Straight Talk from the French on Israel
Le Monde's reporter Sylvain Cypel takes questions on the night of the Isreali elections. [Sorry, a link would require a subscription, but if you are subscriber, you can search for the chat].
Has the birth of the Kadima party, which wants to give a Constitution to Israel, shaken the foundations of the Jewish State, which has been historically unwilling to draw a distinction between state and religion?
Basically, yes, because Israel has never had a Constitution. At the present time we know very little of what Kadima would include in a Constitution. A Constitution was mentioned when Kadima was founded and is also written into its platform. But there was no reference to it during the campaign. If once in power Kadima promotes the idea of a Constitution, that would produce two kinds of problems and hostility. The first issue concerns, as you say, who is a Jew and who is not. It is a recurring question that has never been dealt with by the Knesset. Without a doubt, a Constitution would include the definition of the State of Israel as found in one of the first five Fundamental Laws, which are, in fact, Constitutional laws: Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. But the precise meaning of the word, Jewish, has not been defined. Doubtlessly, the religious parties would be opposed to a secular or ethnic definition.
Another problem is the question of equality among citizens. Israel has a minority of Palestinians, comprised of those who remained in Israeli territory after the War of 1948. They enjoy the same political rights as Jewish citizens but they endure discrimination because Israel is a Jewish State. For example: they cannot purchase land, which is government property, and land may only be sold to Jews. If there is a Constitution tomorrow, this type of discrimination would be written into it. But I cannot see Kadima seriously pursuing the drafting of a Constitution. I think it is merely campaign rhetoric responding the desire of a part of the electorate to see Israel and its institutions on a more modern footing. I think that the difficulties of writing a Constitution would be overwhelming.
The outside world characterizes the election as a major turning point, but nothing is likely to change. Do you believe that there exists a consensus from Left to Right on maintaining the occupation and a pursuing a security policy?
There is certainly consensus in Israel but it concerns only policies related to occupation and security. There is consensus on the idea of a physical separation from the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and maintaining a maximum of control over the population there. You could say that it’s the same thing, but in reality it is not. Why? Because there can be no separation without restitution of territory -- without giving up direct control over the evacuated territories. Le Monde published a series of graphics on Monday which clearly shows the distinctions between the various parties. There are nationalists and extreme Right-wingers who are in favor perpetuating the notion of Greater Israel, which necessarily involves control of the West Bank.
There is a pacifist Left which favors the Geneva Accords and which approves of evacuating all occupied territory with the exception of a few very small enclaves for which there would be territorial compensation elsewhere. But both movements are minor. The consensus is for keeping the giant settlement blocks. Debate concerns the fate of evacuated territory, which represents between 50 and 70% of the West Bank.
So the debate concerns the means of control. People say they want total evacuation but at the same time total control over the Palestinians. Kadima plans to evacuate between 50 and 70% of the West Bank and then to divide it up into five parts –five cantons—. They want to control the cantons and to find Palestinian partners who would accept calling that arrangement a “State”. But they won’t find any.
What does East Jerusalem look like with Kadima-drawn borders?
It’s pretty simple. The borders in Jerusalem follow the Separation Wall, which in fact is an attempt to rid Jerusalem of a portion of its Palestinian population by placing them on the far side of the wall while holding on to most of East Jerusalem, which is now Palestinian. In Jerusalem, the route of the wall is motivated by demographic considerations. They are trying to get rid off as many Arabs as possible while placing the near totality of East Jerusalem under Israeli control.
What status will Kadima accord the tens of thousands of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, whose access to city services is cut off by the Israeli security wall?
Kadima has no answer to this question. It is obviously a big problem with specific impact on the inhabitants of Jerusalem --200,000 of the 2.4 million Palestinians who live on the West Bank and who the wall leaves on the Israeli side. The future status of these territories if annexed and more so if they are not, is undefined.
You mentioned the division of the Palestinian territories into cantons, which are meant to form the Palestinian State. But couldn’t you call it a Bantustan?
I know that the term is often used to describe the situation. It is an ideological question, because when one says "Bantustan", one evokes apartheid. Bantustan was the name given to a black pseudo-State inside South Africa which was not legally recognized internationally. I don’t use that reference. They can call the cantons whatever they like. But the idea is very similar. That is the reason why I believe that the Israelis will find no Palestinian leader who would call it a “State”.
Several Israeli highways traverse the Palestinian territories. It is unimaginable that Israel would give up control of these roads. Is a Palestinians State legally viable in the eyes of the international community under such conditions?
I believe that is a fundamental question. Not so much due to Israeli control of roads, because there are highways in Gaza which Israel has evacuated. The problem is that of unilateral measures. That is the position of the Labour Party, which is opposed to unilateral measures, as well as the Israeli pacifists of the Meretz Party. They both say that the international community would never accept a unilateral solution ignoring the demands of its Palestinian partner. It is a basic question. Today, Israelis believe that they can do it because the balance of power is on their side. But my personal conviction is that they would fail.
Do you believe that an ultranationalist like Mr. Olmert can bring peace?
First of all, I believe that although Olmert hails from the ultranationalist movement, he has come to the same conclusion as the vast majority of Israeli Jews. What is the result of the last ten years for the average Israeli? That when they wanted peace, it failed, and when they made war, it failed. During the Intifada, they succeeded in militarily dominating the Palestinians, but that changed nothing. Significantly, the Palestinians did not capitulate.
Today Olmert represents Israeli consensus. People are talking more about peace but they want something else. They want calm with no terrorism and where they rub elbows with the fewest number of Palestinians possible. That’s where they got the idea of separation from the Palestinians with no peace agreement and to pursue separation without asking for a thing from anyone else, especially the Palestinians. This is the proof that the Israelis do not want a negotiated peace. During the electoral campaign, nobody was talking about peace except Labor and Meretz. In any case, I believe that the Kadima campaign and the departure from Likud of several leaders hailing from the ultranationalist movement are testimony to change in Israel as well as to the disastrous failure of ultranationalist movement, which has been weakened significantly.
How would the thorny question of unilateralism play out in a coalition government of Kadima and Labour?
That depends on the composition of the government. I don’t want to speculate about the new government but is not the government alone which can resolve the issue of unilateralism. For the moment, the leaders of Kadima, which is expected to win the elections, believe that this policy, pursued for the last two and a half years, has only been beneficial. In fact, Israel has won the support of Washington and the European Union has gone along with it. I believe that exactly as the Intifada caused change in Israel and brought them to realize that they couldn’t exercise direct control over another people forever, it has spurred them to look for other ways to keep the Palestinian indirectly under their thumb. But there are now new realities in place which may cause them to lose sight of the inanity of unilateral policies.
You can’t live in safety without addressing the question of Palestinian nationhood. In order to deal with it, the demands for a Palestinian state cannot be ignored. Reality will eventually bring the Israelis to this conclusion and not policies.
Could you say that in the coming years, Israel will be faced with two kinds of poverty? One being domestic, with 20% of the population below the poverty line with no chance to rise out of it due to extreme American socio-economic policies and the other internal-external, with millions of people in Palestinian enclaves whose dire economic situation cannot be ignored without dealing with permanent insurrection.
This is not a question about the future. This is what is taking place now. The last Sharon government pursued ultraliberal policies that would make those of those of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s look positively Leftist…. There has been clear-cutting of welfare budgets and subsidies, which has forced 20% of the population below the poverty line. There are entire areas in some cities, like Jerusalem, where in what the Israelis term “developing towns” (which are essentially blighted urban neighborhoods) the rate of poverty is over 50%.
As to the Palestinian population, the problem is different. Israel has the advantage of being able to occupy territory, to seal it off whenever they feel like it and to act like they bear no responsibility for its welfare. And that was when the Palestinian Authority existed! I believe that the victory of Hamas may be explained by a series of factors within the general political context of Arab-Muslim society. Islamism is gaining a foothold everywhere in Arab-Muslim lands. But the policies implemented by Israel enter into the equation as well. The Occupied Territories are caught in an economic stranglehold. This, together with chronic neglect on the part of the Palestinian Authority, brought a tremendous number of people, who are not Islamists, to vote for Hamas. They told themselves that Hamas could not be worse than Fatah.
There is much debate over this question in Israel between those who want to worsen the plight of the Palestinians so that they have no means to oppose Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories and those who have genuine concern and believe that the current level of poverty is loaded with danger --not only for the Palestinian Authority but also for Israel.
What is the importance of socio-economic issues to voters in a campaign focusing mostly on the Palestinian conflict?
We’ll see tonight how the Labour Party fares. The Labour Party has chosen Amir Peretz, an old union organizer, as its chairman. At the beginning of the campaign, Peretz focused exclusively on social issues. Later the Palestinian question was promoted to the forefront. According to the latest opinion polls, it would seem that Labour has plucked a hair from the beast. If this is so and if the Labour Party performs better than expected, then it means that social issues are becoming increasingly more important in Israel.
Why is the election producing lukewarm interest?
This is a very important question. It is linked to the emergence of Kadima. Kadima came to be for reasons which I have already explained, that is, due to disorientation and the feeling that the peace negotiations were going nowhere --but also that war had led to failure too. There is very profound disorientation affecting the entire population. People are beginning to say, Things cannot go on like this, and many are unsure of what to think.
We’ll see what happens tonight, but everyone in Israel is predicting an exceptional rate of abstention. Israel is a nation of voters and turnout is often quite large –more than 80% of the electorate. The campaign was lackluster because a lot of people did not know which way to turn and were unwilling to ask the question about a pullout from all the Occupied Territories --because evacuation is viewed as a terrible political defeat. But if Israel does not withdraw from the Occupied Territories, then the solutions proposed by Kadima won’t work either.
I think that the profound disorientation afflicting the Israeli population is by far underestimated.