I arrived from Israel yesterday, what is central in our thoughts and concern right now is Sharon?s plan to evacuate the Gaza Strip. It is not the final nor decisive step that will bring about peace ? far from it ? but without it we would be standing where we have been for 37 years, in occupation, depriving the Palestinians of their rights, propagating a lack of confidence, suffering from terror, and without dialogue with Palestinians.
I consider myself to be left wing. I was a member of Knesset for 10 years with the Labor Party, and I am now deputy mayor of Tel Aviv-Yafo on behalf of the Meretz/Yachad Party, which is totally supportive of Sharon?s intentions to disengage from Gaza. We feel a lot of sympathy for the thousands of people who have made their homes there for three decades and now have to move back to Israel ? there is more sympathy for the Palestinians who after a hundred years of conflict will begin to realize their dream for their own political entity, their own homeland, their Palestine.
Palestine is not the Gaza Strip. The Gaza Strip is a very major part of it but not it entirely. Gaza is a very densely populated area, very poor in resources and as such if an independent Gaza is successful, we can move on to the next step. We are supportive of Bush, Sharon and Abu Mazen for doing it ? it is the first and essential step towards peace. But it will have to be followed up very closely and immediately with a withdrawal from West Bank settlements and the beginning of the implementation of what is now the only game in town: the Bush Road Map.
The Road Map is the next phase ? again it does not bring about a Palestinian state next to Israel the way we want to see it, but it does set conditions that better the chances of peace by giving the Palestinians more independence than they have ever had and a greater degree of international legitimacy. We think of the Road Map as something that has to be monitored very closely by the US and European forces, not in the sense of military force, but by offering economic aid and help to the Palestinians to create an infrastructure for themselves.
I am duly optimistic when I say Gaza first and the Road Map next. The next phase that we foresee is based on the Geneva Accords, which is the most comprehensive plan, signed by both sides, not government, but senior leadership among the Palestinians and the Israelis.
We have no time. We have wasted, lost, and abused the element of time for the last 37 years. Occupation as such is intolerable, not only to the Palestinians who are occupied and prevented from expressing themselves in any civilized human way, but also to the Israelis. Occupation offers no security. Occupation is contradictory to security. Occupation is contradictory to democracy. We Israelis cannot be economically successful or democratic and at the same time be occupiers of another people.
Evacuation of Gaza is not a real estate deal, where we leave one place and settle in another. It is a concept according to which we are saying we have no business being there. There is no legitimacy in sitting on somebody else?s land. Palestinians have a right to their own homeland. And lets all, by this I mean the whole world, pull together ? in order to evacuate Gaza and settlements of the West Bank, and at the same time, help the Palestinians build a peaceful state alongside Israel.
Q: What can we do here in America to make sure that disengagement is not the last step but the first step?
YAEL: Give support to your president because he did not think in terms of unilateral disengagement the way Sharon does. Bush?s idea, from the start, was to moderate and mediate negotiations the way Clinton did. We are expecting Bush to put into action a negotiating team, because the Road Map has to have the involvement of both sides. Jews and non-Jews here want to see peace, after September 11th and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and especially after Iraq and the ongoing fight against terror. The only answer to terror is progress made towards peace and the removal of the motivation for terror. I think that President Bush, at least at the beginning, was on the right road. Of course the Road Map does not supply the final answer but let us begin there ? and let us be supportive. I don?t just mean to applaud him ? but really watch over him, and ensure that the United States implements the Road Map.
Q: What do you think Israel?s participation should be, in terms of the Palestinian Authority?s internal evolution? Having been an occupier for so long Is Israel in some ways indebted to the Palestinian Authority?
YAEL: It?s very difficult to offer help to the Palestinians without seeming patronizing. We are really disqualified from offering help and advising them. The only thing we can do is facilitate for them things that should not be taken for granted. We are not doing them a favor, for example, by opening the passages for more laborers. We need the work force, it is a good work force, and we are paying them in a just and proper way with benefits. Israel should certainly double the number of Palestinian workers because both sides will benefit. It is not an act of charity. We should also try and continue with youth programs where both sides benefit and both sides feel equal. We should never take the approach that we are superior because we have a legal system and a working democracy. We do know what being a state entails and what an infrastructure is, but we have made many mistakes as well. I expect in the first phase we will have more help from Europe and the United States ? even if it involves American Jews ? than directly Israelis where it might be viewed as a colonial effort.
Q: How worried are you about violence and how Israeli society is handling disengagement?
YAEL: I?m worried but I do not want my anxiety to become hostage in the hands of people who don?t intend to be law abiding. I can tolerate demonstrations, and even incitement. I can be tolerant of the pain of others that expresses itself with a degree of violence, as we have seen with the road blocks, burning of tires, disrupting our every day life, etc. They get arrested and freed afterwards, and I think this is within the limits of democratic reaction and demonstration. I do not think we will reach a point of civil war ? and even though it may sound terrible, the price we pay to disengage will always be a lesser toll than what a war imposes on us. I think that Israeli society can be a very hectic and very emotional society, tending to violence. But at the end of the day, once the evacuation begins, I think there will be an understanding and acceptance of reality.
Q: What do you think the political landscape is going to look like in the mid-term after disengagement? What do you think the prospects are for Labor and do you see any different coalition evolving in the relatively short period?
YAEL: I think we will probably reach the next elections with the same coalition. The Labor Party?s leader may be different, although I suspect it will again be Shimon Peres. In spite of his advanced age he is still the most advanced politician and polls show that he will win in the party?s primaries. But I don?t see Sharon leaving us so soon. I think the fact that the rightwing is advancing peace, even if it is only the first very initial step, will help them. I wish I could predict the a turn in the next elections with Labor in government, but I don?t see a formation of a new party but a formation of a coalition the way we have now. The moderate side of the Likud led by Sharon, splitting away from the extremists in the Likud, together in government with a large Labor Party. And who knows, maybe it will even include left of Labor, if Likud gets rid of its extremists.
Q: What will it take to make the Palestinian state a viable state? What are their economic requirements? Can a population growing as quickly as theirs survive in that small area? And ultimately what are the implications of a last state of peace between Israel and the new Palestinian entity?
YAEL: At the end of this conflict no one will be economically strong because both sides are exhausted from their investment in fighting and the purchase of arms. Even Israel is in a disastrous economic situation right now though not as bad as the Palestinians. We need to distinguish between the West Bank and Gaza. Gaza is overpopulated. Now that we will leave they will have some land and water which of course will be a great help to them. The West Bank was always viable as it is composed mostly of bourgeoisie, middle-class, middle income people with good education and good health facilities. I believe they can sustain the infrastructure of a state easily. They are highly educated people: doctors, architects, engineers and so on. I am not worried about them. I think there should be, as there was after WWII, some sort of Marshall Plan for the Middle East, which will be the necessary factor. It is easier today because education is more available and technical support makes a big difference and I think it will take less to recuperate from the conflict than it took Europe. We?ll have to build a lot on education, because these years of occupation have deprived two generations of proper education. But I am optimistic provided that everybody contributes. Israelis and Palestinians have a lot in common, and while there is now a lot of distrust and lack of faith, I believe at the end of the day, that the two societies can help each other. Israeli society is still made up of a majority of people who came from Arab countries. The languages are similar, the religions are different but both societies are basically secular. And I believe that we can join hands in efforts like Middle Eastern tourism, water programs, water desalination, dessert irrigation and agriculture. We don?t need for every small area to have a major hospital. We could have a few hospitals and a few research institutes serving the entire Middle East ? and in this cooperation we can go a long way together.
Q: There have been worrisome signs of growing political support for Hamas in Gaza and in the West Bank. How do you see the political process of the Palestinians in the next few months?
YAEL: I have a problem with the growth of Hamas as a political group ? on one hand it is a cause for worry because it is a religious fundamentalist group, on the other hand, I would rather see them as school teachers than as suicide bombers. This happened, to a degree, with Hezbollah in Lebanon ? once they became a political party, their concern was how to gain votes. You gain votes in times of peace by doing things for the people who you want to vote for you. Hamas is strong in schooling and a variety of social services. I do not have to like them in order to prefer them in politics. And as I said before, Palestinian society is secular by choice. I think Hamas has been strong because they have answered the feeling of desperation overwhelming the Palestinians. Their force will naturally be reduced once there is an alternative to suicide bombings. Hamas will lose its power or, in turn, divert it into social and political directions that I may not like, but at least it will be in a legitimate framework.