Israel's Changing Political Landscape:
Commentary By Diane Balser and Marcia Freedman

The nearly four months that have passed since Israel's historic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip have been turbulent ones, full of upheavals and surprises. The political landscape has been transformed nearly overnight -- but whether these changes bring new hope for the peace process or signal a return to the status quo is not yet clear. For analysis of these pivotal events, we turn to our leadership.

Below, CEO Diane Balser discusses the significance to our work of the border crossing deal brokered between Israelis and Palestinians by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and of the election of Amir Peretz to lead the Labor party [
read], and President Marcia Freedman offers insight on the hazards of unilateralism to the pursuit of a tenable Israeli-Palestinian peace [read].


Brit Tzedek's Message Echoed in Recent Events
By Diane Balser, CEO
[bio]

Though some would say this is a question of perception, I truly believe that the glass is almost always half full when it comes to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whenever we're ready to believe that any real possibility for reconciliation has died, along come new developments, and hope for the peaceful creation of two states for two peoples returns.

November brought two additional reasons for the American Jewish peace camp to be optimistic, events that may prove to be turning points on the road to peace. The first was the border crossing deal brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; the second, the election of long-time labor leader Amir Peretz to head the Labor party.

The agreement to coordinate greater freedom of movement for Palestinians in Gaza will allow expanded work opportunities and increased exports for residents of Gaza, and remove one more piece of the occupation -- thus returning to the Gazans a portion of control over their own destiny. Beginning in mid-December, Palestinians will also be able to travel between the West Bank and Gaza for the first time in five years. Construction is set to begin on a Gaza seaport, and the United States has urged Israel to reach a quick agreement with the Palestinians on reopening Gaza's international airport. Just this morning the US Administration announced that it would send a high level envoy to monitor the implementation of the deal and to discuss upgrading the Karni and Erez crossings from the Gaza Strip to Israel as well as running trade convoys between Gaza and the West Bank.

More than that, perhaps, the Secretary of State brought the two sides together for real, substantive negotiations for the first time since before the beginning of the al-Aksa intifada, and this may yet set the stage for broader negotiations down the line.

Although many pieces of the deal were in place before the Secretary arrived, the sides had been unable to achieve an agreement on their own. The transportation arrangement thus proves one very simple fact: when the US government puts weight behind its words, it can make an incalculable difference.

This notion has stood at the heart of Brit Tzedek's message since our inception; the Secretary of State's actions should give us ever-greater confidence in our work. So far the Administration hasn't gone significantly beyond what the two parties said beforehand that they were willing to do, but Secretary Rice was able to steer them around stumbling blocks and achieve a solution the sides would not have been able to reach alone.

The election of Mizrachi (meaning "eastern," referring to Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent who comprise approximately fifty percent of Israel's population) labor organizer Amir Peretz as head of Israel's Labor Party is further reason for real hope. His leadership is likely to have a tremendous impact on Israeli politics, as well as the make-up and direction of the peace camp. It is far too early to predict the eventual outcome, but the results of Israel's next elections have the potential to create a sea change in Israeli society.

Perhaps most importantly, Peretz has pulled the Labor Party out of Sharon's coalition. He has made no bones about his support for substantive negotiations and a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians based roughly on '67 lines with some negotiated land exchanges. With Peretz at the head of the Labor Party, this position will be brought firmly into the center of political dialogue in Israel, with Labor finally providing a real alternative to the status quo. Moreover, Peretz's critique of the occupation -- that economic justice and the resolution of the conflict are inseparably linked -- echoes Brit Tzedek's own longstanding contention that reconciliation with the Palestinians is, first and foremost, good for Israel. He believes that the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians has also been a hindrance to the solution of some of Israel's most pressing social ills, including an ever-rising tide of inequality. Today approximately one and a half million Israelis live below the poverty line, making do with less than $500 dollars a month. Peretz has pointed out that while Israel's working poor gave the first Likud Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, "a train ticket" by voting for him, Begin used his ticket not to get to their neighborhoods, but to the settlements. "The money didn't go to the slums," as Peretz puts it, "it all went to the settlements. We should end the cruel occupation, we should disengage from Gaza, but that is not all; we should re-engage with Israeli society, with the values of humanity and social justice."

His election has brought a representative of the Mizrachi population into the leadership of mainstream Israeli politics, under a socially progressive peace banner. The hope is that this will lead many Mizrachi voters -- who in the past have often voted Likud in protest of discrimination at the hands of the Labor Party -- to shift their support to a peace agenda, under Peretz's leadership.

As Brit Tzedek continues its work, these two events give us further confidence in the message we have promoted from the beginning: that to be pro-Israel requires us to work for peace.

This is a wonderful opportunity to energize Brit Tzedek's efforts and to become more assertive in spreading our message.

In order to take advantage of the momentum created by these events, we need to encourage honest dialogue within the Jewish community. Serious discussion of the political realities within Israel will expose the lively debate there and provide the space necessary to allow greater flexibility of thought in the American community as well.

We must not forget, however, that hope is not enough. Without concrete action, Israelis will continue to live in fear and insecurity, and Palestinians will continue to be denied their most basic rights. We must persist in our efforts to put pressure on the Administration and Congress to make resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a top priority.

Further, we have seen indisputable evidence that if we are to see peace sooner rather than later, the US government and people must be fully involved in the process. Expressing good will cannot suffice; this and any subsequent Administration will have to take bold, tangible steps -- the Secretary of State established that beyond any doubt this month. We need to stress this to our representatives in Washington, both as an organization and as individual constituents: The US can, and must, make a difference.
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The Pitfalls of Unitlateralism
By Marcia Freedman, President
[bio].

There seems to be a growing acceptance that a unilateral end to the occupation through continued Israeli evacuations of the West Bank, though maybe not the preferred way, is nonetheless an acceptable way for Israel to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians.

It may be true that any end to as much of the occupation as possible is better than what we have now: no end in sight. But if so, the price is very high. There are predictable pitfalls to continued unilateral moves on Israel's part, accompanied by the tacit or explicit consent of the international community and with or without the concurrence of the Palestinian Authority.

If Israel alone determines the border between itself and the Palestinian entity, one has to assume that the long-term intention is to turn the "security barrier" into Israel's de facto final border. To assume that Israel is investing $2 million per kilometer to build anything but a permanent dividing line defies common sense.

If the planned route of the security barrier becomes the border, Israel will annex 8-10% of the West Bank, effectively cutting the Palestinian entity into four enclaves with freedom of movement between them largely dependent on Israeli politics and the military command. The hazards to Israel of such a course of action may not be immediately apparent, but in the long term it spells a very bleak future.

The planned route of the fence will seal off the West Bank from East Jerusalem, isolating the Palestinian East Jerusalemites from all but Israeli-controlled access to the West Bank. It also extends 15 miles into the West Bank to incorporate Ariel, effectively cutting the West Bank into a northern and southern enclave, with travel between them restricted to a narrow passage easily controlled by Israel.

The overall effect of these consequences will be to divide the Palestinian entity into four enclaves: the Gaza Strip, which will have Israeli-controllable land access through Egypt, and marine and air access only by Israeli sufferance; East Jerusalem, whose residents will either remain stateless or become Israeli citizens; the Northern West Bank; and the Southern West Bank.

If Israel's intention is to create what some see as optimal borders for itself under existing circumstances, without regard to the effect of its actions on the Palestinians and Palestinian statehood, then the unilateral approach is just the ticket.

But the consequences of not securing a negotiated agreement prior to any further evacuation portend an infelicitous future for the Jewish state.

The Palestinian entity will languish on Israel's borders neither a viable state nor an occupied territory. While it will likely continue to have a government, in all critical respects it will remain subject to Israeli military and political control. The Palestinian people will of necessity be left impoverished, in civil chaos, and largely, still, a client of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency). Oppression weakens resistance in many, but for another many it steels it. With each new generation, Israel will be cultivating, by not-so-benign neglect, a dangerous enemy along its border.

By following a policy of unilateralism, Israel will be in danger of becoming a modern-day Sparta -- dependent in perpetuity on maintaining an overwhelming military advantage, with citizenry of all the generations compelled to serve in a trained army ever on guard, plagued by terrorism, its army and security forces attempting to control the Palestinians from a distance. Even Sparta can only win so many wars.

For now, this is only one possible future, but it is a likely one if Israel chooses to determine its borders unilaterally and, in so doing, creates impossible borders for a "provisional" Palestinian state. Furthermore, determining these borders outside the framework of negotiations, will mean that Israel's borders will likely never be recognized as legitimate by the international community.

It is an unchallenged truth that there is only one superpower in the world, and that superpower is the United States. Fortunately, our government has given some indication that it understands that a just, negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under the aegis of US diplomacy would benefit Israel, the Palestinians, and the security of the United States and the rest of the world.

With both Israeli and Palestinian elections scheduled to take place, the year 2006 will be a crucial one for Israel and the future of its relationship to the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world. And this is where we American Jews come in. Our work is to mobilize the American Jewish community to press our government to intervene definitively, vigorously urging the return of both parties to substantive negotiations in order to prevent the grim scenario that unilateralism portends.

Though we cannot expect, in an election year here and in Israel, that there will be any bold new diplomatic moves, history suggests that the Israeli government will seek to create new facts on the ground, either through new construction and other unilateral moves that prejudice final status negotiations. The Palestinians, for their part, will likely continue to drag their feet in putting an end to terrorism and disarming militants.

Those who seek peace and security for Israel will need to keep a critical eye on the actions of all parties, but particularly on our own government. Is it doing enough to prevent unilateralism from determining the future? What is it doing to keep both parties on track toward a resumption of negotiations? Is it really supporting the moderate Palestinian leadership enabling them to stay in power with a strong mandate? Is it holding Israel's feet to the fire in fulfilling its initial commitment under the Road Map?

In short, we must, at every opportunity, support stated U.S. policy, which envisions a negotiated solution to the conflict that ends with the establishment of a viable Palestinian state and a secure Israel.
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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
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