Por Jonathan Freedland (THE GUARDIAN, 16/11/05):
In the Middle East, the sensible position is pessimism. No one ever lost a bet by gambling that Israelis and Palestinians would keep fighting each other rather than make peace. The smart money says that remains true, that progress is impossible, that there are too many obstacles in the way.
And yet the last few days have brought an optimism that is hard to resist. Yesterday Condoleezza Rice announced an agreement that will open up Gaza’s borders, allowing Palestinians to move more freely into Egypt, and also to the West Bank via bus convoys through Israel. As of next week, Gaza will no longer be “the largest prison on earth”, sealed in on all sides. For the first time in their history, Palestinians will be in control of a border. Two months after Israel’s pullout from the area – including the dismantling of all Jewish settlements – Palestinians will be able to export their own goods, starting with the tomatoes and peppers that they feared would be left to rot if Gaza remained closed.
That’s good for the Palestinian economy, but it has even greater significance. It represents the first time the Bush administration has become involved in the detailed, hair-splitting negotiations of which Middle East diplomacy is made. Rice stayed an extra night in Jerusalem, shuttling between the two sides, personally keying in changes to a draft agreement on a laptop in her hotel room. Until now, the Bush team has steered clear of such waist-deep involvement, seeing this as the quicksand that swallowed up so much of the Clinton presidency. That Rice stuck at it is a shift. That she succeeded may give her a taste to do more.
Second, there are angels in the detail of this accord. Israel wanted direct oversight of the Gaza-Egypt crossing – to ensure that no arms or fighters would come through – but did not get its way. Instead the post will be monitored by European forces, under the command of an Italian general. That could prove an important precedent. Until now, Israel has not trusted anyone but its own troops (or perhaps Americans) to safeguard its security. If it is now prepared to extend that trust to Europe, and if the new setup works, the approach could be repeated in a future peacekeeping arrangement.
Still, this is not the chief cause of the current, unfamiliar burst of optimism. That honour goes to a man who, in less than a week, has revitalised the Israeli peace camp. His name is Amir Peretz, he is a Moroccan-born trade-union leader who has dedicated his life to fighting poverty – and last week he defied every poll and pundit in the land to become the new leader of Israel’s Labour party.
Already people are speaking of a revolution in the country’s politics, a new “Peretzstroika” according to the veteran peace activist Uri Avnery (who also noted that the Hebrew word “peretz” could be read as “breakthrough”). The beleaguered Israeli left is hailing the new leader’s arrival as the best news since the collapse of the Camp David peace process five years ago.
Why the excitement? Start with Peretz’s position on the central question, the conflict with the Palestinians. For two decades – long before it was fashionable – he has advocated a Palestinian state. He calls now for an end to Ariel Sharon’s unilateralism and a renewed pursuit of a negotiated peace, engaging with the Palestinians directly. He dares to speak of a return to the “path of Oslo”, brave in a country where the architects of the 1993 accords are routinely referred to as the “Oslo criminals”.
There is immediate politics in this, marking a clean break with the outgoing Labour leader, Shimon Peres – the grand old man who has moved in Israel’s ruling circles since before Peretz was born in 1952. While Peres was prepared to let Labour serve as Likud’s hind legs in a national coalition, barely questioning Sharon’s unilateralist approach, Peretz wants out. He is pushing for Labour to bolt now, triggering early elections by next spring.
But there is more to Peretz’s stance than electoral calculus. In his speech to the rally that gathered on Saturday to mark the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Peretz called for a “moral road map, whose guiding star is respect for human dignity”, arguing that Israel’s continued rule over the Palestinians was exacting a moral cost on Israelis themselves. “A moral road map is ending the occupation and signing a permanent agreement,” he said, before invoking Martin Luther King to declare that he too had a dream – that Palestinian and Israeli children would one day “play together and build a common future.”
Of course, Israeli politicians have talked like this before. In 2002, in an another upset victory, the dovish Amram Mitzna became Labour leader and got peaceniks excited – only to be wiped out by Sharon in a landslide. But this time there is a crucial difference.
Peretz is from what used to be known as “the Second Israel”, Jews with roots in the Muslim or Arab world: in today’s argot, Mizrachim. Fifty years after their arrival in the country, they are disproportionately poor, often living in so-called development towns – and many harbour great resentment at the condescension and discrimination meted out to them by the then rulers of the state, the mainly European Jews, or Ashkenazim, of the Labour party.
Likud tapped into that anger in 1977, when it finally wrested power from Labour, and has relied on it ever since. The result has been a strange paradox. In Israel, the left party, Labour, has won the votes of the well-to-do, educated elites – while the poor and disadvantaged have rallied to the party of the right, Likud. In the process, “peace” has come to seem the preserve of latte-sipping, Ashkenazi Tel Aviv – not of hard-working, Mizrachi Sderot.
Peretz upends that logic. He is himself a working-class man from Sderot, one who can speak to the millions lost to Labour for so long. He is no token, but an authentic grassroots leader, one who has fought hard for workers’ rights and equality, eventually running the Histradut, Israel’s TUC. (His closest equivalent on the world stage would be Brazil’s President Lula.)
All this cracks open Israeli politics, reopening a left-right divide that had closed in the post-Camp David period of glum consensus. Suddenly Peretz presents a clear alternative to the Thatcherite, neoliberal economics pursued under Sharon – which have exacted a desperate social cost, casting huge numbers of Israelis into poverty. At the same time, he sets out a stark choice between himself and Sharon on the conflict with the Palestinians: a negotiated deal or more of the same.
And Peretz links the two. He argues that defence spending and the occupation have drained too much money for too long. He wants the cash currently spent on settlements to go towards Israel’s poor instead: for him economic security is part of national security.
Will he succeed? He is not a soldier, in a country that has tended to want generals as leaders. He faces, in Sharon, a master strategist who has colonised the centre ground and held on to it. The odds are against him. But Peretz has defied the odds before – and all those who yearn for peace in the Middle East should pray he defies them again.