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Harretz newspaper's Akiva Eldar joins Latelin -

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Harretz newspaper's Akiva Eldar joins Lateline

Broadcast: 05/02/2009

Reporter: Leigh Sales

Chief political columnist and editorial writer for the Harretz newspaper, Akiva Eldar, joins
Lateline to discuss Israel's election.

Transcript

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: And to discuss Israel's election I was joined by Tel Aviv, by Akiva Eldar,
he's the chief political columnist and writer for the 'Haaretz' newspaper, and has been covering
the region for last 20 years.

Mr Eldar, given that the Israeli election seems to turn on one question, which is who is more
hardline on national security, does it really make a difference to the peace process who wins?

AKIVA ELDAR, POLITICAL COLUMNIST, 'HA'ARETZ': Well, I think that what really means is how tough the
American President is going to be.

Cause there is no question that the next government is not going to put the peace process on top of
its agenda, it's more likely that the settlements will be on top of the agenda, deterring Iran and
so forth.

And I am wondering what is President Obama going to say about all this, and so he made it very
clear that he's mostly interested in pursuing the peace process, putting an end to the occupation,
to the settlements, and trying even to engage Iran and Syria in a kind of dialogue.

So my big question is not who is going to be the next Prime Minister of Israel, but what is
President Obama that was just sworn in going to tell him.

LEIGH SALES: You say the United States might have to be tough. What are the options available to
them to be tough with Israel?

AKIVA ELDAR: Well, if you look back to '92, for instance, when President Bush senior decided to
send a clear message to Prime Minister Shamir, that he has to decide what's more important, peace
or the relationship with the United States.

The special relationship that Israel has with the United States or settlements and occupation. And
he made it very clear; if you decide the settlements are more important you can forget about
American aid.

And Israel was asking for $10 billion in loan guarantees to help absorbing the mass immigration
from the former Soviet Union and the message to the Israel was clear; that the Likud is
jeopardising the relationship with the United States and in the next election, the same year - '92,
Shamir lost, and Prime Minister Rabeen took over.

So it depends if the United States is willing to use its leverage because, you know, the most
important thing to the Israelis, and if there is any consensus on anything, this is the
significance of our special relationship with the United States, and that's something that people
would not let the Government undermine.

So if there will be a clear message from Washington, like the one in '92, I think that Netanyahu
will have to decide whether he wants to take the risk of being the second Prime Minister from the
Likud who is undermining the relationship with the United States.

Or he is willing to be more flexible and listen to what the international community has to say.
It's not only the United States, it's the Quartet, it's the UN, Russia, Europeans, maybe even to
Australia.

LEIGH SALES: I'll come back to the peace process and the United States roll in a moment. But for
now I'd like to focus on Israeli domestic politics a little more.

Have the Israelis viewed their government's recent campaign in Gaza as a success? And how is it
playing into the election campaign?

AKIVA ELDAR: There are Israelis who believe that it was not a success because of the voices that
were coming out of the international community about the criticism and mainly because of the
images, and the figures of fatalities, casualties in Gaza; 300 children.

But these are unfortunately; this is the voice of the minority of the Israelis. There is a vast
majority that believes that the job was not completed and those people will vote, probably, for the
Likud, and for the Lieberman; for the right and radical right.

What they are hoping, and this is what Netanyahu and Lieberman are promising them, is that they are
going to complete the job that was started by the current Government, and remove the Hamas from
power.

Which means that there is going to be another operation in Gaza after the elections. And
unfortunately, these are the most popular voices... this is the music that the Israelis love to
hear these days.

LEIGH SALES: You mentioned Avigdor Lieberman, who's a controversial right-wing politician in
Israel. Tell us little bit more about him and his possible kingmaker or even possibly queen maker
role in this election.

AKIVA ELDAR: First of all, I can tell you that in the poll that my paper 'Haaretz' is going to
publish tomorrow, he is, and his party, is bypassing Labor.

They're becoming the third party, with 19 seats in the Kinneset, which means that, as you just
mentioned, they're going to be the king or queen makers.

And even Labour Party Chairman Barack indicated that he doesn't rule out partnership with Lieberman
sitting with him in the same Government, the same Coalition, which Labor Party did before.

Now, Lieberman is clearly... I would even say a racist politician who is riding on the animosity,
hatred to the Israeli Arabs. His slogan is there is no citizenship without loyalty.

Actually, he expects the Israeli Arab minority, which is about 20 per cent of the Israeli
population, to sing an anthem that has clearly a Jewish motives, and salute to Zionist flag, and
put their loyalty to the test.

And I'm afraid that the next Israeli Government will be under much greater influence of this camp
that is sending a very negative message not only to the Israeli Arabs, but to the Jewish community,
which is a minority in other countries, including Australia, that will legitimise anti-Semitism on
top of a very immoral message to the Arab citizens of Israel.

LEIGH SALES: So, if Lieberman plays a pivotal role, as looks quite likely, does that mean the long
held ambition for a two State solution is dead?

AKIVA ELDAR: I believe that if in the next year, actually in the coming year, 2009, we are not
going to reach some kind of even if it's framework, if it's a declaration of principles, on the
basis of a two state solution, we will have to kiss it goodbye.

It doesn't depend only to us, there are more and more voices coming out from the Palestinian camp
that are calling to drop those so-called negotiations.

The peace process is becoming the greatest enemy or threat to peace, because under this mask of
negotiations we are actually getting further away from an agreement, and we are weakening this camp
of the pragmatic Palestinians headed by Mahmoud Abbas, and Abul Massan.

He is actually becoming irrelevant. We are negotiating of course, it's not directly, but indirectly
we have recognised Hamas and through Egypt we are negotiating with Hamas.

And where is he? He has not been able, as well as Arafat, to deliver any goods besides more
settlements.

If Israel were not pick it up in the last minute the two states formula, in no time the
Palestinians will say that we have lost this opportunity, and they will close the window.

LEIGH SALES: That's a very difficult environment that you have painted a picture of. Somebody who's
going to have to play a fairly pivotal role in trying to sort through that is the US envoy to the
Middle East, George Mitchell.

There are high hopes for him because of his track record in brokering a peace deal in Northern
Ireland, which at the time was considered reasonably impossible.

A lot of people failed in the Middle East before Mr Mitchell, how do you rate his chances?

AKIVA ELDAR: I have decided to give up great hopes. I'm not aiming too high these days. What I
expect him to do is, at least, to tell Israel that you can't have it both ways.

You can't get the reward for being the only democracy in the Middle East, and have a special
relationship with the United States, at the same time to turn a blind eye to what's happening on
the ground.

So at least I would expect the Americans to demand that Israel will meet its own commitments to
President Bush, previous President Bush, in terms of not changing the reality on the ground, in
creating one state solution, or as you just mentioned before, and undermining what is left of the
process that should have led us to a two state solution.

So to begin with, what I believe he will do is he will make sure that the United States is not
going to tolerate more settlements; they are going to monitor it very carefully, and they are going
to be sticks and carrots, and not only carrots.

The other thing is that I expect him to go next time when he comes to the region, also to visit
Damascus, and offer a deal also to President Assad.

Keep in mind that next month the Arab summit will meet in Qatar, that just cut its relationship
with Israel, to discuss the future of the Arab peace initiative launched in 2002, in March 2002.

And I am very concerned about the future of this proposal that is offering Israel full
normalisation with the Arab countries in return for ending the occupation.

So I hope that this will be the kind of... the framework, the pillar of the American
administration's Middle East policy.

LEIGH SALES: If Binyamin Netanyahu is elected, as is anticipated, he says he'll crush Hamas. Can he
do that or is it merely rhetoric?

AKIVA ELDAR: Let's assume that he can do this, so what happens next? Who is going to take over
Gaza, who is going to run Gaza?

Do you believe that the other camp headed by Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah, will get back to Gaza riding
Israeli tanks, it's ridiculous.

The Hamas... we used to say that Hamas is a terrorist organisation, maybe that's part of their
tactics, but they won the elections; elections that were approved by Israel and the United States.

So you can't just crush a political party. You have to offer also an alternative, and Israel
doesn't want to go back to Gaza; Israel doesn't want to go back paying the wages of teachers and
doctors in Gaza.

And according to the international law, Israel is responsible to the wellbeing of 1.5 million
people who live in Gaza until somebody else will take over. And I don't see other countries such as
Egypt lining up to do this.

LEIGH SALES: 15 years ago Mr Eldar your first assignment as the Washington correspondent for
'Haaretz' had you at the White House lawn watching the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabeen shake
hands with the PLO chairman Yasser Arafat while Bill Clinton stood there beaming, looking on.

So much has changed since then, yet also so little has changed. Do you still believe you'll see
peace given all of your experience in your lifetime?

AKIVA ELDAR: It's a hard question, you know, I started thinking in Lennonistic terms, that perhaps
we need to... somebody to remind us what happens once the radical right will take over, and the
world see.

Maybe we should... it's time to remove the mask and show the real face of Israel, and the real face
is ugly. Perhaps we need some shock treatment before it gets better.

Maybe it has to get worse, and we will not hide behind a kind of negotiations that are actually
going nowhere but giving us the credit that we want peace.

So you know, since then I have become older and more sceptical about peace, but, you know, we keep
hearing that as long as we need peace for our children, actually, I think that my generation also
deserve peace, and I would like to see it in my time.

So, I'm not going to give up, and I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing, and this is to try to
convince my readers, and the decision makers in Israel that that if the Zionist movement will not
be able to offer a quiet democratic and Jewish state, it will be considered a big failure.

LEIGH SALES: Well, even though we are a long way away over here in Australia, we'll certainly be
watching events in the next week or so with interest.

Akira Eldar, thank you very much for joining Lateline.

AKIVA ELDAR: Thank you for having me.