According to Meretz MK Avshalom (Abu) Vilan, who presented a briefing at Meretz USA’s offices Beit Shalom last night (Thursday, February 28th), the two Ehuds – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak – were disinclined as of this past Monday to respond to continuing rocket attacks from Gaza into Sderot by sending the Israeli army into the Gaza Strip. However, recent occurrences could change this opinion.
The past few days have experienced a continually intensified round of attack and retribution by both Israelis and Palestinians. On Wednesday, about 50 Qassams hit the Western Negev region of Israel, with one killing a college student in Sderot. In retaliatory action, Israel killed 12 Palestinians. Then, Thursday morning began with the deaths of 18 Palestinians – including five boys under the age of 16 – followed by the firing of at least 8 Katyusha-like rockets which reached much farther into Israel, hitting the city of Ashkelon. Hamas’ growing rocket power makes ever more pressing a way out of this violent back and forth. But will the solution involve military action or will it follow more diplomatic means?
For his part, MK Vilan maintained that a ceasefire and dialogue with Hamas are the way to go – an argument that is gaining steam among Israeli activists, like Gershon Baskin, and the Israeli public. An invasion would only result in more casualties (MK Vilan pointed out that, although the Qassams cause psychological terror, they have not killed or injured as many Israelis as would an invasion), and it would not solve the problem. MK Vilan argued that talks should occur with Egypt serving as a mediator; a point that is bolstered by a fact that Baskin points out: Israel is already negotiating through Egypt with Hamas for the release of Gilad Shalit.
It is likely that the Israeli government would find in Hamas a willing partner for further negotiations. The Islamic group has already sent several ceasefire requests (see Meretz Chair Yossi Beilin’s comments below), and MK Vilan pointed out that they want a ceasefire at least partially to prove their ability to govern and to generate economic development. Many counter by arguing that Hamas wants a ceasefire in order to establish greater weapons capabilities.
In Egypt too, the Israelis would find – and have found – a willing mediator. In many instances Egyptian and Israeli interests align: like Israel, Egypt is frightened by the rising power of Hamas and its own Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt may also have another good reason for working to foster some sort of agreement. If the two state solution fails, Egypt might be forced to absorb Gaza; a move that would likely destabilize the country. A ceasefire agreement could be one step in preventing this outcome.
Nevertheless, MK Vilan noted, a ceasefire agreement is not particularly appealing to the Israeli government, since it would mean that its policy of sanctions against Hamas had failed. Furthermore, if rocket attacks continue to worsen, Israeli public opinion could push the government into military action, despite its lack of enthusiasm for such a move.
MK Vilan was pessimistic about the prospects for a broader peace deal with the Palestinians, which, according to statements by both Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, seems less and less likely to occur in 2008. Both Olmert and Abbas are currently very weak leaders, and MK Vilan had little to suggest for solving this problem. He did propose that the Palestinian side could be bolstered if Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti is released from prison in a prospective prisoner deal for Shalit. Barghouti is widely popular in the Palestinian community, and he may even be able to generate support from some pragmatists who currently support Hamas.
But on the Israeli side, MK Vilan implied that there is little hope at the moment. Because he has so little legitimacy, the Israeli Prime Minister is currently without an agenda. MK Vilan suggested that Olmert’s best bet would be to move forward on the peace initiative, but he also recognized that progress is unlikely. Shas, the religious party that is holding together the governing coalition, would leave if negotiations advance too far. The coalition would fall apart, resulting in new elections.
Were these events to happen today, a recent poll in Haaretz gave Meretz 6 or 7 seats in Knesset (a gain of 1 or 2). But overall Israeli parliament would become more right-wing. While the current Knesset has 65-70 members who would support a peace deal, polls predict that a future government would be led by Likud, with approximately 70 seats belonging to the right, pushing a resolution far off to the future.
Such a scenario may be becoming more attractive to some Palestinian moderates who are losing hope in the two-state solution. MK Vilan pointed out that some are now taking the Hamas line: if they wait 20 years, the Palestinians will be the majority; at that point, the Israeli government will have to choose either democracy or Israel’s Jewish identity. Yet, that future is dark for both the Israelis and the Palestinians. MK Vilan argued that it would mean at least another generation of bloodshed on both sides.
So with such pessimistic possibilities as MK Vilan laid out, is there any hope? One place to find it may be in the fact that the Meretz MK predicts that new elections will not occur until next March. As both past Israeli elections and the current Democratic and Republican primary races have shown, early polls don’t always predict the final results. And in Israeli politics, a year is an eternity – a lot can still change.