Peace Process in the Balance as Election Nears

Father David Jaeger, OFM, Views Situation

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JERUSALEM, JAN. 30, 2001 (ZENIT.org-FIDES).- Political tension is mounting in Israel on the eve of elections scheduled for Feb. 6.

According to the latest surveys, former General Ariel Sharon, leader of the right, is ahead of Labor´s Ehud Barak, of the center-left, by 16% to 20% in the campaign for prime minister.

The position of Israeli Arab citizens (26% of the electorate), who have announced mass abstention from voting, will be weighty in the elections, which could be decisive for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

To get a better sense of the situation in Israel, the Vatican missionary agency Fides spoke to Father David Jaeger, OFM, an Israeli Franciscan who is in Jerusalem. Father Jaeger is a juridical consultor of the Franciscan Holy Land Custodians, and a professor of canon law at the Pontifical Antonianum College in Rome.

–Q: A week before the elections, Barak would seem to have no hope. Why?

–Father Jaeger: Since his election as prime minister in 1999, Mr. Barak has disappointed every sector of the population, religious and secular, left and center, Arabs and Jews of the less privileged classes. His frequent changes in domestic policy confused everyone, to the point that on the eve of the elections Barak´s own supporters are disinclined to vote. In fact, Mr. Barak hopes for a last-minute mobilization of the “center,” which might vote to avoid the worst, the election of Sharon.

–Q: What is the position of moderate center voters?

–Father Jaeger: The center and left are worried about the postelection situation. The intransigent attitude of Sharon and those who support him could destroy the considerable progress made toward reaching a lasting peace with the Palestinians, as well as aggravate the present conflict.

Mr. Sharon promises to form a government of national unity with Barak´s minister of defense, an idea which Barak rejects. There is concern not only for future foreign and defense policy, but also regarding domestic matters. The alternative to a national unity government would be a coalition of extreme rightist parties and orthodox Jewish parties, which could affect the delicate balance of Israel´s Jewish society.

Most Israelis think that the new government´s most urgent mission is to make peace with the Palestinians before the present conflict worsens and spreads, as it threatens, to neighboring Middle East countries.

–Q: Why did Camp David and successive peace talks fail?

–Father Jaeger: On the main questions, the parties are closer than ever before. What is wrong is the method and planning of the question. The Israelis are still not convinced that this is a negotiation between equal sides.

It is not a question of making “concessions”: The rights of each side must be considered in order to reach an equal solution. The language of “concessions” had a negative effect on the tone of talks that Barak led with the Palestinians, overshadowing the progress achieved, unthinkable earlier.

Mr. Barak must be praised for his courage, commitment to peace, for spending all his energy and political capital to reach an agreement. However, he failed to make the final step: a change of approach, recognizing equal dignity and rights to both sides.

–Q: Do you think these elections will affect the country?

–Father Jaeger: I think so. They will affect Israel´s relations with neighbor states and the rest of the world, and they will affect the country itself. Much depends on Israeli Arabs, who are 20% of the population, and 12% of eligible voters, who in the last poll voted 95% for Barak.

Now they threaten to abstain from the vote, as a form of protest against police repression in October, when 13 Israeli Arabs were killed. A fact-finding commission was set up, but Israel´s Arab citizens expected Barak to take a more decisive position condemning those involved in the killing.

Moreover, Israeli Arabs, already so unequal and on the margins, say they received no benefits from Barak´s government, they lament its inability to reach a peace accord, and they resent the bloody repression of the Palestinian uprising.

–Q: What do you say about Arafat´s attack on Israel at the Davos meeting and the ensuing dispute?

–Father Jaeger: We cannot pass judgment on every speech made by a political leader. Both sides accuse each other. However, we can voice disappointment for Arafat´s ill-timed remarks, while Barak was attempting to convince voters in order to bring the peace process to a successful conclusion. Arafat has upset everything. Israeli intellectuals are angry and the peace talks at Taba seemed to be doomed.

–Q: Could the outcome of the elections affect relations with the Holy See?

–Father Jaeger: Catholic Church-Israeli relations have never been affected by the position of the government. Shamir´s government started the negotiations in this regard. The first fundamental agreement was signed by Rabin. The second agreement on the juridical personality of church bodies was signed by Netanyhau. The third round of talks on fiscal agreements was begun by Netanyhau and continued by Barak.

However, the new government will have to eliminate the most serious threat to Israel´s relations with the whole of Christianity: the decision of the outgoing government to allow the building of a mosque at Nazareth on the doorstep of the Basilica of the Annunciation, putting the [basilica] under siege. The Church will expect the new government to remove this obstacle.

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