The most fascinating aspect of Israeli politics in recent weeks is the intellectual and political ferment within the non-religious political right. Spurred on by a decline in public support, reaction to the Geneva accord, harsh criticism from serving and retired senior security officials, and American pressure, right wing politicians and academics have begun seriously discussing a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and Gaza.
As one prominent right wing academic put it to me recently, "Okay, the left is right about the demographic threat. We have to withdraw on our own to avert it." While this may sound to many like a painfully belated realization of the obvious, it represents a significant recognition on the part of important figures within the Likud that Israel must not seek to hold onto all of the land, and that only separation into two states will enable Israel to remain a Jewish and a democratic state.
Thus Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's dramatic statements of recent days concerning unilateral redeployment should not be understood as an ideological departure by a lone Likudnik, nor, alternatively, as merely an explicit echo of the leaks and hints emanating from the prime minister's office over the past month. Rather, something is happening within a broad circle of Likud politicians and supporters, and Olmert wants to grab the reins of leadership.
Welcome as these voices are, they unfortunately represent a very partial, hence dangerous, understanding of the ramifications of the demographic and political reality. In short, this "new right" appears to believe that it will "solve" the demographic problem by effecting a limited dismantling of a relatively small number of settlements, fencing in the remaining 50 percent or so of Palestinian territory in the West Bank, unilaterally designating this enclave a "state", declaring this political process--which could be presented as fulfillment of phase II of the roadmap--to have guaranteed Israel's long term welfare as a Jewish and democratic state, and emphasizing that any further negotiation is either impossible, or could be resumed in no less than five, or 10 or 15 years--which in our part of the world is an eternity.
Here we confront yet another instance whereby ideas and proposals generated by the Israeli left are embraced by the right, but only at a cost of hopeless distortion. First the right hijacked the fence idea and moved it deep into the West Bank, where it takes on a political rather than security significance. Now it is proposing to politicize unilateral withdrawal as well. This began as a move by the left to save Israel demographically while not creating new political facts, and leaving all territorial issues (i.e., the fate of the Jordan Valley and other territories remaining in Israeli hands following unilateral withdrawal) for further negotiations, to be renewed as soon as the Palestinians field a realistic and responsible leadership that is truly committed to a two state solution. Now it is presented by the right as the creation of a political fait accompli: we create a Palestinian enclave state; we may even annex the remainder; we postpone any further discussion for an indefinite period of time; and we expect the Palestinians and the rest of the world to acquiesce in this new reality.
They will not acquiesce. Indeed, Palestinians could react with an escalated terror campaign in Israel and abroad, and/or by dissolving the Palestinian Authority and appealing to the world to "rescue" them. The conflict would get uglier, and conceivably draw in Israel's neighbors as well.
How representative this thinking is of Prime Minister Sharon's real strategic approach--or, alternatively, to what extent these proposals influence his strategy--is not at all clear. While they do satisfy Sharon's fundamental commitment to maintaining control, however indirectly, over the West Bank and Gaza, it is still hard to imagine the prime minister dismantling settlements to make it happen, insofar as in recent months and years it is he who has presided over the expansion of those settlements with the aim of fragmenting the Palestinian presence and ensuring long term Israeli control over key roads and hilltops. But if this is merely a game of smoke and mirrors by Sharon, such is clearly not the case with other key right wing personalities who have become genuinely alarmed by the demographic threat, yet do not seem capable of thinking through the dangerous consequences of mere half-measures that ignore the basic political needs of the Palestinians and actually exacerbate the conflict. (An alternative and more sympathetic analysis suggests that this pragmatic right fully understands the situation but cannot for the moment move any further away politically from its more hawkish constituency.)
Unfortunately, too, events on the Palestinian side seem unlikely to confront the right with a realistic alternative. Even if a ceasefire of sorts emerges from Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei's current efforts, it will not involve any serious effort by him to confront the terrorist infrastructure, which is really too powerful now for him to challenge. True, Israel helped bring this about, but the real catalyst remains Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and he is now comfortably back in full control.
These developments would appear to preclude any serious effort at a renewed peace process, even if Sharon were willing and US President Bush were inclined to get involved--which they are not.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
Recent weeks have marked a clear decline in both the international backing and internal support enjoyed by the Israeli government led by Ariel Sharon. This was most recently illustrated by polls that gave Sharon his lowest public approval rating to date, and enunciated by the pronouncements of Israeli politicians from the right, by Ehud Olmert, to the left, by the security leadership or the Geneva crowd. Internationally, United States President George W. Bush was the most explicit he has ever been in criticizing the policies of the Sharon government.
As these events take place in parallel to a deterioration of Israel's image in the eyes of the world public, it is thus easy to conclude that they are the combined and inevitable outcomes of the policies and practices that have dominated Israeli government thinking for the last three years. The insistence on the use of force (and if that doesn't work, the application of more force) has brought us all before the conclusion that the Israeli government and its prime minister are responsible for the stagnation of the peace process and for the inhumane conditions in which Palestinians are living.
In parallel and ironically, the Palestinian state of affairs seems to be moving in the opposite direction. After a chaotic several months following the fall of the government of Mahmoud Abbas, the subsequent emergency government, and a period of tension between the presidency and the prime ministry that caused a dramatic deterioration in the credibility of the Palestinian Authority both among Palestinians and internationally, things have been running rather smoothly since the inception of the government of Ahmed Qurei. There has been a healthy cooperation between the prime minister and president, and the outside world has agreed to these arrangements (which are more acceptable to Palestinians and will be useful in fulfilling Palestinian obligations in the course of the peace process).
These positive signs have been further underscored by the progress of the dialogue between the Palestinian Authority and its opposition, held under the auspices of the Egyptian government. This dialogue, which ended with an offer of a partial mutual ceasefire that avoids the targeting of civilians, has the potential of developing into a full ceasefire initiative. If so, the ceasefire will further expose the Israeli government position and Sharon's intransigence, and Qurei will be viewed internationally as someone who is capable of sorting out internal Palestinian problems, and opening the way for efforts towards peace.
Israel is plagued by two very powerful symbols in its battle to recoup its image. These are the separation wall, which we Palestinians pointedly call the "apartheid wall", and the some 187 military checkpoints marking the Palestinian landscape in an immense diagram of the humiliation and suffering that touches all aspects of Palestinian life. Israel has yet to find a means of explaining these tools of possession and control to the world.
In this situation, it seems a suitable time for a third party to exploit the weakness of Ariel Sharon and the positive developments on the Palestinian side to come up with an initiative endowed with the proper political weight and backed by the Quartet (thus avoiding American election distractions). This initiative should broaden the ceasefire and try to make it stick by adding other necessary components. Of these, the first is a political component, i.e., convincing Israel to stop constructing settlements and building the wall, in order to relieve the major sources of tension between the two parties. The second component is economic and humanitarian and requires removing the checkpoints, taking the Israeli army out of Palestinian populated areas, and injecting the economy with some donor support. Looking at the respective positions of Qurei and Sharon right now, a package like that seems to hold great promise.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian government and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst.
Israeli-Palestinian relations have visibly entered a new phase, as the two exhausted sides appear to be rethinking their conflict policies after over 38 months of stalemated fighting. The indicators of the change are obvious. On the Palestinian side, the rise of Abu Ala (Ahmed Qurei) as prime minister has led to a new ceasefire initiative, which could serve as a platform for upcoming negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. At the same time, there is a growing recognition in Israel that a decisive military victory over the Palestinians is beyond reach, and that therefore some compromise could serve the country’s interests better than a prolonged war of attrition.
The mutual fatigue, which has already brought both Israelis and Palestinians to lower the conflict’s intensity, gives the current effort to stop the violence a better chance to succeed than previous, failed attempts. Other factors support this optimistic assessment. Sharon has lost his magic grip over Israeli public opinion, and lags behind in his approval ratings. The Israeli consensus over the war has been torn apart, as the previously mute left wing regained the political initiative with a series of endeavors, from the refusenik pilots to the Geneva accords and the public warning by four retired security chiefs. Under domestic attack, Sharon pledged a new diplomatic initiative, and hinted at a possible removal of settlements in Gaza as part of a unilateral package.
Sharon faces strong criticism from the right and within his Likud Party, but powerful players have adhered to his new, moderate tone. The Israel Defense Forces, which have long advocated a forceful showdown in order to “burn the Palestinian consciousness” against using terrorism, have changed course. Instead of using more force, the military now advocates a quick withdrawal from Palestinian West Bank cities and entry into negotiations, fearing that “time is on the Palestinians’ side”. Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s loyal deputy, calls for a deep unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories, in order to save Israel’s Jewish majority and character. Olmert’s call is heresy by Likud standards; nevertheless Sharon tacitly backed him, signaling that Olmert is his political pathfinder.
Abu Ala has tried his best to avoid the hurdles which ruined his predecessor Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) and led to the latter's swift resignation. The new premier avoided meeting Sharon before forging a Palestinian consensus. He even refrained from asking for American support, while Washington was careful not to “hug” him. And most importantly, instead of appearing to oust Yasir Arafat, Abu Ala has willingly bowed to the veteran leader’s authority and declared himself his loyal subordinate. By giving away any claim to wield security authority, Abu Ala aimed to keep Arafat on his side. Sharon has grudgingly accepted the new-old order, and even praised Abu Ala’s political experience and shrewdness as good signs.
Alas, the same factors also work against the new calming efforts and diminish their chances for success. Sharon’s weakness guarantees that he will find it difficult to recruit political support for compromise. True to form, following an initial moderate opening Sharon resorted to his usual threatening mode, and warned the Palestinians that if they fail to make a deal with him, they might be locked behind fences and remain in control of less than half of the West Bank.
Israel treats Abu Ala in a cold, businesslike manner, without the summit atmosphere that enveloped its dealings with Abu Mazen. But this obvious lack of enthusiasm makes it harder to convince the wary Israeli public that there is a new opportunity. Moreover, Israel disapproves of Abu Ala’s declared policy of prolonged ceasefire rather than the uprooting of terrorism, and rejects outright his demand to stop security fence construction in the West Bank. And the Arafat patronage may have helped legitimize Abu Ala domestically, but the old leader’s return to center stage is an assured recipe for trouble with Israel, especially since all Palestinian security forces report to Arafat.
The American distance from the scene will only grow as the November 2004 presidential elections draw closer. Washington is still engaged in micromanaging the conflict, mainly to prevent Israel from prejudging the final status through fence and settlement construction. This is insufficient, however, to draw both sides toward a genuine compromise.
But the main obstacle for a real breakthrough has not changed since the outbreak of violence in late summer 2000: Israel’s proposals are far below the minimum acceptable to the Palestinians. Even the “virtual” Geneva accord, which bespeaks a better deal for the Palestinians than the rejected Barak proposals of Camp David and Taba, failed to gain strong Palestinian endorsement. Clearly, the Palestinians will never accept any less generous proposition by Sharon, even if he continues down the path of withdrawal and settlement evacuation.
Thus there is a good chance for a period of relative quiet. But the underlying causes of the conflict are bound to undermine it eventually and prevent any deeper change.
Aluf Benn is the diplomatic correspondent of the Israeli daily Haaretz.
If all things go as planned, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will likely meet this week or the following one. For some time, the peoples of the region and outside officials and observers have been awaiting this important meeting. In fact, this meeting has been awaited ever since Sharon took power in the 2001 Israeli elections. Since that time he has refused to meet with Palestinian leaders until what he calls "terror attacks" end. Sharon also vowed not to meet with elected Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat whom he has placed under virtual house arrest for the past two years.
True, Sharon met Prime Minster Mahmoud Abbas, but that event seems to have evaporated like a morning mist, because obviously no issue of substance was discussed.
It is unclear where the meeting will take place. Undoubtedly, Mr. Sharon will pass on the suggestion that it be held in the muqata’a (Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters) and Mr. Qurei will undoubtedly refuse to meet on Palestinian lands that lie on the other side of the wall. Geneva is of course out of the question for the Likud leader, and the idea of Sharon’s farm in the Negev will not gain Palestinian approval.
The Palestinian and Israeli publics are too exhausted to pay attention to the final location of the meeting. These last three years have seen so much killing, destruction, fear and hatred that the slim light of hope offered by any meeting will be much more important than most other details.
Of course, there is no doubt that for Palestinians and Israelis this upcoming meeting will mark an indirect recognition by both parties of their failure. Neither side can claim to having succeeded in landing the knockout punch to the other. Most Palestinians and Israelis are more like tired boxers in the 100th round, in which neither is able to win nor willing to admit defeat.
That is why the various political ideas (Yossi Beilin and Abed Rabbo’s Geneva), the signature drives (Sari Nusseibeh and Ami Ayalon's People’s Voice), as well as the various statements of the Israeli army chief of staff, former security chiefs and the pilots all add to the pressure on the leaders to get moving.
In order to break the cycle of violence, the idea of one side crushing the other side must be removed. Israeli thinking that yet one more assassination will cause the Palestinians to crumble and the Palestinian belief that one more suicide attack will cause the Israelis to raise the white flag have proved to be futile. India’s Mahatma Ghandi once said that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the whole world blind and toothless. There has to be a stop to this zero sum game and a return to a sane policy based on reciprocity, compromise and reasonability.
Prime Minister Qurei is correct in trying to put an end to the craziness of the past three years during which the cycle of violence has not ceased. The past shows that the first order of business must be a ceasefire between the Israeli government and all its military and intelligence subsidiaries on the one hand, and the Palestinian Authority with all the Palestinian factions, on the other. Such an agreement must put an end to all types of military and armed attacks, as well as assassinations. This agreement needs to be monitored by a neutral third party. This could be done by the Quartet, led by the United States of America.
Finally, such a ceasefire must be supported by concerted round-the-clock negotiations aimed at ending the basic reason for the violence, namely the occupation of the Palestinian areas and determining the issues of borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem. At present the Palestinian people and leadership seem to be genuinely ready for a settlement. Israelis are also ready. The big question is whether the Sharon government is willing and able to make an historic agreement.
-Published 8/12/2003 ©bitterlemons.org
Daoud Kuttab is founder and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah.
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