During the month of May, two longtime observers of Israeli politics with sharply contrasting perspectives told Seattleites what they see unfolding since the March 28 election that brought the newly formed Kadima Party into office.
During their visits to the area, Marcia Freedman, national president of Brit Tzedek V`Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, and Herb Keinon, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, sat down with JTNews for separate interviews.
Freedman, who divides her time between Berkeley, Calif. and Jerusalem, was one of the original leaders of the Israeli feminist movement and a member of the Knesset in the 1970s. She is also a longtime Israeli peace activist. Keinon has been with the Post for 18 years and has covered the diplomatic beat since 2000. He lives with his family in the Ma`ale Adumim settlement, just outside of Jerusalem.
On at least one point the two observers agreed ` the Israeli people were voting for an end to the occupation, one way or another.
`There seems to be a very general sense in Israel today, expressed in the electoral results, that it is time to end the occupation.
The question being debated in Israel is how to do that,` Freedman said. `This election [is] really an historical marker at the point of which Israeli society decided it no longer wanted to be in the business of occupation.`
The question being debated within Israeli society, she said, is how to accomplish that goal.
`One way to do that, obviously,` she said, `would be to have a negotiated settlement and final status border with agreements and peace and security for both sides. And the second way to that is the Israelis are saying we can do that unilaterally, we can establish our own borders.`
Keinon said that the government of Ehud Olmert is trying to move up the timetable for ending the occupation of much of the West Bank through the same type of unilateral actions taken by Ariel Sharon in Gaza. During the election campaign, he said, Olmert talked in terms of taking action to finalize Israel`s international borders within 10 years.
Since forming the government, he has been trying to shorten that timeline, most recently threatening that if Hamas does not accept the international community`s demands that they accept Israel`s right to exist and denounce violence in the next several months, Israel will need to act on its own. A major reason for the rush to action, Keinon said, is that the Israelis see President Bush as the best friend Israel has had in the White House in some time, and they do not want to wait to see who will replace him in 2008.
`They`re building a fence,` he added. `Although they don`t say it ` they say it`s a security barrier, not a political barrier ` most people understand that everything on Israel`s side of the fence is inside and everything on the other side is outside Israel. Olmert wants to keep hold of the major settlement blocs. He doesn`t define exactly what those are, but he says there may be settlement blocs he wants to keep and the U.S. has signed off on it through that letter that Bush gave to Sharon in 2004, saying that the U.S. understands that the situation on the ground has changed and those changes have to be taken into consideration.`
Freedman said that both pathways to a settlement, negotiating one with the Palestinians and acting unilaterally to set the borders are possible and the question being debated is which is the better course to take.
`Hamas itself is saying that if Israel were willing to negotiate on the basis of 1967 borders, they would be willing to negotiate with Israel,` she said. `Ismael Haniyeh, who is the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, has said that Hamas and the Palestinian legislative council recognizes the authority of Mahmoud Abbas, who is president of the Palestinian Authority, to conduct diplomatic affairs and negotiate in the name of the Palestinian people.
`It`s not really that Hamas does not wish to negotiate, it`s that both the United States and Israel are saying ` but particularly Israel ` that Hamas is not a suitable partner for negotiations,` said Freedman.
`On the one hand, that`s very reasonable, and on the other hand it`s unreasonable if there are signs that Hamas is moderating and trying to do those things without going so far as revising its charter. Should Israel and should the United States be open to those signs of moderation within Hamas? Should we treat, for instance, Hamas as the world began to treat the IRA and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland?`
Keinon said the Olmert government does not see Hamas as a reliable partner for negotiations and is not willing to talk to P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas because they have no guarantees that the Hamas leadership would feel bound by any results that came out of a negotiation with the Fatah leader. He said the Israeli government does not think it is reasonable to try to tease out differences within the Palestinian Authority or to rely on implicit statements by leaders of what they see as a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of the Jewish State.
What Keinon said was most surprising about the election results was that so many people were voting not on the basis of security issues but the social safety net and the growing income gap between well-to-do and poor Israelis. He said that was most clearly registered by the success of the Pensioner`s Party.
He said the new party, which won a dozen seats in the Knesset in their first election, won support not just from the elderly population who cannot make ends meet on their pensions, but garnered significant blocks of votes from districts in Tel Aviv and elsewhere with youthful populations. He said the reported success of the pro-marijuana party among the young was exaggerated, noting that they had well below the threshold for getting even one seat in the parliament.