Later this month, Israelis will elect a new Knesset and Prime Minister. Their decision will have important implications for the future of the peace process, as well as the well-being of the Palestinian people. Their choice is essentially between two parties: Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of nationalists, who advocate aggressive confrontation with the Palestinians while encouraging their persecution, and the Labor alternative, which would follow the course of the late Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein towards peace and reconciliation.
The reelection of Netanyahu and his Likud government would be detrimental to the survival of the peace process. It is Netanyahu who has betrayed the trust of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and President Clinton. He lied to them on many occasions, violating several peace agreements and building unnecessary settlements on the little land the Palestinians have. Many of his ministers repeatedly engage in damaging anti-Palestinian rhetoric, straining relations with their Palestinian counterparts.
The late Rabin and Arafat shed their vindictive and violent pasts to work together to achieve the mutual aspiration of their peoples: peace. Their hard work, epitomized in the 1993 Oslo Accords, has been ruined by Netanyahu’s rash policies, especially his decision to build new Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Last year’s Wye River Accords, mediated by President Clinton and the late King Hussein, aimed to bring about a reconciling compromise between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority made several key concessions: they dropped the clause in their charter that called for the destruction of Israel, as well as cutting their land demand in half, from 30 percent to 14.2 percent. Israel agreed to pull out troops and free some Palestinian prisoners. However, just days after the agreement was reached, Netanyahu suspended troop withdrawals under the guise of security interests in wake of a recent bus bombing. He broke his promises to President Clinton, to the ailing King Hussein, and most importantly to the Palestinian people.
Ever since the creation of the State of Israel, the Palestinians have suffered a lot. Although no side is singularly to blame for the Middle East conflict, the Palestinians are still completely justified in their demands for a state of their own. Imagine if foreigners, claiming a religious link to the land that your people had lived on for centuries, suddenly took it from you. That is what happened to the Palestinians when Zionist settlers took Palestinian ancestral lands and declared an independent state, ushering in what the Palestinians call al-nakba or “The Catastrophe,” when hundreds of thousands of their countrymen were displaced and many killed. Although I respect Israel’s claims in the Holy Land, Israel seemed to never really respect the Palestinians’ just as (if not more so) legitimate claims. They systematically denied the Palestinians equal rights and rarely would listen to their demands for greater freedom, autonomy and eventual statehood, to which they are morally entitled.
Israel had relegated the Palestinians to second-class citizenry, especially after the Six-Day War in 1967. Since then, the situation in Israel has become eerily similar to the American South before the civil rights movement. Palestinians are barred from living and working in most areas of the country; they are denied many employment opportunities; they are given limited access to democratic institutions; their land and property are repeatedly taken from them; they cannot go to the same schools; and they are not given access to the same government services as other Israelis.
Today’s Israeli government systematically discriminates against Palestinians because of their ethnic and religious background as a people. The Palestinians have had their human and social rights violated on their own land by what they perceived as an outside force; they have every right to demand a state of their own.
Fortunately, the United States, historically Israel’s staunchest ally, seems to have warmed to this idea. President Clinton has vaguely given his support to a Palestinian state and the First Lady caused a ruckus among pro-Israel lobbies when she explicitly voiced her support for a Palestinian state. More moderate and liberal segments of the Israeli population have even come to terms with the need for a Palestinian state.
The previous Israeli Labor government made many strides towards easing relations with the Palestinians and consenting to the inevitability of a Palestinian state. President Clinton and Arafat could trust Labor officials, especially former Prime Ministers Shimon Peres and Rabin (who was assassinated by an extreme nationalist Israeli at a peace rally). Unfortunately, the election of Netanyahu and his reactionary Likud-lead coalition has marked a short-term end of Palestinian aspirations.
Hopefully, as Israelis go to the polls this May 17, they will do what is right for their country and the region and elect a more moderate and sensible alternative to the reactionary forces of the Israeli far right. The Labor party, and its leader Ehud Barak, is a good choice for Israelis. Labor has proven itself to be committed to the peace process and realistic in its expectations of Palestinian statehood. At all costs, Israel must avoid reelecting a regressive government and look to Labor and Barak to lead them in future dealings with the Palestinians.
A new Labor government would be expected to bring Israel back into good favor with American peace negotiators, and Palestinian and Arab leaders. Assuredly, the peace process would be brought back on track and real progress will be made. Eventually, the Palestinians could be able to live on their ancient lands free of oppressive rule from outsiders in a democratic, independent state of their own.