Tue, 19 Dec 2000

Israel's democracy, foreign policy

By Riza Sihbudi

JAKARTA (JP): Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak resigned on Dec. 10. Ariel Sharon, the Likud Party's hardliner, once labeled Barak, of the Labor Party, as the weakest leader in Israel's history.

Sharon said Barak was "easily manipulated" by Palestine leader Yasser Arfat, referring to Barak's idea to divide the western area to become Israel's capital. This idea, according to Sharon, clearly contradicts the history of Israel's determination, through thousands of years, to make Jerusalem, undivided, as the "eternal capital" for the Jews.

As an inflexible ideologue with a reputation of being anti- Arab/anti-Palestine, Sharon's reaction to Barak's idea was natural; he has, therefore, tried intensively to end Barak's leadership.

So far, Sharon has had some success. His provocative visit to the Al-Aqsha Mosque complex not only succeeded in derailing the Middle East peace process -- built up so carefully by Barak and US President Bill Clinton -- but the violence between Israel and Palestine that followed led to a political crisis and Barak's resignation.

The aftermath of Israel's political crisis is yet to be known. Will Barak win the special elections planned for early next year, or will Sharon, or former PM Benjamin Netanyahu, also from Likud, be victor?

What is definite is that this crisis has clearly shown that Israel's domestic political process has been in line with democratic norms. At least if one takes into account public control on power, free elections and clear separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judiciary bodies.

It is then difficult to disagree with political expert Samuel P. Huntington who said Israel was the "most democratic country" in the Middle East. However, in 1969 political scientist David Apter described Israel as a pyramid given its authoritarian process of decision making.

Regarding values, he wrote that Israelis had a sense of solidarity. In other words, they are elitist; but also democratic and plural.

Another expert says Israel's political system is basically rooted in ideological and interest factions; but at the level of leadership there is also the strong tendency toward accommodation and consensus.

This means that even if the elites of subcultures like the Likud, Labor and religious-based parties are embroiled in intensive competition leading to political instability, they would voluntarily strive to avoid cultural fragmentation; this is known as "consociational democracy."

In Apter's view, through such democracy, the ideological and interest factions among society change into an effective plural democratic arena at the elite level.

The recent political crisis shows the fairly balanced power between Likud and Labor in both the executive and legislative bodies. This also indicates that whoever wins the 2001 election will not find it easy to make radical changes. Continuity, rather than change, is the more likely outcome.

In foreign policy, particularly the attitude to Israel-Arab peace, the same is to be expected. Even Barak's victory would not guarantee real peace. Labor has in fact never showed a clear stance on the establishment of a Palestinian state. It is Likud which has been clearly against such plans.

Israel's democracy, in other words, only functions internally; foreign policy, especially towards Palestinians, has contradicted their values of democracy and human rights. It is this aspect which, consciously or not, has been overlooked by experts like Huntington.

Beyond all this, whether the peace process continues will depend more on two things: first, the political will from the United States under new President George W. Bush of the Republican party, as a main sponsor of the process and also as the only country able to pressure Israel.

Republicans are expected to be more fair in the Middle East conflict compared to the Democrats who are known to be heavily pro-Israel.

Second is the earnestness of the Arab nations to arrive at a unified stance among themselves. The lack of unity has led to them being manipulated by the US-Israel alliance.

Hopefully, the recent flurry of Arab leaders trying to make themselves more unified is not just driven by short term political interests in the face of Israel's repression towards Palestinians. Their unity should be aiming for the long term, substantial peace -- and not just symbolic peace, to quote the intellectual, Edward W. Said.

The writer is chairman of the Indonesian Society for Middle East Studies (ISMES).