Peres's Mideast vision is resurrected
By Neill Lochery
Monday, May 12, 2003
It has been a good week for the veteran Israeli politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres. Last week it looked as if his career and vision of a new Middle East were both finally dead and buried. But as they say, a week in politics is a long time, and today Peres is once more centre stage. The resignation of Amram Mitzna as leader of the Israeli Labour Party -- after only nine months in the job -- and U.S. President George W. Bush's speech outlining his vision of free trade zones in the Mideast have moved the political agenda back into Mr. Peres's ballpark.
The resignation of Mitzna reflects the current mess in the Israeli Labour Party. In truth, the current plight of the once-dominant party in Israel owes much to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Since then the party has lacked a leader with Rabin's credibility and trust among Israeli voters. Mitzna, despite his clear victory in a Labour leadership campaign last year, was always going to be little more than a stopgap leader. His thumping defeat at the polls this January by Ariel Sharon meant that it was only a question of when, and not if, he was going resign. That said, the timing of his resignation took many by surprise, and has left a void in which a desperate party looks likely to turn in the interim to Shimon Peres.
The return of Peres to the helm of the Labour Party -- Peres does not know the meaning of the term "temporary leader" -- will transform the Israeli dynamic of the peace process. Mr. Peres never favoured leaving the national unity coalition government last year and is eying a quick return to government. He may well find a willing partner in Ariel Sharon, who last week was given a stark reminder by some ministers that they wish to insert new, and potentially unacceptable clauses, into the road mad peace plan that was presented by the Bush administration two weeks ago. During, and after, the Israeli election, Sharon consistently argued that his preference was to form another national unity administration over the narrow-based centre-right led coalition he ended up having to form after talks with Mitzna broke down.
Soon we could see a rejuvenated Peres back at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem responsible -- along with Sharon -- for negotiating a final status agreement with the Palestinians, and if current signals from Damascus are to be believed, a possible peace agreement with Syria.
Perhaps more worrying than the potential return of Peres the man, is the clear sign that his vision of a new Middle East is back on the agenda. Bush's speech last week outlined his vision for free trade zones in the Middle East. Clearly the President sees the use of free trade zones as a carrot he can wave at the Arab world to fall in line. Come join the party and enjoy economic prosperity. In the real world, the vast majority of the Arab countries respond much better to the stick than the carrot. There is a theory doing the rounds that Bush is over-compensating for the war in Iraq and devoting too much effort to building bridges with the Arab world.
Few would have been more fascinated with Bush's speech than Peres. Back in the mid-1990s, Peres -- to the ridicule of many -- outlined his vision of a new Middle East. One in which there were free trade zones and where the two key economic components of the region -- Israeli high-tech expertise and cheap Arab labour --combined to make the region an economic powerhouse.
In practical terms, this was considered to be important to the peace process since a large part of the Palestinian state's economic viability depended on sections of its labour force being able to enter the Israeli jobs market and earn wages that would subsequently be spent back in the Palestinian state. This was no one-way dependency. For many years Israel had been chronically short of cheap labour and the Palestinians, many of whom worked without proper papers or employee national insurance contributions, filled an important gap, especially in the construction industry and domestic help sectors.
The failure of the Camp David summit in 2000 and the resulting violence appeared to put an end to all this. From here onwards, a new set of terminology: separation, physical barriers and fences replaced the vocabulary of co-operation, mutual dependency and integration. Bush's speech appears to have shifted the agenda back towards the latter terminology. He is likely to find a willing partner in Shimon Peres who -- if he can navigate a way back into government -- will try to implement his vision for the Middle East.
Be careful! The flawed philosophy that underpinned the Oslo peace process may be about to rise from the grave.
Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College, London.