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Yitzhak Rabin

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Israel: The Resurrection of Rabin

21 November 2005

Israel: The Resurrection of Rabin

By Gwynne Dyer

Can the old war criminal really want to end his political career by making peace with the Palestinians? Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has broken with the hard-right Likud Party that he helped to found three decades ago and is starting a new centrist party that will, he says, negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians. Has the Age of Miracles returned?

No. Sharon is only quitting Likud because it became clear that he would lose the party leadership next year to his old rival Binyamin Netanyahu: too many of Likud’s settler supporters are still outraged by his evacuation of the Gaza Strip last summer. The peace deal that his new party would offer the Palestinians is no better than the one he offered as head of Likud: he still intends to keep much of the occupied West Bank permanently. Nevertheless, something big has changed in Israel.

Sharon did not choose the timing of his dramatic moves. They were forced on him by the newly chosen leader of the Labour Party, Amir Peretz, who promptly pulled out of the Likud-Labour coalition through which Sharon has governed Israel. It is Peretz who is setting the agenda for the election that is due in late February or early March, and his agenda is genuinely about peace.

Peretz does not pull his punches. Israel’s poor have done so badly for the past several decades, he says, mainly because so much public money has been wasted on the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. And despite the past five years of violence, he has never wavered in his conviction that Israel must make peace with the Palestinians.

Not just a Sharon-style imposed peace, either, with Palestinians corralled in more or less self-governing cantons whose borders are defined by Israeli security concerns and settler land grabs. Peretz believes that the Palestinians must have a real state with enough land and power that they actually have something to lose: he supports Israeli withdrawal right back to the 1967 borders, and is contemptuous of Sharon’s too-little-too-late withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. It is as if Yitzhak Rabin had come back to life.

It is ten years since an extreme right-wing Jewish fanatic assassinated Rabin, the prime minister who agreed to negotiate a peace settlement with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Rabin, a tough former general, was murdered because he was willing to let the Palestinians have their own state in the occupied territories in return for a permanent peace — and the brutally ironic result was that Israel has been ruled for most of the time since by two Likud leaders, Sharon and Netanyahu, who never truly accepted Rabin’s goal.

They had to give it lip-service, since the rest of the world, and most importantly the United States, supported it. In practice, however, they sabotaged every peace initiative and went on expanding the settlements to establish Jewish “facts” on Palestinian land: the Israeli population of the occupied territories has more than doubled in the past decade. And for most of that decade Rabin’s Labour Party was led by Shimon Peres, now 82, who moved it sharply to the right on economic issues and took it into coalitions with Likud where it merely echoed Sharon’s policies.

Now Amir Peretz, a trade union leader who grew up in poverty after emigrating from Morocco, is taking Labour back to its left-wing roots on domestic policies like social welfare, which is likely to bring many former Labour voters back to their old loyalties. On peace with the Palestinians, he could not be clearer. Standing by Rabin’s grave two weeks ago, he said: “We will not rest until we reach a permanent agreement that would secure a safe future for our children…in a region where people lead a life of cooperation and not, God forbid, where blood is shed from time to time.”

Peretz’s rise comes at a good time. Ariel Sharon, the master manipulator whose specialty is wrecking any peace initiative that threatens his plans by goading Palestinian extremists into yet another atrocity, has lost control of Likud. His proposed new centre party must fight an election in only three months, and it could easily be caught in the cross-fire between a revived left-wing Labour and a hard-right Likud led by Netanyahu. This could be the 77-year-old Sharon’s last hurrah.

By a fortunate coincidence, the Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for 25 January will see the largest of the Islamist movements, Hamas, enter politics at the national level for the first time. Hamas still formally rejects any permanent peace with Israel, but in practice it will have to be part of any future negotiating process. That might transform both the nature of the process and Hamas’s own views of what is possible.

There have been too many false dawns, but if you squeeze your eyes tight shut you can imagine, just for a moment, that Yitzhak Rabin has risen from his grave and that the stupid and bloody waste of time and life over the past ten years was just a long detour on the road to a Middle East peace. Even now the enemies of peace on both sides are mobilising to stop it, but maybe there is a little hope.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“Peretz does…Palestinians”; and “Peretz’s rise…hurrah”)

Mirage of Peace

6 January 2005

The Mirage of a Middle East Peace

By Gwynne Dyer

You have to admire the dauntless optimism of the diplomats and commentators who are talking up the chances of progress on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal after Sunday’s election confirms Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) as the new Palestinian leader. It’s harder to admire their realism.

It was easy to believe in the possibility of peace ten years ago. Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, two men who had spent their whole lives fighting and who had the full trust of their own peoples, knew what they had to do to make peace happen, and if Rabin had not been assassinated by a Jewish extremist there probably would have been a final peace deal by 1996. (Certainly Rabin’s assassin believed so; that’s why he killed him.)

It was still just possible to believe in a Palestinian-Israeli peace five years ago, although by 1999 the scene had grown much darker. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak could not command the same unquestioning trust as Yitzhak Rabin, and Arafat’s influence over his own people had been severely undermined by the rise of militants, mostly Islamists, who rejected a compromise peace with Israel. But except for an outbreak of bombing by Palestinian rejectionists during the 1996 Israeli election after Rabin’s death, there had still been very little killing by either side.

But now? Close to four thousand Palestinians have been killed since the “second intifada” started in late 2000, and almost a thousand Israelis. Ariel Sharon, who bears a huge responsibility for provoking the violence, avoided all negotiations with the Palestinians during his past four years in power on the pretext that Arafat was not an acceptable negotiating partner. But Arafat’s death changes nothing: the Palestinians are so filled with rage and despair that even Mahmoud Abbas, the classic grey “man in a suit,” ends up letting gunmen hoist him on their shoulders and talking of “the Zionist enemy.”

Israelis get upset when he talks like that, but he has to; otherwise his own people wouldn’t vote for him. Many Palestinians are so exhausted by the years of constant violence that they would welcome a ceasefire, but the Palestinian street doesn’t really believes in the possibility of peace any more — and Israelis no longer believe in it either.

The myth that Israel offered Arafat a peace deal only a madman would refuse at Camp David in 2000, and that he walked away from it and returned to his old terrorist ways because he never really wanted a compromise peace at all, is now almost universally accepted by Israelis. It has been discredited by people who were actually at Camp David (including American observers), but that matters less than the fact that most Israelis believe it — and have by now generalised it to embrace all Palestinians.

People need a high level of hope and trust in order to accept painful sacrifices for a lasting peace: for the Israelis; giving up the occupied territories and the (illusory) security they bring; for the Palestinians, giving up the “right of return” to the lost lands within Israel. Eleven years after the Oslo accords, neither side has that much hope or trust any more, and so the hard-liners and the extremists on both sides win most of the arguments.

Why do the leaders even pretend to be working on a final peace settlement? Israeli governments are constrained by political realities in the United States, their greatest ally, to talk always in terms of peace even if they do not for a moment believe that it is possible. Palestinian leaders are forced by the harsher reality of American hostility and Israeli military power to go along with the charade, too. As Mahmoud Abbas said on Wednesday: “Resistance is a Palestinian right, but here the balance of power is broken, so we have to use peaceful means because it is more useful.”

There are even uglier calculations beneath the surface. Many Palestinians, convinced that the American adventure in Iraq will fail, and in failing will precipitate a collapse of Western influence in the region and a steep rise in Arab nationalism, begin to dream again that final victory against Israel is a possibility. That is folly, for Israel’s nuclear weapons mean that it would destroy the entire Middle East before going under, but desperate people entertain desperate dreams.

And in Israel, many people begin to believe once again that the Palestinians can be battered into submission, carved up into cantons, and kept under control without any need to hand back their land or give them a state. It could be true, too, at least for five or ten years: evacuating the few thousand Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip will ease the diplomatic pressure to remove the vastly larger settlements in the West Bank, the “security fence” really does keep most attackers out, and the Palestinians are all alone in their struggle.

After Mahmoud Abbas’s election there will be lots of talk of peace, and maybe even “peace talks,” to keep the powerful outsiders happy, and the level of violence may subside considerably, but there will be no peace deal. Perhaps, somewhere down the road, there will be another opportunity for a peace settlement like the one that arose in the early 90s, but for now it’s over. They’re just going through the motions.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“It was still…eitherside”; and “Why…useful”)