Friday, March 31, 2006

Israel Divided as it Heads to the Polls

-Qalqilya, West Bank - March 2006
-Taken from

Standing on a dreary patch of gravel high above the town, shielding his eyes from the sun, our guide gazes down at the jumble of concrete blocks spilling over each other below. Behind us, lush green fields roll into the horizon. Down to the left, a motorway winds its way through the landscape.

Beyond the distant humming of traffic and the rustling of the wind, our vantage point is eerily quiet. In the middle of a frenzied election campaign that will have ramifications far beyond the country’s own volatile borders, this rocky plateau straddling Israel and the West Bank feels like an oasis of tranquillity. In reality, it lies at the heart of the political battle that Israel is currently engulfed in. We are standing on the edge of farmland belonging to the residents of Qalqilya, home to 43,000 Palestinians. The town is almost completely encircled by a security fence constructed by the Israelis to stem the flow of suicide bombers coming out of the West Bank and into the nearby city of Tel Aviv. Like the strength of feeling the fence invokes, its construction takes different forms. North, south and east of the town, razor wire runs along the outermost buildings, with an electric fence patrolled by Israeli military vehicles. To the west, a 25ft high concrete wall hides the motorway – one of the country’s key road arteries – from the snipers the Israeli government insists are lurking on Qalqilya’s rooftops.

The fence snakes deep into the West Bank, looping round the Israeli settlement of Alfe Menashe and segregating it from the Palestinian land it occupies. But the route of the fence means that the agricultural land that many of Qalqilya’s residents rely on to survive is cut off from them. Farmworkers have to obtain permits and pass through checkpoints to reach the source of their livelihood. They are frequently prevented from doing so. The young, well-groomed press officer from the Israeli Defence Force who is showing us around claims the fence has cut suicide bombings in the area by 90%. Yet since its completion, unemployment in this grey town with its grey wall has reached 67%. "Nobody is saying the situation is perfect," he says quietly.

On Tuesday 28 March, Israelis went to the polls to elect a government that will decide how to resolve this situation. If, as expected, that government is led by ‘Kadima’ – the nation’s youngest political party that has bulldozed its way into the political centre under the guidance of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – then settlements like Alfe Menashe could find their days numbered. Like Sharon, who is unlikely to emerge from a stroke-induced coma, Kadima’s new leader Ehud Olmert has promised to continue his predecessor’s divisive policy of unilateral withdrawals from territory Israel annexed following war with the Palestinians in 1967.

The strategy has caused division on either side of the political spectrum, and either side of the military fence itself. On the right, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party screams from buses and billboards of the horrors that will follow if concessions are made to the Palestinians. On the left, there is deep concern that Kadima, a affiliation of disparate groups brought together by the force of Sharon’s immense political capital, is not equipped to lead Israel through to final-status negotiations with the Palestinians. "We need a government with a backbone, that knows where it wants to go and how it’s going to do it," says Collete Avital, a senior Labour member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

Her party’s response has been to try and enthuse voters on the subject of economic reform, a concern that normally finds itself a remote second to security when it comes to electoral priorities. In the 1950s and 1960s, Israel was revered by European liberals as a model of social democracy; even by the 1970s, the Labour-led government was, in its own words, trying to build an egalitarian society. Today the widening gap between rich and poor has prompted the left to dismiss what they describe as Kadima’s ‘posturing’ over relations with the Palestinians and instead tackle the ‘real problems’. "What’s happening in Israel today in terms of poverty and social injustice is a catastrophe," insists Avital. "Vague pragmatism is not the answer; military security matters greatly, but so does social security."

Yet in a small country surrounded by oft-hostile states, populated by a people ravaged by persecution, a security mindset is impossible to escape. The election of Hamas in the recent parliamentary elections and the increasingly belligerent noises being made by President Ahmadinejad of Iran have understandably jangled nerves in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and beyond. The granting of a mandate to a Palestinian party apparently intent on wiping Israel off the map is one of the main talking points in a country where everybody has a political opinion. Created from nothing, bound together through a shared self-determination that has been threatened ever since, Israel is not about to forget about its Palestinian ‘problem’.

In a third-floor apartment in Ramat Hatishbi, a small neighbourhood on the slopes of Mount Carmel in Haifa, two mothers illustrate why. Amidst a smorgasbord of cakes, sweets and hot Israeli tea, Tova Bahat recalls the day in October 2003 when a family restaurant on the Hahagana Boulevard was ripped apart by a female suicide bomber. Tova survived; her husband and son did not. She speaks softly but firmly, interjecting her account with soothing words to her remaining child and quick dashes to the kitchen to fetch more crockery. "When you have children, you have to survive for them," she explains.

The explosion killed 21 and maimed 100 more, a destruction of life shocking in its magnitude but one of many which became a weary, yet painful fact of life for Israelis, for whom security searches at restaurants, clubs and transport hubs are a daily reality. Tova, and her friend Orly Almog who also lost her husband in the blast, view the elections through jaded eyes, but talk of the problems with real anger. "The Palestinians are fanatics. How can you reason with these people, with mothers that send their own children to die? To explode yourself next to as many people as possible, next to babies…" Tova trails off. "It’s not human," she finally adds. "You can’t expect me to understand it."

As Israel faces growing condemnation from the international media over its actions in the West Bank, for those who have been on the receiving end of such violence it can feel as if the world has turned its back on them. The pair look at me and ask whether I can see the connection between the tube bombings in London and the Israel’s struggle with terrorism. "Europe’s support for Palestinians legitimises these actions. Is our blood cheaper than yours? I don’t understand it." Does the world understand what they have gone through? "You wouldn’t be here if they did," smiles Tova. When asked about the elections, the pair both shrug. For them, peace, if it comes, will be too late.

And yet despite the hatred, as Israel approaches the ballot box, there is an unmistakeable feeling of hope in the air. For those working for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, it’s been a dispiriting few years. "We’re not at the place we wanted to be," says Daniel Taub, deputy legal advisor for the Ministry of Defence. "The sense of trust and vision that we once had has dissipated somewhat. What we wanted was a spiral of confidence; instead we’ve had a spiral in the opposite direction."

But the creation of Kadima, rightly or wrongly, has brought together a real consensus around withdrawing from the West Bank and establishing a lasting peace with the Palestinians along the lines of two separate states. Many on the right have accepted that the ongoing financial and security cost of occupation is not sustainable; on the left, there is a feeling that protracted negotiations are impossible without a viable partner on the opposite side, the prospect of which has almost disappeared with the advent of a Hamas-led Palestinian government. That leaves Kadima, a party formed by the right to carry out the policies of the left, in the middle to soak up the votes.

Whether they can deliver is another matter. Yohanan Plesner, a fresh-faced Harvard-educated Kadima candidate, embodies everything that is strongest and weakest about this strange but powerful new electoral force. Crisply dressed and smartly-spoken, Plesner does a great job in articulating a spirit of optimism that does genuinely seem to have taken hold of many in Israel. "There has been a substantial change in the political landscape," he says earnestly, and it’s hard not to believe him. Yet when asked to detail exactly what Kadima’s policy commitments are, he is flustered and avoids being pinned down. Kadima members, for all their popular rhetoric, are only too aware that any firm engagement now with the issues that will shape the next decade of Israeli politics, such as the future of the settlements, the permanence of the wall and the country’s uneasy relationship with its Arab neighbours, will cost them dearly at the ballot box.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Kadima, which Sharon declared would be joined by 100,000 people, has garnered a membership a tenth of that size. The principle of disengagement is a widely supported one, but with little else on the table, who can be too enthusiastic about men like Plesner, a triumph of style over substance? For their part, the Palestinians remain at best sceptical and at worst downright hostile to Olmert’s ambiguous plans. Saeb Erakat, the PLO’s chief negotiator and veteran of countless accords, treaties and road maps that proved to be missed opportunities, is impatient for progress but points the finger firmly at Israel for the present quandary. "This is a country apparently immune to making mistakes," he says disdainfully. "That is very sad. Israelis cannot open their eyes and see what unilateralism has done."

In the aftermath of a prominent piece in the British newspaper The Guardian that drew a direct comparison between apartheid South Africa and modern Israel, Erakat rails against a system that requires him to obtain a permit simply to travel in his own country. This week it emerged that prejudice against Israeli Arabs is still ripe in Israel, with over two thirds of Israelis admitting they would refuse to live in the same building as an Arab and 41% calling for segregation of entertainment facilities. Yet despite this, Erakat can still see a future beyond the distrust and violence. "Israel has gone through labour pains," he says with a discernibly patronising wave of the hand. "I hope it delivers soon. Tomorrow must be a day for the endgame… today the line is drawn not between those who are pro-Israel and pro-Arab, but between the thousands who want peace and those who oppose it."

Back up on the Qalqilya hillside, staring down at the granite slabs comprising a barrier that Israel insists is temporary but which, from any angle, looks grimly permanent, it is difficult to see whether he is right.

29th March: Israelis have had their say, as predicted, they turned out in their hundreds of thousands for Kadima, (though not overwhelming in numbers and Kadima will have to form a coalition) the new government will have an unprecedented mandate for withdrawal. Whether it can accept that challenge and transform rhetorical bluster into progress as concrete as the wall encircling Qalqilya will have profound implications in Israel and beyond.