In the space of a single day this week, some significant events transpired in both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. On the Israeli side, the unity government did not survive to its second birthday, as Labor, led by now-former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, bolted the coalition. The Sharon government is now attempting to form a new coalition, one which will lean even more heavily to the right. On the Palestinian side, the Palestinian Legislative Council approved Yasir Arafat’ s new cabinet, one that is slightly smaller, but is still largely composed of the same people that constituted a cabinet that Arafat disbanded in the face of a vote of no confidence only some seven weeks previously. Both of these developments merit our scrutiny in order to grasp the politics at work in both bodies.
Though it gathered very little mention in news reports about the incident, the departure of Labor from the government was much less spur-of-the-moment than it seemed. Ostensibly, the government split over the issue of the new Israeli budget, with Labor wanting to divert a very small part of it ($147 million out of a budget of around $40 billion) away from the settlements and toward social services behind the Green Line. Only one report I could find, in the New York Times of all places, even mentioned stories circulating several months ago that told us that his advisers were telling Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to bolt the government around this time of year, and even that report mentioned this only in passing. Ben-Eliezer has found himself in a position where his party was still reeling from its disastrous loss in the 2001 elections and continuing to founder in Israeli public opinion. It is not so much that Israelis are enamored of the policies of the current government, but rather that they see no alternative being offered by the Labor coalition. At the same time, Ben-Eliezer’s position at the top of the Labor Party is in serious jeopardy. Public opinion polls are showing the mayor of Haifa, Amram Mitzna, having a considerable lead over Ben-Eliezer in popularity among Labor Party members. With settler violence against both Palestinians (in incidents where settlers were shooting and otherwise attacking Palestinians, as well as activists accompanying them, when they went to work their olive groves) and the IDF (when Ben-Eliezer ordered the dismantling of a few rogue settlements recently established, although he had not opposed considerable expansion of settlements over most of his tenure as Minister of Defense) having raised public opinion against, and brought attention to the illegal Israeli settlements, Ben-Eliezer seized upon this relatively minor budgetary debate to execute his plan for bolting the government. This was probably done in the hopes of forcing early elections in February or March. If early elections are indeed his aim, there will be more activity from him, as current polls not only show him well behind Mitzna in popularity, but that Sharon would triumph handily over either of them if elections were held now.
Ben-Eliezer and the Labor Party continue to offer little in the way of a plan either to revive the reeling Israeli economy or for progress toward a settlement with the Palestinians. Thus, while the splitting of the unity government may hold some hope for change in Israel, much has to happen before any such change can come about. The idea, expressed often in mainstream media reports, that this split will mean an even harsher Israeli government in power is possibly accurate, but it depends on the presupposition that the presence of Labor was acting as some kind of restraint until now. Perhaps this will become more evident now that Labor is out, but to date, examples of Labor acting to restrain the Sharon government have been few and far between, and minor when they have appeared. Still, the appointment of the notorious former Chief of Staff, Shaul Mofaz, to the Defense Ministry is cause for serious concern.
In the Palestinian Authority, the installation of the new cabinet has disappointed many of the leaders of the movement for reform in the Palestinian Authority. Hanan Ashrawi, for example, said “I don’t believe that this is the proper cabinet that would exhibit real accountability, real efficiency, real professionalism and real dedication to democracy.” The cabinet that passed was largely similar to the one that was to be rejected in a no-confidence vote and resigned instead on September 11, 2002. Why, then, was this cabinet approved, and approved by a wide margin of 56-18? The new vote was largely a reaction to the ongoing American and Israeli pressure on the Palestinian Authority for a reform that suits their ends. One person who was eliminated in the new cabinet was Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, who had been named Interior Minister and would have been in charge of reforming the PA. Yehiyeh was widely seen as the United States’ choice for that role, and his appointment gave a great deal of momentum to the opposition in the Palestinian Legislative Council, the group that has been pushing for democratic reform (as opposed to reforms that will please Israel and the United States, whose criteria do not include Palestinian democracy, rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding). By eliminating him and replacing him with a top Fatah official, Hani al-Hassan, Yasir Arafat blunted sufficient opposition to rally the PLC behind him in the face of mounting American-Israeli pressure for his removal. While Arafat, naturally, hailed the PLC approval of this new cabinet, it represents a setback for the movement for reform from within Palestinian civil society.
It is certainly not lost on the United States and Israel that their constant harping on the removal of Arafat cannot but be taken by the Palestinians as a challenge to keep him in office. The recent “roadmap” for peace presented by the United States in conjunction with the Quartet (the US, EU, UN and Russian Federation) makes no mention of a president of a reformed Palestinian government, but it does speak of elections for a Prime Minister; President is the office that Yasir Arafat holds. From many reports from both Palestinian and global human rights groups and NGOs, there can be little doubt that the PA, in what is now over six years of its existence, has a very poor human rights record, and that corruption has been an ongoing and serious problem. There is little doubt that reform is badly needed. Yet it is the very diktats of outsiders that cause Palestinians to grudgingly support the existing leadership. After all, what people would tolerate others deciding who would rule over them? And the ongoing attack on Palestinian infrastructure, civil society and the PA make reform virtually impossible.
As Uri Avnery has pointed out in a recent essay, the Labor Party, despite the political strategy behind it, has capitalized on the continuing activities of the Israeli left in choosing the issue of the settlements as his catapult out of the unity government. Despite the attempts at marginalizing them, the so-called “radical” left in Israel continues to reflect the view of the majority of Israelis that the settlements and the ideological leadership therein are major sources of escalation in the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Similarly, despite the fact that their efforts continue to be ignored by mainstream media, and are generally not reflected in the actions of the PA, the majority forces among Palestinians have spoken loudly and clearly that they are going to work for real reform, but that they will not change their leadership to suit Israel’s and the United States’ designs. Here in the United States, the peace movement faces similar attempts at marginalization. Yet, even so, we continue to represent majority opinions in this country, despite what the media portrays. Americans have consistently supported the view that the United States should be an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians, and have always supported Palestinian self-determination. Putting sufficient pressure on a government so that it acts in accordance with the will of the people is a difficult struggle. But there are many historical examples of successful efforts in this regard, and even when sweeping change does not occur, even having some influence can give us much to build on for the future.