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Can Peretz bring peace to Palestine?

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Israeli politics is in turmoil, with Ariel Sharon quitting Likud and Amir Peretz taking over Labour. John Rose analyses the implications for Palestinians and peace in the region
Issue 1979

Cynicism, from the most unexpected quarters, has greeted Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to quit the far right Likud Party and seek re-election as the leader who will make lasting “peace” with the Palestinian people.

A document, leaked to the Guardian by the foreign office and clearly timed to deflate Sharon’s pretensions, accuses Israel of rushing to annex Arab East Jerusalem by using illegal Jewish settlements and the vast West Bank “security barrier”.

The aim of this plan is to prevent any possibility of East Jerusalem becoming the capital of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. And Sharon is masterminding these manoeuvres.

On the very day that Sharon announced he was quitting Likud, Israeli bulldozers were hard at work demolishing Arab homes in the city.

The foreign office sees Sharon’s plan jeopardising any chance of serious peace talks, as Palestinians in the city are driven into supporting so called “terrorist” groups.

This nod in the direction of tackling the political “causes of terror”, rather than simply backing Israel militarily, has also found another rather surprising supporter — the pro-war Independent columnist Johann Hari.

Salami slice tactics

Hari has told his readers of Sharon’s lifelong devotion to killing Palestinians, including Sharon’s part in what he calls the “9/11 sized massacre” of over 2,000 civilians in Palestinian refugee camps in West Beirut in Lebanon in 1982.

He also writes of Sharon’s determination never to allow the Palestinian refugees to return, and quoting Sharon directly, to “salami slice” what remains of their land on the West Bank and Gaza, just 22 percent of historic Palestine. This means separating Palestinians from each other and surrounding them with armed Israeli settlers.

Hari describes how “nervous” this makes him. If, he argues, the US forces Abu Mazen, leader of the Palestinian Authority, to sign a “lousy deal” with a re-elected Sharon, “there is a risk of triggering a third Intifada among an outraged population”.

How right he is. This will be the much feared “borderless Intifada” — but more of this later.

If Sharon really is going to split Western rulers and their media cheerleaders, then all eyes may well focus on Amir Peretz, the Moroccan Jew from a working class background who was recently elected leader of the Israeli Labour Party.

It was Peretz who provoked Sharon to leave Likud by pulling Labour out of Sharon’s coalition government and thus bringing it down.

Peretz has already excited many on the left. The trouble is that there are two faces to Peretz — on one side, a visionary dreaming of Arab-Jewish reconciliation, and on the other, an unreconstructed Labour politician chasing Sharon for shoddy votes to keep Jerusalem a “united” Jewish city.

Veteran Israeli peace leader Uri Avnery has launched an impressive campaign backing the progressive Peretz. He points to Labour members from poor backgrounds and of “Eastern” descent (Jews from Arab and other Muslim countries) who voted massively for Peretz — defeating Shimon Peres and the European Jewish settler Labour establishment.

Peretz wants to cut Israel’s huge defence budget, which, together with the massive investment in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, devours the resources needed for reducing the gap between rich and poor.

The Eastern public has usually boycotted Israeli Labour, which was the ruling party when their parents and grandparents arrived as immigrants.

“From generation to generation, a (true) story was passed on about the Moroccan immigrants,” says Avnery, “who were driven to a place in the middle of the desert and told to build a new town for themselves.

“When they refused to get out of the truck, its tipping mechanism was activated and they were literally ‘poured’ out, as if they were a load of sand. Also, the immigrants felt humiliated when, upon arriving in the country, their hair was sprayed with DDT.”

It is also true, however, that Labour and the “peacenik” left were labelled “Arab lovers” — a fact very successfully exploited by Likud to galvanise its support in the 1980s.

“Most immigrants from Arab countries did not arrive as Arab-haters, they became Arab-haters here,” insists Avnery. “This is a well known phenomenon in many countries — those who are trampled upon trample those beneath them.

“After being robbed of their self esteem, they can regain some self respect only by belonging to a ‘master race’, like the poor whites in the US.

Muslim-Jewish symbiosis

“Only an authentic Eastern leader can imbue the Eastern community with a new spirit. He can remind them that for 1,400 years, while European Jews saw pogroms, the Inquisition and the Holocaust, Jews were not persecuted in Muslim countries and, indeed, for long periods were partners in a marvellous Muslim-Jewish symbiosis.

“Such a leader can give back to his community the pride in its past and the ambition to take up its natural mission of serving as a bridge between the two peoples.”

But is Amir Peretz such a leader? Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest circulation Hebrew language daily newspaper reported on 22 November that Peretz supported the building of 350 housing units in the Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim, located to the east of Jerusalem in the occupied territories, breaking the connection between the north and south of the West Bank.

Labour sources say that by supporting the illegal expansion of Maale Adumim, seen by many in Israel as a “legitimate” settlement, Peretz is likely to draw more voters from the Likud and the Shas party (the religious party of Eastern Jews).

Furthermore Peretz has said he “supports a unified Jerusalem for ever and ever, and am against the [Palestinian] right of return into the state of Israel”. Apologists for Peretz blame the Labour establishment. But it is extremely unlikely that he will break free of these “left Zionist” pressures.

Nevertheless, since there is momentum over the debate about Peretz and his policies, the independent left should join in — by defining the principles which determine an honourable peace with the Palestinians.

  • Peretz will not restore the dignity of the “Eastern” Jews by trying to out-Sharon Ariel Sharon in East Jerusalem. On the contrary, by playing on Zionist prejudices and privileges, he will hand victory to Sharon. Why vote for the half-hearted Zionist when the real thing is available?
  • Peretz says he wants to tell the truth about the shared Middle Eastern history of Arabs and Eastern Jews. Excellent. But this means telling them — and the rest of Israeli society — the truth about the Palestinian Arabs.

    And this means an unambiguous commitment to meet the three key Palestinian demands — demolishing the settlements on West Bank and Gaza, sharing Jerusalem, and recognising the Palestinian right of return.

  • Peretz also needs to do something, unheard of in Israeli politics—reach out to all the other Palestinians, the vast majority who cannot vote in Israeli elections, especially the six million Palestinian refugees.

He needs to say that they will have a vote on the peace negotiations he intends to initiate. For all the hype about “democracy in the Middle East”, no one has proposed “one person, one vote” for the Palestinian refugees.

Yet they need an overpowering presence at the talks, with a democratic veto, if they sense that their right of return is in any way compromised.

Of course, this programme will not win Peretz the election — although we might be surprised by how many Israelis just might sign up for it. But a much bigger prize is available.

The message will be sent throughout the Middle East and beyond that there is at least one Jewish politician in Israel who is deadly serious about equality between Arab and Jew.

And this just might form the focus for radical political realignment and a peaceful resolution as a new Sharon government inevitably fails.

Otherwise Intifada III is an absolute certainty — the borderless Intifada that spreads to Egypt and Jordan and beyond, bringing not just the Zionist state, but all the rotten Arab regimes, crashing down.

John Rose’s book The Myths of Zionism has two chapters on the Jews in Arab countries. The Alternative Information Centre in Jerusalem has many useful resources and articles on its website — go to


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