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 Thursday, 23 January, 2003, 16:34 GMT
Politics and the Palestinian issue
Palestinians walk in front of an Israeli tank in the West Bank town of Nablus
Israeli forces control many Palestinian towns

Last weekend's events in which 12 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli raid on Gaza City after rockets fired from the Gaza Strip struck a town in Israel, is a stark reminder of the one issue dominating all others in Israel at the moment - security.

More than two years of violent conflict with the Palestinians have left Israelis weary of suicide attacks with a desire to resolve the situation.

Whether resolution comes through military force, negotiation, unilateral separation, or a combination of all three, is the question Israelis will consider when they mark their ballot papers.

Sections of the proposed fence are under construction
The idea of a "security fence" is gaining support among Israelis
The sheer number and variety of parties in Israel provides a platform for almost any view. These vary from the ultra-nationalist views of parties such as Herut and National Union which oppose any moves towards the creation of a state of Palestine in the West Bank.

Opposing them are parties like Shinui, Meretz, Labour and the Arab parties which all support a viable state of Palestine.

In the middle lies Likud, the party of Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and the party that won an overwhleming victory on Tuesday.

Sharon's vision

Mr Sharon has already voiced his support for a Palestinian state, but it is a vision that differs dramatically to the state Palestinians have in mind.

He favours a demilitarised state with Israel retaining control of its borders, and conditions this on wide reform of the Palestinian Authority, the removal of Yasser Arafat and a complete cessation of violence.

Analysts say trust has broken down on both sides
Some parties refuse to negotiate with the Palestinian leader
Mr Sharon was elected prime minister in February 2001 - a few months after the intifada (Palestinian uprising) began - promising peace with security. During his term, he has shown he has not been afraid to use military force to try to prevent suicide attacks.

He ordered two major military operations in the West Bank in the past year, and many Palestinian villages and towns remain under the control of Israeli forces.

His re-election on 28 January suggests that many Israelis believe he is capable of bringing peace to their country.

Security fence

One idea that is gaining support among Israelis is the construction of a security fence around the West Bank.

The idea originated in the Labour party, the head of which at the time, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, was also the minister of defence. It is designed to prevent potential Palestinian suicide bombers entering Israel.

Most parties support the construction, although some of the more nationalist parties, like the National Union faction, would prefer the fence was built around specific villages and towns rather than along the border of the West Bank.

Unilateral separation

Another idea is unilateral separation.

The new leader of the Labour party, Amram Mitzna, has pledged to withdraw from the Gaza Strip within a year, to hold immediate negotiations with the Palestinians without preconditions, and a complete separation from the West Bank if negotiations fail.

For a Palestinian state

The centre and left parties are more sympathetic than Likud to the creation of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The centre, secular Shinui party supports the establishment of a Palestinian state but refuses to negotiate with Mr Arafat and will only consider negotiations when the violence halts.

Isolated settlements will be evacuated but large settlement blocs will be incorporated within Israel's borders under Shinui's plans.

The Arab parties all favour an end to the occupation and withdrawal from the territories.

Opponents of a Palestinian state

Despite the mainstream political parties voicing their support for a state of Palestine, there are some parties which remain implacably opposed to the idea.

The ultra-nationalist National Union faction, the National Religious Party and Herut all oppose the Oslo Process and any moves towards creating a state of Palestine.

One idea touted by the extreme right-wingers is that of transfer, encouraging Palestinians to move to neighbouring Arab countries like Jordan.

Settlements

One of the key stumbling blocks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators is what to do with the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It is an issue that divides the parties and the country.

Jewish settlement of Bet El near Ramallah
The issue of Jewish settlements divides the country
Some parties oppose any moves to remove the settlements. These are the ultra-nationalist right-wing parties, like the National Union bloc and National Religious Party, which champion the settler movement.

The religious parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism support the settlements.

Settlements have been expanded under both Likud and Labour governments and both parties do broadly support their existence. Likud is more strident in its support than Labour.

Many members of the latter party, particularly Mr Mitzna, favour dismantling most of the settlements. Other centre-left parties like Meretz and Shinui likewise support settlement dismantling, as do the Arab parties.

No peace process

There is no peace process to talk of at the moment, although informal talks between Israelis and Palestinians are taking place.

Analysts say trust on both sides has broken down. Despite that, the view that a state of Palestine will be created in the near future is gaining acceptability.

The concept of two states, living side by side, was endorsed by the United Nations Security Council in Resolution 1397.

When it is created, and what it looks like, are the key questions for the future.


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