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Israeli-Palestinian conflict: an electoral cycle of violence? Print E-mail
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Emmanuel Martin

by Emanuel Martin & Tom G. Palmer 
Exclusive for Al Waref
Translation Editor: Jennifer Young

The bombing and other military actions on the Gaza Strip brings a question to the table: Why cannot Palestinians and Israelis resolve their conflict? Who is at fault? Is it only that Hamas has refused to renew its ceasefire after six months of inactivity and military policy? Is it that Israel did not initiate steps for negotiation during these six months? Or are there also deeper causes?

Hamas is undoubtedly responsible for the rocket attacks. But Hamas is not the whole of the Palestinian people, who have for three generations lived in the poverty and misery of Gaza. This suffering has been recently exacerbated by the additional embargos set to punish the people of Gaza for voting for Hamas out of desperation. The irony is that Israel opened a Pandora’s box in 1982, giving the green light—and some say, a material contribution—to the rise of Hamas in Palestine to create a check on the secular PLO (Le Monde, 04.02.06).

Of course there is this constant and terrible insecurity in the cities of the south, that the government must tackle. The question is whether the “disproportionate” reaction against Hamas in Gaza is explained by the objectives of safety, or the upcoming elections in Israel? After the setback of the Israeli army in the war in Lebanon in summer 2006, Kadima, the party of Prime Minister Olmert and Foreign Minister Livni, have been dominated by the opposition. It seems that the leaders of Kadima keep an eye on elections, hoping that their actions on Gaza erase the stains of the calamity of 2006.
The hypothesis of an electoral cycle of military violence can help to understand the failures of past peace initiatives. In the Israeli parliamentary system, which is based on proportional representation, small radical parties can decide who governs, providing the necessary votes to others to gain the majority.

Thus, since the 1970s, the two largest parties, Likud and the Labor Party, had to rely on small radical parties (Shas, the Mafdal, Israel Beytenou, and others) to compose the majority coalition at the expense of the peace process. Provocations can also guide the political process, such as Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount to trigger the second intifada, which in turn led to a radicalization of positions and the guarantee of his election victory in February 2001. Similarly, the unilateral policy of peace initiated again by Sharon who in 2005 led the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza is consistent with the view that the cards are in the hands of politicians in Israel and that the issues that guide most of the strategies in the region are political rather than security. 

This is not the first country in which military violence is used as a sign of strength for the electorate (one thinks of Russia in regard to Chechnya or Georgia). The problem of peace with the Palestinians seems to have become a main point of negotiation in the Israeli political arena, where parties and politicians have electoral and professional interests in mind.

Directly or indirectly, Hamas has participated in this game of politics in Israel. Extremists implicitly share the same goals, even if for different reasons: to sabotage the "land against peace." Thus, when negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat took over in 1992, Hamas initiated violent actions, first against Israeli soldiers. But after the murder of 29 Muslims at prayer by Baruch Goldstein, a member of the extremist Kach group, and in opposition to the Oslo process in 1994, Hamas began attacking civilians and in 1995 initiated the horror of suicide bombings. The Hamas attacks have undermined the authority of the interim Labor Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, who lost the 1996 election to Benjamin Netanyahu. The opportunity to regain the support of the public came at the cost of the peace process and the forward momentum of the agreements signed by Yitzhakh Rabin. How then, is it possible to escape this cycle of political violence?

Israelis should stop the trade embargo on Gaza. Protectionism is a recipe for poverty, which comes from internally or externally. An embargo requires an external population that wants to impose protectionist policies on the interior. In this regard, Israel's policy towards Gaza - economic restrictions and checkpoints - stifles economic activity. When busy people do not produce, they begin to think about destruction. Ideology is the most important ingredient of violent extremism, but the economic misery, unemployment and despair are as important. The International Monetary Fund has recently noted that at least 79% of households in Gaza live below the poverty line. This poverty results from the lack of economic freedom in the Palestinian Territories, and particularly in Gaza. The World Bank observes that Israel, by limiting the free movement of persons and property, undermines any chance of ending the crisis for the Palestinian economy.

Israel and Palestine have the power to stop this vicious circle, by recognizing the right of existence of the other. The people of Israel and the Palestinian people must understand that the cycle of retaliation launched by the extremists and the politicians is counterproductive and that the only path to peace is negotiation. This election cycle, however, suggests that if the political solution is essential, it is insufficient. Peace also requires economic component. The removal of obstacles to free movement of goods and people will facilitate the peace negotiations because the exchange of goods rather than rockets will enable the enemies of today to become tomorrow's partners in peace. As Montesquieu wrote, "Peace is a natural effect of trade."

Hicham El Moussaoui & Emmanuel Martin are columnists on, Tom Palmer is a political analyst in Washington DC.
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