A focus on the wrong election in Israel
By Stanley A Weiss
SDEROT, southern Israel - In much of the world, school ends with the sound of a
bell: class dismissed. In this small city three miles from the Gaza border,
school often ends with the wail of a siren: rockets are on the way. Students
have 16 seconds to find cover.
They've had lots of practice. Since Israel withdrew its military from Gaza in
2005, more than 8,000 Hamas rockets have fallen here. Almost all miss their
targets but rattle the nerves; over 30% of the children here suffer from post
traumatic stress disorder.
Tired of the barrage, hundreds of families moved 16 kilometers north to the
city of Ashkelon. The rockets followed. This time, they were longer-range
Iranian-made Grad missiles. Visiting these
communities lends new perspective to the proportionality debate. If Hamas were
a better shot, the death toll would quickly escalate here, too.
Local papers report that an 18-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is
near, but nobody here believes they are safe as long as Hamas rules Gaza. The
last ceasefire in mid-January, ending Israel's horrific three-week campaign in
Gaza, was broken repeatedly.
Two hours before I arrived in Ashkelon - seven days before the Israeli election
- a Grad missile landed on the outskirts of town.
The same day, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu arrived, followed by
ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman. Both spoke of security. Neither mentioned
the mammoth blue-roofed desalination plant that sits on the edge of Ashkelon -
the largest plant of its kind in the world, able to convert the equivalent of
250 million liter-sized bottles of salt water into drinking water each day. The
promise it represents for water-starved people worldwide is staggering - yet,
it remains just a footnote to violence.
And that's the problem. How do you focus on long-term growth with three
missiles landing each day? The same question is asked in the West Bank, where
Palestinian business owners wonder how any infrastructure for growth can be
built alongside 500 checkpoints.
Israel's options in Gaza are few, ruled as it is by an enemy sworn to Israel's
destruction. Israel can choose to live with the rockets, attack again and
invite another public relations disaster. Or it can take back and govern Gaza
with its bombed infrastructure and many destitute refugees - a chilling
prospect to any Israeli politician.
With no peace process in place and no partner with whom to negotiate, many say
the two-state solution is dead. After all, wasn't that the message of the
election? That the public has lost its appetite for peace?
Not so fast, says Sari Nusseibeh, the widely respected president of Al-Quds
University in Jerusalem. He argues that critics are focusing on the wrong
The issue is not that Israel has new leadership uninterested in peace. The
issue is that America has a new president in Barack Obama very interested in
peace, who understands that the US will have little influence with Iran - and
by extension, little ability to exit Iraq peaceably - without a working
partnership with the less radicalized nations of the Arab League.
But as long as images of new violence from Gaza stir anger across the Muslim
world, that kind of partnership will be impossible.
Remember, what made near-peace possible in 2000 was not Hamas' absence, but
America's presence. In the waning days of his administration, former president
Bill Clinton helped forge the only peace plan ever embraced by Israelis,
Palestinians, Americans and the Arab League. But by the time Palestinian
Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat finally said "yes" 18 months
later, Clinton and Ehud Barak were out and the chance for peace was gone.
Much has happened since then. Nusseibeh, whom I met with in Jerusalem where he
served until December 2002 as the representative of the Palestinian National
Authority (PNA), has good reason to believe a two-state solution is still
possible: in 2003, he and an Israeli partner collected more than 200,000
signatures from both sides toward that end.
Nusseibeh believes the US should present the leaders of both Israel and the PNA
with a two-state framework. Gilead Sher, Israel's chief negotiator at those
2000 talks, agrees, and suggests rooting it in the Clinton parameters already
embraced by both sides.
Nusseibeh envisions that the two leaders not be asked to accept, reject or
negotiate the plan - but rather, to act as middlemen charged with putting the
plan for a vote in their respective communities. For the plan to become active,
both sides must vote "yes".
In Israel, a mature democracy, the vehicle for that vote should be a
referendum. On the Palestinian side, it should be an election, with the plan
constituting the current leadership's political platform. Hamas and all other
parties can participate. Such an election would engage the population - and the
Palestinian people at large - in an honest debate about the future, while
openly committing the political leadership to peace.
The question since the February 10 election has been: will US special envoy
George Mitchell be able to coax Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate for
peace? This solution bypasses both of them by making a request they cannot
refuse: ask the people. For families in Gaza, that may be the only way to build
a future of hope. For the families of Sderot and Ashkelon, that may be the way
to ensure a future without rockets.
Stanley A Weiss, founding chairman, Business Executives for National
Security (BENS), Washington, DC.