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The Israel-Palestine conflict. Part 1: Elections.

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Thursday 4 May 2006

James L. Gelvin, associate professor in history, University of California, Los Angeles


The Israel-Palestine conflict . Part 1: Elections  


The recent elections, which brought into power the Kadima Party in Israel and the Hamas in the Palestinian territories, both mark a change and a continuity. In terms of what went on in Israel for example, this indicates that there is going to be a continuity of Sharon’s policy. And what was that policy? That policy was to impose a unilateral settlement on the Palestinians. In other words, what Sharon had done, starting at about 2002 or so, was to walk away from the Oslo Accord, to walk away from the Road Map and step by step to begin to set up the final borders with Israel. He never called it that for sure, but the Gaza withdrawal, the floating of plans of withdrawal from northern settlements, the construction of the wall, all indicated that Israel was on the path for setting up its final borders. 


What Olmert has done, of course, is to announce recently that those final borders would be set by hook or by crook; in other words, with or without Palestinian consent, by the Year 2008. 


But there are also very interesting things that occurred on the Israeli side as well that marks a bit of a discontinuity. There was one of the lowest recorded turnouts of Israeli voters, about 63% of those who were registered to vote actually ended up voting. Kadima, which was the major winner, went on to win 28 seats in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, far under the foretold 40 or so seats that they were supposed to win. The big loser in this election was Benjamin Netanyahu, of the Likud Party.  


And this brings us to the second interesting thing about this election, that most people have not really focused on, which is that internationally now, there is a increasing rejection of the globalised world order and the neo-liberal economic policies that that globalised economic order brings.  


The way this was manifested in Israel was that Netanyahu, who was the person who was involved in the restructuring of the Israel economy to open it up for globalisation, was as I said, the big loser.  


The Hamas victory means that things have changed. First of all, since 1974 first the Arab States, then most of the world, then by 1993 the Israelis themselves, had acknowledged that the Palestine Liberation Organisation was the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The problem however, was that nobody seems to have told the Palestinians this. And recently two events have occurred that have turned the Palestinians away from support for the PLO. 


The first was the post-1993 collapse of the Oslo Accords, and secondly, the corruption of the Palestinian leadership, many of whom had gone away to Tunisia after they had been expelled from Beirut, had come back to the West Bank, had come back to the Gaza Strip, and as the old saying goes, they came back as Robin Hoods, and they began acting like Sheriffs of Nottingham. Many Palestinians still support, about 78% of Palestinians still support a two-state solution, about 1% of Palestinians according to recent polls, support Islamic law to be applied in the Palestinian territories. 


But one thing that doesn’t change, which I really want to emphasise is that whatever its religious rhetoric, Hamas is a nationalist party, very similar to the PLO. Hamas’ program is geared towards the liberation of Palestine, towards the end of the occupation. The religious aspects of that is a very different rhetoric than what the PLO has been using, but nonetheless, fundamentally the two parties stand for the same thing. 


Now separate Hamas from what people are thinking of as Islamic radicalism of the al-Qa’eda sort. Hamas, Hezbollah, a large number of parties throughout the Middle East are Islamist, they like the idea of reforming their societies along the lines of Sharia law, Islamic law. They are against secular forms of government, and so on and so forth. 


But on the other hand they are committed nationalists. Al-Qa’eda and those people are not. So the discontinuities with Hamas have to do with its emergence as a major contender in Palestinian politics for the first time, and that right now, the stage is set for a confrontation between most of the world and the Palestinians. And the major continuity is that it keeps the Palestinian national movement alive, albeit in another form.  


Guests on this program:

James L Gelvin  

Associate Professor in History 

University of California. Los Angeles