were reluctant to look critically at their plans and actions, particularly in the euphoria after the signing of the Oslo Accords and the breathless anticipation of the end of the conflict that Barak promised at the Second Camp David summit, and in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.
In recent articles, Israeli commentators Tanya Reinhart and Uri Avnery have both outlined what they believe is necessary for Mitzna to win the upcoming election. Both agree that what is crucial for Mitzna is to present the Israeli public with a clear choice between himself and Sharon and to resist the political advisers who will be urging him to move toward the center. Both Reinhart and Avnery also urged Mitzna to present Israelis with a plan of action; and it is clear that Israelis, as well as Palestinians, have heard enough about more negotiations. To date, however, Mitzna has proposed to withdraw from Gaza, but continues to speak about unilateral separation from the West Bank and continues to be vague about how much land he would actually leave to the Palestinians. Reinhart suggested that the recommendations issued last year by over 1000 reserve and active military and security officials (see the article from Jewish Peace News at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/JewishPeaceNews/message/1599) would serve as a good basis for Mitzna to present as a plan to move forward. If Mitzna were to pursue such a plan, it would be crucial for him to be supported both in Israel and in the United States. But that support must be tempered with criticism when appropriate. Mitzna has spoken a good deal about how he would ensure the security of Israelis, as he must in his position. But it is for the peace activists to pressure him into bringing about some justice and hope for the Palestinians, as this is the only path to security for all the peoples of the region.
Finally, we must be cognizant of the fact that current polls in Israel are showing a powerful majority for Ariel Sharon over Mitzna. Uri Avnery makes the very valid point that, at the outset, no one believed that Mitzna could defeat Ben-Eliezer for the Labor leadership. So, it remains possible that Mitzna could indeed pull off another surprise and defeat Sharon. But even if he does not, that does not mean that all is lost. Mitzna’s continued leadership of Labor should keep Labor as an opposition party, and a good showing in that role could very well lead to a Mitzna victory in the next elections. In either case, the4 existence of a significant, mainstream opposition party in Israel is crucial-we have seen what becomes of the situation without one.
Some have argued that having Labor in power was even worse than Likud, because Labor could build its settlements and expand the occupation while convincing the world that they were the “good guys”, while Likud, with its more direct methods and more forthright violence reveals to the world the true face of the occupation. I would submit that the past two years of Ariel Sharon have done little to gain more material support for the Palestinians, whatever rhetorical support they may have gotten in the face of some of the more excessive actions taken by Israel. Instead, the Sharon government was able to bring Labor in, removing any credible political opposition, has gotten largely unquestioning support from the largest Jewish organizations worldwide and has been given a very wide berth from the United States. It is clear that, at the very least, some sort of counterweight is required. Even more, if a Mitzna government turns out to promise nothing more than what we have already seen, at Oslo and Camp David, will not work, they would have to answer to a constituency that is desirous of a truly just and lasting peace.
For those of us outside of Israel, the need is just as sharp. If an Israeli government is ever to embark upon a fundamentally different approach to the Palestinians, it will only do so because of the pressure of Israeli voters combined with a change in American Middle East policy. It is not enough for us to tell the White House to listen to Mitzna; we must be telling the White House to push Mitzna even further toward peace. The Israelis, in this sense, have the easier part-they need to work within the parameters of their existing political system. We here in the US have a much longer and harder road, as a stance that promotes genuine peace has no current political purchase at all in the United States. But even if we are only beginning to move down that road, that simple motion will, in and of itself, be an aid to the Israeli and Palestinian peace movements. And it is only by walking down that road now that we can hope to build a better future, for Israelis, Palestinians and the entire world, which continues to be involved in this conflict whether it wants to be or not. We can help make things better even today, even if only a little bit better. But continued work and perseverance can, in the long run, build that better future.