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Globalization - Countries - Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Israel’s Political System Needs Reforming, Too
Abdeljabbar Adwan, The Daily Star  6/6/2002

Putting aside all the posturing and propaganda for public consumption, it is evident that political reform and democracy are urgently needed on both sides of the divide in the Holy Land. It is debatable whether the corruption of politics on either side is a cause or an effect of the continuation of the conflict. Probably both. Whatever the case, each side is as badly in need of internal reform as it is of peace.

Recent events bear that out. The recent Cabinet crisis in Israel illustrated some aspects of the corruption of Israeli politics. The Sharon government has been strangling the Palestinians in a war whose costs it needs to recoup. When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opted to cover part of the deficit from the extra money he allocated to the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party as a bribe to lure it into the governing coalition, a clash ensued. The crisis highlighted the long-standing practice, especially by Shas and other religious parties, of trading their political support for cash, without debating the politics so long as the money kept rolling in.

It also shed light on something else that few commentators bothered to note. The cuts in spending by the Sharon government were made at the expense of those sectors of society that do not serve in the army. Religious Jews choose not to do military service. Israel’s Arab citizens are barred from doing so. Yet they, Israeli society’s poorest sector, again lose out most to fund the state’s war against their compatriots in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The way the political system in Israel allows smaller parties to wield disproportionate influence and to blackmail the government has long been an issue in Israeli politics. It prompted the late Premier Yitzhak Rabin to propose the new system of the direct elections of the prime minister. But there was no accompanying reform of the parliamentary electoral system, such as imposing a threshold on parties to secure a certain percentage of the national vote to obtain seats. Small parties continued to proliferate, the direct election system failed to have the desired effect and consideration is now being given to ditching it and reverting to the previous system under which the party with the most Knesset seats nominated the prime minister.

The way Israel’s political system works means that it tends to avoid facing up to its political and social problems until they blow up in its face as the Shas case illustrates.

The next explosion could well come from the Arab-Israelis, who have been subjected to decades of systematic discrimination which, as a growing number of Israeli analysts have been warning of late, could lead to a violent eruption.

Even the official state comptroller, Eliezer Goldberg, remarked in his latest annual report that the state’s behavior toward its 1 million Arab citizens had become “intolerable and unjustifiable.” They constitute 18 percent of Israel’s citizens, yet account for 44 percent of its poor and 33 percent of its unemployed. Some 45 percent of Israelis who don’t make it into secondary education are Arabs, as are 41 percent of the infants who die in their first year.

The effects of the policy of racial discrimination that these figures reflect are starkly visible to any observer who cares to compare conditions in any Arab town or village to those in any purely Jewish community.

The spending cuts that caused the latest Israeli Cabinet crisis will increase the number of people living below the poverty line in Israel and two-thirds of the newly impoverished will be Arabs.
Yet had Israel treated its Arab citizens lawfully and on an equal footing with Jewish immigrants, it could have avoided most of its current problems and may even have been spared most of its wars. It maintained the policy of discrimination after conquering the remainder of Palestine in the 1967 war, even though it could have gained much had it taken the opportunity to improve living conditions for residents of the occupied Palestinian territories.

If the Israeli political system had treated the Arabs who came under its control, first in 1948 and then in 1967, equitably and granted them their legal rights, the Palestinians would not have felt the need for an independent state. But instead, the policies Israel systematically and methodically pursued left them feeling that they had nothing left to lose.

The Palestinian side is much weaker in political, military and propaganda terms much poorer (average incomes in Tel Aviv are 50 times those in Gaza), and accordingly much more in need of reform and democratization.

If in Israel it is the speed with which governments can be prematurely terminated that prompts calls for the political system to be reformed, the opposite applies on the Palestinian side. The problem on the Palestinian side is one of ossification at the leadership level.

The political arena is dominated by parties and armed factions which are far from democratic, whose internal structures rarely even meet, whose leaders are only replaced when they die (the exception is the PFLP, whose founder George Habash retired due to illness), and which are highly resistant to acknowledging their mistakes or reappraising their thinking.

The use of money, corruption and threats to maintain control is almost standard practice by Palestinian leaders. They invoke the priority of confronting Israeli violence and occupation both as justification for their behavior and as a pretext for deferring reform and democratization.

It is a safe bet that we will soon see the occupation cited again as an excuse to evade the demands being made of the Palestinian Authority, both locally and from abroad, to reform and democratize. It is also a safe bet that the occupation will volunteer to act in a way that facilitates such evasion for neither incumbent Palestinian leaders nor Israel’s governing right-wing parties have an interest in Palestinian reform and democratization.

Reform not to mention common sense and self-respect requires those who are responsible for causing the current Palestinian calamity to step down or be removed from office. Many of them contributed to similar calamities in other countries for which they were never held to account, and even managed to portray as triumphs.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat can transform this situation, by means of a few dictatorial decisions of the kind he is famed for, albeit geared this time to safeguarding the future of the Palestinian cause. He could get rid of his entire entourage, replacing its members with a completely new team, pending an opportunity to call elections. But he will not do that. His style is to surround himself with people who are obedient, and not necessarily competent. And he will not relent, of course, because he is convinced that without him the Palestinian people have no future.

There are dozens of lesser positive steps the Palestinian leader could take, irrespective of the continuing Israeli occupation and without having to await fresh elections namely, appointing a qualified and acceptable deputy and creating an independent policy think tank excluding the usual yes-men to help guide the Palestinians and their government through the mine fields they must navigate daily.

But Arafat is no more likely to do that than Sharon is liable to try to resolve the crisis in the Israeli political system with anything other than stitch-ups and bribes, or to abandon the policy of racial discrimination against Arab citizens pending the next explosion on one side or the other of the divide in the Holy Land.


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