Archive for February, 2009

Israelis, in Crisis, Vote for a Government of War

February 13, 2009

By Nicola Nasser*


Dust of Tuesday’s voting battle settled down and the battle of forming the next Israeli government has just begun. With Benjamin Netanyahu poised for premiership and Avigdor Lieberman, leader of a “racist and fascist” party (as condemned by Talia Sasson of the Merez party) very well positioned to be the king or queen maker of the next ruling coalition, the Palestinian people and the whole region will have to brace as from next March for an Israeli government of war.


First on the agenda of the new government will be the approval of 2.4 billion shekels ordered on Monday by the outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to re-equip the army after the war on Gaza as well as an extra military funding of one billion shekels.


Ironically the Israelis went to early elections as a way out of a government crisis, but the narrowly – won victory of Kadima and the inconclusive results of Tuesday’s elections have put Israel in disarray and plunged it into a political limbo, with both Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Netanyahu of Likud claiming victory while a kingmaker role is awarded to Avigdor Lieberman and his anti-Arab platform. The tie set the stage for weeks of agonizing coalition negotiations. But what is more important, in view of historic experience, is that whenever Israel was in an internal crisis it used to resort to war as a way to unify its ranks, at least for a while. The present crisis is no exception and it doesn’t bode well for the Palestinians and the region.


By the Israeli basic law, the president must consult with all the parties as to who they prefer as prime minister, and whoever is recommended by more Knesset members is given the nod. The law however doesn’t oblige the president to nominate Kadima only because it was the winner in the polls. It’s now up to President Shimon Peres to decide whether Livni or Netanyahu should have the first shot at forming a government.


The number of Knesset seats needed for majority is 61. With ninety – nine percent of the votes counted early Wednesday the Likud – led right –wing and religious parties have more than 63 seats. Kadima – led center and leftist parties together with the Arab parties got less than 58 seats, which makes Kadima’s victory more a failure than a success.


Haaretz on February 8 published a “coalition calculator” predicting three coalition scenarios based on “a weighted average of six polls released at the end of the week”: First a “Netanyahu – led Right – Center Coalition” including Likud, Yesrael Betteinu, Labor and National Union + Jewish Home with a total of 66 Knesset seats, or 76 seats if Shas is added. Second a “Netanyahu – led Lieberman – Free Coalition” including Likud, Kadima, Labor with a total of 65 seats, or 75 seats with Shas. The third, described by Haaretz as the “Dark Horse” was a “Livni – led Coalition” [if Kadima edges Likud, which did happen] including Kadima, Yesrael Betteinu, Labor and Shas with a total of 69 seats. However the third possibility was almost ruled out on Tuesday.


Livni said she would not join any government led by Netanyahu. Lieberman was on record Tuesday night that he will recommend Netanyahu to Peres to lead a “right – wing government.” Shas, which came fifth on Tuesday, was the party that brought the Kadima – led government down over its objection to “negotiating” the future of Jerusalem, which in turn led to Tuesday’s early elections and accordingly will not join Kadima in a new coalition. Moreover Mohammad Barakeh of Hadash and Ahmad Tibi of the United Arab List-Ta’al both confirmed that they will not recommend Livni to Peres for premiership, neither they will support any ruling coalition that includes Lieberman and his party, and “we will sit in the opposition,” according to Tibi. Similarly Ehud Barak of Labor is not a taken – for – granted partner to Kadima in view of his statements that his party will not join a new ruling coalition if it did not get twenty seats in the Knesset and it got only thirteen. However Barak’s chances seem better with Likud whose leader Netanyahu publicly denied Lieberman the post of defense minister and praised Barak for his military performance in Operation Cast Lead against Gaza, hinting he could award Barak the post.


War Planned on Two – state Solution


Right and left –wing Israeli rhetoric however could not smokescreen the fact that Israel’s latest elections, from Palestinian and Arab perspectives, were competed among the right, the center right and the far right, or between the extremists and the ultra-extremists. Kadima was a breakaway from Likud in the first place. Yesrael Betteinu was an offshoot of Likud. Palestinian blood is on the hands of Netanyahu as much as it is on the hands of Livni and Barak. Does it really matter then if they differ on launching an all out war or limited wars on the Palestinian people, or on which is better to finish them once and for all in a military blitz or to exhaust them to elimination by prolonged gradual small wars!


While all the major winners in the Israeli February 10 election are in consensus on the imminent resumption of war on the Palestinian Gaza Strip, Netanyahu’s political platform promises an immediate political and colonial settlement war in the West Bank as well as for a planned attack on Iran that could embroil the whole region in a very much wider conflict, unless the new U.S. administration of Barak Obama decides to avert such a far – reaching threat by making good on its campaign promises for a dialogue with Tehran and exploits what the Iranian Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani described, during the opening session of the Munich Conference on Security Policy on February 6, as “the golden opportunity” for the normalization of U.S. – Iran relations.


This ominous outcome of Tuesday’s Israeli general elections does not mean of course that the former cabinet of Ehud Olmert was a government of peace, as it was proved otherwise by the two wars it launched in less than 30 months on Lebanon in 2006 and the recent 22-day war on Gaza, let alone carrying on with the war Olmert’s predecessor Ariel Sharon launched on the autonomous Palestinian Authority in the West Bank in 2002.


However while the outcome makes it very clear that resuming the war on Gaza is top on the agenda of the next government, spotlights are focusing away from Netanyahu’s plans for the West Bank, which is tantamount to an all out war on the so – called two – state solution and the so – called “peace process” to make it happen. He rejects the “Annapolis approach” and advocates instead a protracted “economic peace” approach as a necessary stage for creating conditions for political peace. He rules out negotiations on the final status issues of the refugees, Jerusalem and colonial Jewish settlements as “non – negotiable.” Netanyahu remains opposed to the land-for-peace concept at the heart of the Palestinian – Israeli signed accords within the framework of the Oslo process. During his campaign he warned against giving up any occupied territory to the Palestinians, claiming it would be “grabbed by extremists,” and said he will not be bound by Olmert’s commitments: “I will not keep Olmert’s commitments to withdraw and I won’t evacuate settlements. Those understandings are invalid and unimportant.” In January Netanyahu said there were other “models” for the Palestinians short of complete sovereignty. He will complete the reconstruction of the “separation wall” and maintain Israeli control over most of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the main settlement blocs, the Jordan Valley – relegating Palestinians to a series of disconnected Bantustans.


A War Referendum


The drift to what Israelis themselves describe as “right – wing” policies as the crystal clear outcome of the general election on February 10 is indication enough that Israel is in a crisis that has been brewing since its unilateral and unconditional withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, followed by its inconclusive war on that country in 2006 and exacerbated by its unilateral and unconditional withdrawal from the Palestinian Gaza Strip in another inconclusive war this year, all which prove that the erosion of the military “deterrence,” which the Israeli occupying power used to boast of since its creation in 1948 and which started with the Arab – Israeli war in 1973, is an irreversible historical trend that dictates a change of strategic course from seeking peace based on force and the exploits of force to a quest for peace based on justice and international law.


The erosion of the Israeli “deterrence” and the inconclusiveness of its military performance since 1973 created the ongoing crisis that brought in the Likud to power for the first time in 1977 to end Labor and “left’s” historical monopoly of government and usher in an era where none of the major parties could anymore wield enough popular support to score a “conclusive” electoral victory ever since, and the latest elections proved that this trend is there to stay for a long time to come.


However instead of drifting towards peace based on discarding their strategy of military force, which led to the occupation of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese territories, the Israeli decision makers are still yearning to pursue the same strategy by restoring their lost military deterrence. Towards this end, they have made war itself and warmongering legitimate tools of electoral campaigning as illustrated by “Operation Cast Lead” against the Palestinian people in Gaza, which dominated the campaign for February 10 elections.


Those elections were “Israel’s War Referendum,” according to the editorial of The Washington Times on February 9; they were “A Promise of War,” Jackson Diehl wrote in The Washington Post on the same day. “The past four Israeli elections have been won by a candidate who promised to end Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Tomorrow, for the first time in decades, Israelis may choose a prime minister who is promising to wage war,” Diehl said. This development in the Israeli political system and the ominous outcome of Tuesday’s election do not bode well for the Palestinian people or for the regional stability and peace.


Judging by the statements on record of the four major contenders for premiership (Netanyahu, Livni, Barak and Lieberman) and the political platforms of the five main parties (Likud, Kadima, Labor, Yesrael Betteinu and Shas) of the thirty-three party lists who competed for some of the 120 seats of the Knesset among an estimated five million voters on February 10, “security and defense,” Hamas, the Palestinian resistance in the Gaza strip and Iran were the key issues in the election campaign. The so-called “peace process” was written off or at least sidelined to the back burner.


An Existential Conflict


While all the winners on Tuesday were in consensus on how to deal with Iran “by all means,” according to Netanyahu, their consensus is not as much clear on how to deal with Hamas “by all means” as well. Livni’s stated lone subscription to the “Annapolis Process” may blur the fact that she was a member of the tripartite leadership with Barak and Olmert who were responsible for the bloody onslaught by the region’s self –proclaimed “invincible” military force on the civilian infrastructure and the civilian population of one and a half million Palestinians, more than seventy percent of whom are displaced refugees from the Israeli 1948 onslaught on their civilian existence in their original homeland that had become Israel ever since.


In a key speech last Monday Livni promised more attacks and ruled out any chance of a negotiated settlement with Hamas. “If by ending the operation we have yet to achieve deterrence, we will continue until they get the message,” she said, insisting on ignoring both the message of recent history since 1973 that “that” deterrence has irreversibly eroded by Arab state regular armies, but more by Palestinian and Lebanese popular resistance to military occupation, and the message that the “inconclusiveness” of Israeli wars against this resistance promises more erosion of the deterrence she and her rivals aspire for, especially in the Palestinian case because if the Lebanese civilians, for example, can flee north and east Palestinian refugees in Gaza as well as in the West Bank have no escape, but to join the resistance, and have no Syrian “strategic depth” like their Pan – Arab compatriots in Lebanon and their only strategic outlet is ironically Israel proper itself.


Abraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was right when he was quoted by The Guardian on February 4 as saying that the “conflict is an existential problem both on a personal and a national basis,” but he was partially right when he stated that only “Kadima failed” to address it as such. While Netanyahu admitted that Operation Cast Lead was not a success because it was an unfinished mission, Barak’s public admission on February 8 that he was running for defense minister, not prime minister, was also an admission that his campaigning militarily in Gaza was a failure that failed to improve his electoral chances. “It was a miscalculation: Brutal discourse and brutal policies always strengthen the far right – Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman,” co-founder and former director of the Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem, Michael Warschawski, said on Tuesday.


Neither Netanyahu nor Lieberman or Barak seem receptive of those messages of recent history, which have deterred the Israeli strategy of military deterrence twice since 2006, to address the conflict as one of “existence” for both sides as they continue to unilaterally deal with it as only an Israeli headache and not as a bilateral problem of existence for the Palestinian people too who have been resisting the Israeli genocide against their very existence for more than sixty one years.


Netanyahu was on record: “We must smash the Hamas power in Gaza.” “There will be no escape from toppling the Hamas regime.” “I’m sorry to say we haven’t gotten the job done; the next government will have no choice but to finish the job and uproot . . . the Iranian terror base.” Lieberman — who was on record that if it ever came to war, Israel had only to bomb the Aswan Dam to flood the Nile Valley and devastate Egypt — was more horrifying in hinting to “atomic” genocide. He denounced the Israeli unilateral ceasefire in Gaza as a sell-out of the military; his preferred strategy is total war against the Gaza Strip: “We must continue to fight Hamas just like the United States did with the Japanese in World War II.” In an opinion column titled, “Kahane Won,” Gideon Levy reminded Haaretz readers two days ahead of the election that Lieberman was a member of Kahane’s Kach party in his youth and wrote: “Rabbi Meir Kahane can rest in peace: His doctrine has won. Twenty years after his Knesset list was disqualified and 18 years after he was murdered, Kahanism has become legitimate in public discourse … If Kahane were alive and running for the 18th Knesset, not only would his list not be banned, it would win many votes, as Yisrael Beiteinu is expected to do.”


* The writer is a veteran Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit on the West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. This article was first published by on Thursday February 12, 2009.


Gaza New Siege Mechanism

February 2, 2009

By Nicola Nasser*


The rebuilding of Gaza has become the latest siege weapon. The Israeli occupation, the US that had backed its offensive, and the EU which did nothing to stop it are conspiring to turn the reconstruction process into a means to produce a suitable “peace partner” while the Arab summit in Kuwait hopes to use it to bring about Palestinian reconciliation. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA) government is urging all parties and others to look to it as the sole channel for administering the construction process on the grounds that it is the government formed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation that is recognised as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Soon we will see that freezing reconstruction will become the tool of all those parties for extracting from the resistance what they have been unable to gain from three weeks of warfare and the long blockade that preceded it.


Israel, the occupying power, is determined to keep a tight grip on the reconstruction process, which is why it sustained its closure of the border crossing following its “unilateral” ceasefire. Indeed, this is why it declared the ceasefire unilaterally: it did not want to be bound by any agreement — the Egyptian initiative or any other framework — that would oblige it to lift the embargo, if only partially, in order to facilitate reconstruction. Tel Aviv has also been seeking to obtain “guarantees” from international agencies such as UNWRA. On 19 January Reuters reported that Western diplomats revealed that Israel had asked the UN and other agencies to submit itemised lists of the goods, equipment and staff that they intend to send into Gaza, whether for urgent relief or for the more long-term reconstruction process. According to these sources, Israel plans to keep close tabs on these processes by insisting that the various agencies obtain its approval in advance for every project. One of the conditions for that approval will be that the project will not benefit Hamas or its government in Gaza. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has appointed Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog as coordinator of the Gaza reconstruction drive.


The US not only fully supports Israel on this; it is open about using the reconstruction process to help the PA reassert its authority and influence in Gaza. The EU is equally frank in its approval. EU External Relations Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner made clear that the EU would not contribute to reconstruction unless Gaza produced a viable peace partner and that it would not make aid available to a government led by Hamas. A high-level European diplomat was reported by Reuters as saying that this was “a recipe for failure”. “Let’s be realistic. If the PA is going to be responsible, its leadership and institutions have to exist on the ground. Right now none of that does,” he said.


It is patently clear that to Tel Aviv, Washington and Brussels the assertion of PA rule over Gaza is the strongest argument for holding off reconstruction as a Damocles sword over Gaza, and for the occupying power this condition is its strongest “guarantee” for sustaining its grip on that sword. The fear now is that Israel and the international powers that have helped it to perpetuate its occupation since 1967 will use a Palestinian façade buttressed by official Arab support to stage a repeat in Gaza of the Iraq experience in the wake of the 1991 war when reconstruction and development were perpetually deferred in order to further weaken the country preparatory to toppling the regime through the invasion that took place in 2003. It may or may not be a coincidence that the Israeli invasion of Gaza ended almost on the same date that the war against Iraq started 18 years ago. Nor does it bode well for the aftermath of a “regime change” scenario in Gaza that Iraq’s infrastructure today, six days after the Saddam regime was toppled, is worse than it was beforehand.


The attempt to engineer such a scenario can be seen in PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s appeal to the Arab summit last week to channel the reconstruction process through the PA and its institutions, an appeal echoed by World Bank President Robert Zoellick who met with Abbas on the fringes of the summit in Kuwait. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and other Western leaders had proposed creating a temporary international committee to oversee the funding and organisation of the reconstruction effort. However, Abbas and his supporters rejected such a mechanism on the grounds that “it presumes that the separation between Gaza and the West Bank will continue,” as acting PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad put it, adding that international donors who are eager to reconstruct Gaza “will risk deepening the Palestinian division by ignoring the role of the PA”.


The PA’s stance, if followed, would condemn Arab pledges made in Kuwait — as well as any pledges made in a possible international conference on the reconstruction of Gaza called for by Egypt, the PA and the EU president — to remain pending until such time as a “viable peace partner” secures a steady seat in Gaza.


Although the participants at the Kuwaiti summit stressed the need for the reconstruction of Gaza in principle, they failed to reach an agreement over the mechanism. Differences between leaders obstructed a proposal to create a reconstruction fund and the most participants managed to agree upon was to make reconstruction contingent upon Palestinian reconciliation, a task they designated to Arab foreign ministers without setting a date or place for a ministerial meeting for this purpose, leaving us with the question as to when and how Arab ministers are to succeed where their heads of state failed.


Of course this procrastination through delegating makes the pledge to reconstruct Gaza barely worth the paper it was written on and will probably consign it to the same oblivion fated for so many other Arab summit resolutions. One of those forgotten resolutions was that adopted by the emergency Arab summit in Cairo in October 2000 calling for the creation of an Al-Aqsa and Jerusalem Fund for the purpose of reconstructing Palestinian infrastructure, especially in the sectors of healthcare, education, agriculture and housing. Apparently Arab leaders in Kuwait did not wish to recall that that resolution did not restrict the distribution of funds through the channel of the PA but also provided for other channels such as UNWRA, the Egyptian and Qatari Red Crescents, the Jordanian Royal Philanthropic Organisation, the UN Arab Gulf Programme and other such regional and international humanitarian agencies. Perhaps, too, they did not want to remind anyone that when that earlier resolution was passed there was no “Hamas problem” behind which are hiding those who do not really want to reconstruct the occupied territories, whether in Gaza or in the West Bank.


The underlying reason why the Al-Aqsa and Jerusalem Fund was not adopted by the Kuwaiti summit as a mechanism for the reconstruction of Gaza is that the urgent humanitarian mission has been politicised whereas it should remain above the political fray between Palestinians, Arabs, foreign powers and everyone else whose voices are loud enough to drown out the appeals of those in need. There is nothing to debate about humanitarian relief. The Israeli offensive destroyed all the civil infrastructure of the government in Gaza on the grounds that it served as bases for Hamas whereas in fact it was PA infrastructure paid for by taxpayers in donor countries. Whole residential quarters were flattened, totally destroying 4,000 homes and severely damaging around 16,000 more. There are now some 100,000 civilians in urgent need of shelter, temporarily accommodated in some 12 refuges opened by UNWRA in schools that were also targeted by Israeli guns and therefore need to be repaired as well. In addition, agricultural land ruined by bombardment has to be reclaimed, potable water needs to be supplied to half a million Palestinians, electricity has to be restored to about the same number of people, and about 80 per cent of the inhabitants of Gaza are in urgent need of food relief (these are all UN estimates). Any political argument for postponing such urgent aid is morally outrageous.


The Israeli list of “prohibited materials” even before its offensive includes such items as iron, steel and cement, which are now absolutely vital to reconstruction. UN Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes pointed out this self-evident truth in a statement last Tuesday saying that if Israel refuses to allow in construction materials reconstruction cannot begin.


It is equally obvious that to adopt the PA as the sole channel for reconstruction financing is to effectively allow the occupying power, which destroyed Gaza, to supervise reconstruction. It is hardly possible to expect the PA, which is at Israel’s every beck and call, to independently and effectively manage the reconstruction process by remote control from Ramallah, let alone release funding for projects without Israel’s prior approval. Remember that President Abbas, himself, pleaded the difficulty of obtaining an Israeli exit permit on short notice as the reason he did not appear at the Doha summit on Gaza, according to Qatari Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Sheikh Hamed Ben Jasem Al Thani. Also, only two months ago, Abbas’s government in Ramallah could not disburse salaries to some 70,000 PA government employees who are believed paid to stay home because of the internal Palestinian rift. If, as acting Prime Minister Fayyad repeats on every occasion, the PA is unable to deliver the budgetary allocation to Gaza, which is about half of its total budget, how can that government be relied upon to deliver the funds that have been pledged — or will be pledged — for reconstruction?


Kuwait, for one, acted correctly when instead of waiting for the Arab summit to reach an agreement it donated $34 million directly to UNRWA. Similarly, Norway donated 20 million kroner to organisations capable of reaching civilians directly in Gaza, such as the International Red Cross. Such noble examples confirm the existence of practical, serious channels for meeting urgent humanitarian needs. These should not be made pawn to the demand for the arrival of a Palestinian “peace partner” to Gaza, contrary to the insistence of PA Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki in Kuwait that everything had to be coordinated with the PA “in all fields” before beginning the relief and reconstruction process. If that demand is met, nothing could be more guaranteed to subject the reconstruction process to the whims of the occupying power and turn it into another way to besiege Gaza in order to bring it to its knees.


* The writer is a veteran Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit on the West Bank of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. This article was translated from Arabic and published by Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue No. 932, 29 January – 4 February 2009.