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Winds of change in Israel?

by Daily Times - Pakistan Monday, Nov. 03, 2003 at 9:41 AM 92-42-5878614-19 Daily Times, 41-N, Industrial Area, Gulberg II, Lahore, Pakistan

A recent article by Akiva Eldar in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz signals the realisation that by supporting the Likud-rightwing combination, the United States is actually working against the long-term interests of Israel. The op-ed is appropriately titled: “With friends like these”.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict does not offer much hope of a resolution even at the best of times. Many a peace accord has foundered on the rocks of mutual hatred and distrust. But the horizon may not entirely be bleak. Three recent developments merit attention even as the rightwing coalition of Ariel Sharon continues with its offensive policies. Consider.

The phenomenon of refuseniks, Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories and have routinely been penalised for disobeying orders, is gaining momentum. From a handful, their numbers have swollen to hundreds. Recently, 500 such soldiers signed a petition calling upon the government to find a political solution to the problem and reiterated their decision to not accept the illegal orders to serve in the occupied territories. This is a welcome development and points to an increasing realisation among the conscientious soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces that Tel Aviv’s policy of non-accommodation of Palestinian aspirations is unworkable in the longer run.

Along these lines, but involving the elite Israeli air force, is the refusal by 25 fighter pilots to fly combat missions into the occupied territories. This is even more significant since Tel Aviv, for the past year, has been increasingly relying on the air force to mount bombing missions into the occupied territories to take out selective targets. Most of these missions have required pilots to target heavily populated civilian areas. Evidently, some of them could not take it any more: hence the refusal to fly such missions.

The second significant development is the Beilin-Abed-Rabbo agreement. This agreement, also known as the Geneva Accord, was signed October 12 by former Israeli minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian minister Yasser Abed-Rabbo. At its core lies a concession on the right of return for Palestinian refugees in exchange for Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount. The agreement has been negotiated over two-and-half years and the Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat took active, though behind-the-scenes, part in it. On the Israeli side, all the negotiators were members of the opposition, and included, among others, heavyweights like former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Labor’s Amram Mitzna. While Tel Aviv has denounced the agreement and the draft has no official status, the negotiators are planning to go ahead with its signing, which is likely to be on November 4, the anniversary of Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.

More than President George Bush’s peace roadmap or other schemes like putting the Palestinian areas under a UN trusteeship, the Beilin-Abed-Rabbo agreement, notwithstanding some of its flaws, holds out the hope for a movement in the right direction.

The third most significant development is off-the-record comments made by the serving IDF chief Moshe Ya’alon, decrying Mr Sharon’s policy of putting down the Palestinians through use of force without simultaneous recourse to any viable political strategy. General Ya’alon’s comments are significant for two reasons: until recently he was a vocal proponent of an armed response to the so-called Palestinian ‘terror’. That seems to have changed. Two, in keeping with the tradition of other IDF chiefs, but especially his predecessor Shaul Mofaz — now Mr Sharon’s defence minister — Mr Ya’alon likes to give a major input into policymaking. And he wants it to stick. So while he has been ticked off, the government has not asked him to retract his statement. Neither does it seem that he has any inclination of doing so.

Does all this add up to anything? The daily reports of violence coming out of the territories have generally inoculated everyone to other, subtler, signals of a change. There have been many over the years, not least the fact that today no one disputes the right of the Palestinians to have their own state — and this includes Mr Sharon and his government. It is quite another matter that Mr Sharon would like such a state to be completely truncated and moth-eaten. But he would never say that publicly. This is a far cry from the time when the PLO was considered a terrorist organisation. Today, it is the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

In a similar vein, it now seems that increasing numbers of Israelis realise that state violence will only beget more violence; that Tel Aviv’s policy has contributed towards the brutalisation of Israeli society. Israel cannot remain a ‘security state’ all its life. At some point, it has to start looking like a normal state. The pressures are manifold. Tourism has declined; the economy is in a shambles; people are leaving the country in the droves; the infrastructure is falling apart and the national psyche has been badly scarred. A recent article by Akiva Eldar in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz signals the realisation that by supporting the Likud-rightwing combination, the United States is actually working against the long-term interests of Israel. The op-ed is appropriately titled: “With friends like these”.

None of these developments may mean much alone; but in tandem they point to alternative thinking; also, in combination they can be the groundswell of new thinking. If soldiers have begun to question orders and if the IDF chief is advocating a political approach, then there may still be hope for a solution to the crisis.*

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