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Guest Column: What Awaits Obama in the Middle East

By Dan Fleshler | December 3, 2008

Here is an interesting piece by Tom Mitchell, an occasional contributor to Realistic Dove. His analysis of the electoral mess in Israel, in particular, is persuasive. But I find it surprising that he believes Obama should “should look at preparing Israel for negotiations on the Palestinian track by nudging Israel into instituting a much-needed and long overdue electoral reform. Such a reform can take the form of changing to a different form of proportional representation…”

Pressing Israel to clamp down on renegade settlers and stop its de facto annexation of the West Bank will be hard enough; persuading politicians from its small, fractious parties to give up power and perks will be even harder. Or so I think…Anyway, here is the essay:

OBAMA’S MIDDLE EAST PEACEMAKING ENVIRONMENT
by Thomas Mitchell

When Obama assumes office on January 20, 2009 he will face three handicaps in regard to Middle East peacemaking that neither of his two immediate predecessors faced. First, he will face the worst economic situation, both domestically and globally, since the Great Depression of the 1930s. This will require most of his immediate attention for at least the first year in office. Whatever attention he has left over will be devoted to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No president since Gerald Ford took over for Nixon in 1974 has had to deal with foreign wars upon entering office.

Second, Obama will face a Palestinian polity that is divided between two major organizations: Hamas in Gaza and Fatah/PLO on the West Bank. Until either one of these two organizations establishes its hegemony or they manage to unite in a diplomatic front in a stable alliance, like the two rival liberation movements in Zimbabwe did in the 1970s (the Patriotic Front), progress on the Palestinian track is impossible. Although Hamas has been in existence since December 1987, Clinton and Rabin faced a PLO leadership that was in control of the Palestinian polity in 1993-94. Although the Islamists did have a very negative effect on the Oslo peace process starting in 1995-96, Chairman Arafat remained the acknowledged leader of the Palestinians until his death in late 2004. Mahmoud Abbas then took over and remained the recognized leader of the Palestinians until Fatah lost the elections to Hamas in January 2006. Since then the two organizations have fought a virtual civil war in stages with Hamas forcibly taking power in Gaza in 2007.

Third, in June 1992 Rabin assumed command of a government that commanded the support of 56 seats with outside support from both the religious parties and Shas. Rabin only had to worry about two parties in his coalition, both of whom supported a two-state solution to the conflict. Since then both these two parties have lost at least half of their representation in the Knesset. Recent polls indicate that Labor and Meretz combined will have fewer seats after March 2009 than Labor has today. Labor is in electoral free-fall. This is the position that the United Party/New Republic Party was in South Africa during the late 1970s and 1980s. During the late 1970s the two parties were in competition for the support of the English-speaking white electorate in South Africa. After 1979, the New Republic Party was viable only in the smallest of South Africa’s then four provinces, coastal Natal. Today Labor and Meretz are in competition for the support of the secular European Jewish (Ashkenazi) vote in Israel. Just as the National Party in South Africa split the English-speaking vote with the opposition by the 1970s, Labor and Meretz also split the secular Ashkenazi vote with the Likud and other parties.

Why the free fall? There are four basic reasons: First, punishment from the electorate for the failure of the Oslo peace process and the Al-Aksa Intifada; second, punishment for the performance of the Kadima-Labor government in the Second Lebanon War; third, an over-reliance by Labor on former generals to provide it with electoral charisma in place of having popular economic and social programs; and fourth; lack of a separate identity from Kadima and Likud.

Meretz has already attempted to change its fortunes by reconstituting a new center-left party with elements from Labor. This process could take several years. In South Africa the Progressive Party absorbed two main groups of defectors from the United Party during the 1970s to become the Progressive Reform Party and then the Progressive Federal Party. A decade later it absorbed two small parties started by National Party defectors to become the Democratic Party. And in this final version it sold its ideas to the ruling National Party in 1989 (or they stole them) and went on to become the main opposition party under majority rule.

A similar death and rebirth took place in the United States a century and a half ago. Like Labor, the Whigs were dependent on former generals to head up their ticket as presidential candidates. In four of the six presidential elections that the Whigs contested, the Whigs had a former general as their leading candidate or nominee. After their third and last former general lost in 1852, the Whigs collapsed due to undermining by the nativist Know-Nothings, strife between the two Whig sectional wings over slavery, and the death of their leading figures from 1850 to 1852.

The antislavery Northern Whigs merged with the antislavery Free Soil Party in 1854 as the Republicans. In the next presidential election in 1856 the Republican Party established itself as the opposition to the Democrats after the Know-Nothing party (the American Party) split over slavery. During the late 1850s the North Americans were absorbed by the Republicans in a skillful way and a compromise candidate from a battleground state was nominated by the party in May 1860. A split among the Democrats led to a Republican victory in November and forty years in power during which a new generation of military politicians came to dominate the party.

Is peace possible without a revitalized Labor Party or a new center-left party? Could Kadima be America’s Israeli peace partner for the present and the future? After all the racially conservative National Party made peace with the ANC in South Africa and the reactionary Democratic Unionist Party made peace with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. But the National Party started the peace process after trade sanctions had been in place for four years. Such sanctions are unlikely in the case of Israel. And the DUP merely executed the Good Friday Agreement (with very minor modifications) that had been negotiated by the Ulster Unionist Party a decade earlier. Tzipi Livni seems to be interested in a two-state solution but Kadima at present is a non-ideological party like the failed Dash and Center Party before it. It could implode at any moment due to internal differences.

In the short-term, the Obama administration should concentrate on negotiating a deal with Damascus along the Syrian track. Israel is much more prepared to negotiate over the Golan at present than it is over the West Bank, Gaza, and refugees. And in Damascus. Basher Assad seems to be firmly in control. But in the long-term, Obama should look at preparing Israel for negotiations on the Palestinian track by nudging Israel into instituting a much-needed and long overdue electoral reform. Such a reform can take the form of changing to a different form of proportional representation such as the single transferable vote (used in Ireland and Northern Ireland), to a mixed system of proportional representation and single-member constituencies or by merely raising the bar to entry to the Knesset to five percent or more. The leverage to enact such a reform can be provided by the Iranian threat.

On the Israeli Left’s difficulties, the U.S. can do little except to make them aware of comparable historical situations elsewhere and the penalty exacted by history for a failure to act. But Washington can also put pressure on Jerusalem to actively begin policing the illegal settlements in the territories and curtailing settlement expansion. Such settlement expansion helped to fuel Palestinian terrorism in the 1990s that killed the Oslo process.

Topics: American foreign policy, Hamas, Israel, Israeli settlements, Palestinians | 4 Comments »

4 Responses to “Guest Column: What Awaits Obama in the Middle East”

  1. Bill Pearlman Says:
    December 6th, 2008 at 10:01 am

    No question about it. Israel’s internal political system is completely screwed up. But if I ever saw an internal matter it is something like that. Obama is going to have enough problems has it is without having to deal with Shas and Meretz.

    On another note this is just the usual tripe. If only Israel just does A, B, and C all will be will and utopia will reign. And the only thing holding peace back is aipac and Netanyahu. Just once I’d like to see a guy like Mitchell comment on the internal Palestinian need for reform and movement and the larger Arab situation. Or let me put it another way. Is there ANYTHING that the Arabs might do, could do, or would be willing to do to advance the peace process, ANYTHING.

  2. Thomas Mitchell Says:
    December 6th, 2008 at 10:36 am

    Bill,

    I comment on Israel for two reasons. First, my expertise is in Israeli politics and not in Palestinian politics. I speak Hebrew, I was partially educated in Israel, and I regularly read the Israeli press. Second, the U.S. has some influence over Israeli politics but very little or none over Palestinian politics. Usually when the U.S. or Israel tries to influence Palestinian politics it ends up either having no effect or an effect opposite to that intended so as to make the problem worse.

    I have never claimed that the fault lies entirely or even mainly with Israel. But unlike you, I believe that there are problems on the Israeli–and on the American side–that need to be addressed if the peace process is to be successful. Imagine that the next time around the Palestinians have a united political movement, have stopped terrorism, and are willing to not demand a return of refugees but still want a return to the 1967 borders. With the present Israeli political condition this would be wasted. I merely want Israel to be ready when the Palestinians are finally ready.

  3. Teddy Says:
    December 6th, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Tom,

    Assume for the sake of argument that in the upcoming elections, under the current system Likud will get enough seats to easily cobble together a majority (with Kadima, Shas, the Askenazi religious parties, etc.) Would any of your proposed systems give Likud less power? How would it work?

  4. Thomas Mitchell Says:
    December 6th, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    Teddy,

    My proposal is neutral as far as which ideological tendencies will benefit from them. The purpose is to create more stable coalitions by having fewer parties represented in parliament. The parties in power can then be held responsible instead of being able to blame some small party for the collapse of the government.

    The three different choices would all work slightly differently. The PR-STV form of proportional representation would result in four to six parties, a mixed system would probably result in about the same number as under the present system but giving more seats to the larger parties. The raising of the barrier would eliminate all the parties with less than six or seven seats today.

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