Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Natural Governing Parties

This post isn't about Canada, believe it or not. I watch the ongoing bloodshed in the middle east with dismay. As someone who thinks of himself as pro-peace rather than pro-one side in this conflict, any escalation of violence is a definite step backward. The question I think that bears asking is how did we get here? The answer I've come to is that the natural governing parties in both countries have collapsed. In Israel that would be Labour, in the Palestinian Territories that would be Fatah. In both cases, these parties had great electoral success in the past and have recently been overwhelmed by more more adversarial parties.

Let's start with Fatah. The demise of Fatah which began in earnest with the death of Arafat and continued with the election of Hamas in parliamentary elections signaled the end of an era in Palestinian politics. Fatah had become an ineffective, corrupt organization which was out of touch with the people it claimed to represent. Hamas, whether helped or hindered by their violent foreign policy, did a much better job creating a functioning political party, providing social services to the Palestinian people and actually bothered to run a campaign in the election. No surprise, Hamas won. Unfortunately, the Presidential system meant that a Hamas Prime Minister had to some how share power with President Abbas of Fatah. This was never going to be easy. It soon became impossible. The loose connection of kinship and common cause which had united the Gaza Strip and the West Bank snapped in a bloody civil war. Since then, Fatah from its base of control in the West Bank has attempted to negotiate or at least start negotiations on behalf of all Palestinians. Hamas and the resident of the Gaza Strip have been left to stew by the world, starting, if we are to be fair, with their own President in Ramallah. Fatah's failure to understand that they were no longer the voice of the people in the occupied territories in large part led to the crisis we have today. Hamas cast out by the world, has been less willing, if that's possible, to restrain their more violent tendencies. What role Israel and the world in general had in precipitating that crisis can and should be debated. The picture remains of a desperate party clinging to power no longer has with disastrous consequences.

In Israel, the fall of Labour over the last decade also influenced the crisis we have today. The failure of the Camp David process at the end of the Clinton administration was the last nail in the coffin of the Labour Party. The country is simply no longer the communitarian nation of its founding. Labour has not come to grips with this and the political sands have shifted under their unmoving feet. Ariel Sharon's split with Likud and formation of Kadima near the end of his Prime Ministership has not marginalized Likud as may have been expected. Instead right-wing Likud appears to be the principle opposition to a centrist Kadima in the upcoming Israeli elections. Labour found their many of their pro-peace policies taken by Kadima and has suffered under the leadership of Ehud Barak to find any contrast with its governing partners to the right. Kadima having elected a woman with limited national security credentials for a country where almost everyone's served in the army, now must prove to Israelis that it has what it takes to deal with Hamas. Every rocket which lands on Israeli soil impugns the withdrawal startegy which was started by Prime Minister Sharon and continued by PM Olmert. While the scandals surrounding the outgoing Prime Minister may have more to do with any Likud victory in upcoming elections than anything else, Kadima certainly needs something reinforce its national security credibility with the Israeli people with Sharon's instant credibility gone with his stroke. The familiar hand of Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud, may provide Israelis more comfort in these uncertain times if Kadima does not change its public image. The pretense for the military action, and it is little more than a pretense, is the rockets being fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip. The reality on the ground is that rocket attacks have posed an intermittent threat to Israelis for years. This does not make the threat less deadly, however, it does beg the questions why now and why on this scale? A smaller scale retaliatory strike would have made just as much strategic sense if not more. I simply cannot believe that if Ms. Livni's opposition was on the left and not the right, from Labour and not Likud, that the Kadima government would have taken this action. Labour's fall from dominance is in my view intrinsically linked to this conflict. Thus with the old actors weakened, new actors are trying their hands with deadly results.


WesternGrit said...

Good post. I would simplify it further, and say that moderate parties got supplanted by reactionary ones. Moderate parties tend to keep the peace better, but when people start to panic about "outsiders", and being "attacked", then the brash, angry, vengeful parties take over. Bush got re-elected the same way...

Jason Cherniak said...

An interesting theory. I think the failure of Fatah is much more relevent, though. I would argue that Arafat's refusal to commit to peace in 2000 caused the destruction both of his own party and the Labour Party. It convinced Palestinians that Fatah could not deliver and it convinced Israelis that peace would not be a matter f two friendly states side-by-side, living in peace. Arafat drove Palestinians to vote for Hamas and Israelis to vote for Sharon.

Right now, the international community should be doing eveything in its power to convince Palestinians that Hamas is not the way forward. Whether the current attack on Gaza will do that - by showing people that Hamas is brining more war on its own people - is still unclear to me.

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