The Palestinian people and their leadership face a unique political situation, one often characterized by the integral relationship that exists between external and internal expressions of our crisis. Internal frictions, which saw an increase between the presidency and prime ministership (tensions that ended with the resignation of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas) have been inextricably connected to the ongoing crisis in the implementation of the roadmap, the collapse of the Palestinian ceasefire and Israel’s resumption of its assassination policy. The recent Israeli decision to deport President Yasser Arafat--a decision that has no effective implementation as Israel’s ally the United States has not approved it--is now being perceived by Palestinians as one more step in the ongoing Israeli strategy of trying to effect change in Palestinian negotiating policies and positions by altering the composition of their leadership.
At this crucial time, it is important to try to put these dramatic developments in some strategic context. This Israeli right-wing government is composed of political figures and groups that formed the center of opposition to Palestinian-Israeli peace agreements from their signing through their implementation. These elements have found the current difficulties a golden opportunity to reverse the developments that resulted from the peace process they oppose. They also come from an ideological background that states that Israel should continue its control over the occupied Palestinian territories and therefore prevent the development of any Palestinian entity that might look like or have the faculties of statehood and independence.
For this reason, the current Israeli government has slowly and systematically worked to regain Israeli control over and occupation of the Palestinian territories, and has achieved this on all of the West Bank and much of Gaza. Israel is now in effective control of 90 percent of the occupied territories. A crucial element of this plan is to paralyze the Palestinian Authority and transform it in practice from being an agent of political expression (as the Authority perceives itself and the Oslo accords allowed for), into a bureaucratic facade for the Israeli occupation.
One might even venture deeper down this avenue to recall the historic strategic debate in Israel vis-à-vis the conflict. Israel’s current leaders always argued for the merits of a "functional compromise" to solve the Palestinian issue in the short term while maintaining the strategic vision of Greater Israel, instead of the mainstream leftist strategy of "territorial compromise," which negates Israel’s territorial expansion.
The Israeli government is creating through its practices a defacto situation where Israel is in control of all the 1967 occupied territories, while allowing the Palestinian Authority certain functions and responsibilities in populated areas. It is possible that one motive behind the efforts to change the leadership in Palestine, including threats to deport or assassinate President Arafat, is part and parcel of this Israeli leadership’s desire for a solution that will allow the status quo to become more permanent in a functional division that is acceptable to the Palestinian leadership.
This seems a good time to remind Israel of the many strategic mistakes it has made during the decades that it has occupied the Palestinian people and their land. In the mid-seventies, for example, Israel in effect raised the profile of the Palestine Liberation Organization when it encouraged municipal elections in an attempt to challenge the PLO, only to have the election winners immediately declared their loyalty to the official Palestinian leadership. Subsequently, Israel tried to deport those mayors, and right-wing Jewish terrorists attempted to assassinate them, but neither act succeeded in stamping out the PLO’s political representation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The attempt to deport or otherwise "remove" President Arafat, the latest unabashed Israeli interference in the composition of the Palestinian leadership, is set to become Israel’s next strategic mistake. The political position held by Arafat is the political position held by all Palestinian politicians and groups of significance today. In a sense, all components of the Palestinian political leadership are Arafat.
Further, instead of contributing to the functional division that so attracts the Israeli government, an attack on Arafat may very well take us back in time to a scenario where there is no Palestinian Authority and Israel is a full-fledged occupier with all the resulting security, political, moral and international relations consequences. By now, there is a lot of debate in Palestinian society as to whether there is a need for the Palestinian Authority to go on if that Authority has no hope of developing into a state. Palestinians might very well be thinking that we are approaching the moment where Israel should no longer be allowed to occupy our country without bearing all the responsibilities of that occupation, especially when Israel itself keeps diminishing and threatening the offices of the Palestinian Authority.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian Authority cabinet and has served for many years as a political analyst and media contact.
Imagine Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's perfect world. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is exiled to a lonely island in Micronesia, without phones or faxes (but with closed circuit cameras broadcasting by satellite to the Arab world that he is alive and well--thus introducing a new genre of political reality TV). And the entire leadership of Hamas, military, religious and "civilian", has been eliminated. For the sake of argument let's even assume that the Arab world, the European Union and the United Nations have stopped protesting these Israeli measures and have come to terms with them, and that the Bush administration has given its blessings.
What does Israel under Sharon do now, at this moment of strength? There is no new Palestinian leadership that agrees to discuss his plans for a "state" in 50 percent of the West Bank. His government is not prepared to make a more generous offer--certainly not until a Palestinian leadership that is fully in control ends all violence, and even then, not an offer that compromises key "strategic" settlements like Netzarim. New and even more violent Palestinian terrorist leaders are emerging every day, more or less at the same pace that new "outposts" decorate the West Bank horizon. In the absence of an agreed source of authority, anarchy is spreading throughout the West Bank and Gaza, with Israel forced to reoccupy and administer the territories.
Not only are we not closer to an end to the violence and the beginning of a political process, we are farther away. The decision to "remove" Arafat at some indeterminate time and in an indeterminate manner is not policy; rather, it is typical of what Israeli governments do when they have run out of policy options, yet have to show the public that they are "doing". The decision to eliminate the Hamas leadership might make sense if it did not rest on a political policy vacuum. Eliminate Hamas, and then what?
Sharon has, from the start of his tenure nearly three years ago, lacked a realistic policy for peace. But he is a superbly talented politician who has effectively neutralized the political opposition by escalating the Israeli response, either operationally or declaratively, at moments when his lack of a policy is becoming too obvious.
Yasir Arafat, too, is a talented manipulator within his own unique political milieu--witness the way he maneuvered, from his "isolation" in the muqata'a, a frustrated and angry Abu Mazen (outgoing prime minister Mahmoud Abbas) out of office, then neutralized any prospect that his successor-designate, Abu Alaa (Ahmed Qurei') would do better at consolidating authority over the Palestinian security services.
But Arafat relies on violence and is incapable of adapting to the requirements of negotiating genuine coexistence with Israel. He, too, has no realistic strategy for peace. Thus far he has succeeded again and again in thwarting Sharon's attempts to neutralize him. But in so doing he has become totally non-credible as a potential peace partner.
George W. Bush doesn't have a realistic strategy for Israeli-Palestinian peace either. The need to galvanize a coalition for the war in Iraq--or at least to reduce international opposition--led him to endorse the Quartet's roadmap for Israeli-Palestinian peace some six months ago. His enthusiasm after the quick military victory in Iraq--a victory which, we recall, was supposed to usher in an era of peace, democracy and stability in the Middle East--and Abu Mazen's emergence as Palestinian prime minister, produced what sounded like a genuine American commitment to a process of stabilization and peace.
But Bush never dared apply the superpower pressure that was so obviously required in order to oblige Abu Mazen to begin dismantling the terrorist infrastructure; nor did he pressure Sharon to begin rolling back the settlement movement and the occupation. By ignoring the parties' roadmap obligations and avoiding his own responsibility to "ride herd" (his colorful term) over the two sides, Bush effectively weakened both Abu Mazen and the roadmap.
Now Bush is reverting to his previous "hands off" approach to the Palestinian issue, coupled with a green light to Sharon to deal as he wishes with Hamas. The State Department is laboring to ensure that Abu Alaa is "given a chance" by Sharon--and this requires that Arafat remain in the muqata'a--thereby ensuring that the appearance of a "process" is maintained. It's all done by telephone; god forbid that a senior US statesman should put in an appearance and bang heads together.
The American president is lowering his profile in Jerusalem and Ramallah in order not to alienate the key constituencies whose support he needs in the coming elections. He must concentrate all of his energies on Iraq (and Afghanistan) if he wants to win in November 2004.
Meanwhile the prognosis is for no letup, and probably escalation, in the violence between Israelis and Palestinians--with or without a roadmap. Without Bush, there is no prospect for effective international intervention. Nor is grassroots Israel beating down Sharon's door to demand unilateral withdrawal. The only limited ray of light is the fence: if indeed it is now completed more or less along the green line (here Washington does exercise effective pressure), then at least one building block of separation will be in place, and with it an improvement in the conditions required for Israel, under a saner government, to decide to dismantle settlements and remain a Jewish and democratic state.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
Here in the Gaza Strip, we sit and wait for the next Israeli bomb. People feel that the next assassination of their leaders and fighters and the civilians that happen to be standing next to them is imminent--perhaps arriving this very moment. At the same time, there is a sense of terrible disappointment at the chasm that opened wide within the Palestinian Authority between President Yasser Arafat and former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. These things appear to have no end in sight.
Inside Hamas, the movement is resolute to continue its attacks, since it sees no let-up from Israel, and the hudna (truce) or an alternative political process no longer exists. Instead, they see Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon exploiting the delicate situation to heighten his attacks. In particular, Hamas was bitterly angry at the targeting of the home of Hamas political leader Mahmoud Zahhar, when Israeli F-16s dropped a half a ton of explosives on his house, killing women and children in the attack. So unless there is a way opened for Hamas to talk about a new hudna, it seems very likely that we are now descending into a situation of revenge and dramatic escalation.
It is not that Hamas is unprepared to consider the current stage carefully. Sometimes its leaders heed international considerations. They don’t want to be accused of being the reason for tension or the downfall of the government. Hamas has several times offered to craft a political agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), but has not yet succeeded in reaching compromise with the factions that make up that organization. And Hamas continues to fear a peace process or a crackdown from the Palestinian Authority. The road is open for discussion with the Authority, but both sides have their reasons for being wary of a final pact.
It will not be easy to get out of this deep crisis, but the simplest route lies in Israel’s hands. All it would take would be an Israeli declaration of intent to end the occupation and a moratorium on all kinds of attacks, aggression and control that it now wields over our heads. But as we have learned through the Zinni and Tenet proposals, the Mitchell plan and the hudna, short-term compromises will not succeed. Indeed, they are a waste of time and effort and push us to the breaking point of promises lost in the wind.
The way out for the Palestinian Authority is just as clear: there should be no negotiations with Israel until there is a settlement freeze, a halt to the construction of the wall, and the release of the prisoners. This must be a serious commitment. That was Abu Mazen’s problem; he didn’t stand a chance. He was deceived so many times by those in Israel who promised him this and that honest gesture of good faith, but none materialized. To facilitate this new strategy, the Palestinian Authority should collect all of the Palestinian factions under one umbrella to speak in one voice and react as one body. Only then can we form a new unified force against the occupation. Otherwise, these continuing disputes between Abu Mazen and Arafat, or Hamas and Fateh, or Hamas and the Authority, are an invitation to Sharon to attack a divided cause and reassert the military occupation against the Palestinian people.
Yes, the situation is very complicated. It would be beneficial for the United States to exert pressure on Israel to stop its aggression, in particular to prevent the deportation of Arafat. But the truth is that we don’t even feel the US glancing our way.
At this critical juncture, all options remain open: for an escalation of violence or a return to negotiations. But we should not think that Prime Minister-designate Ahmad Qurei will deliver the answers. He will face the exact same obstacles from Israel, the US, Arafat and the Fateh Central Committee that were the undoing of his predecessor. He will face the very same trials.
Ghazi Hamad is editor of Gaza's al Risala newspaper, currently closed by the Palestinian Authority, and leader of the Islamic Salvation Party.
It seems that the attempt to achieve a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians as part of the implementation of phase I of the roadmap has collapsed, with a return to the usual vicious circle of violent actions and counteractions.
The publics of the two sides accepted the short period of relative tranquility with eagerness and a strong wish not to regress to the former condition of violent conflict, and yet, when it collapsed, nobody seemed to be surprised. This deserves an explanation. If the vast majority of the two peoples wants a resumption of the peace process, supports implementation of the roadmap and longs for an end to the bloodshed, why are the two sides regressing to mutual violence so easily and so quickly, and nobody is really surprised? What is the explanation for this wide gap between public opinion and the leadership decisions of the two parties?
One possible explanation is the discrepancy between the yearning in each camp for tranquility and the belief that it is indeed possible. Each party believes that its side wants a peaceful solution but that it cannot trust the other side. Because of this mutual mistrust, neither party accepted the roadmap in good faith and neither believed it would really be implemented. The only purpose of accepting it was to transfer the ball to the other's court, and create a perception among the third parties and especially the United States that the failure was the fault of the other party.
Another explanation is the inability of the two leaderships to change well-rooted patterns of behavior. The Palestinian leadership continually makes empty promises that it will deal with terrorism. Then it does nothing, while hoping that somehow things will fall into place and everything will be fine. When everything is not fine, they rush to utter excuses and tell the external world the fairy tale that if they do anything against the armed groups it will lead to a civil war. They continually talk in two tongues, one aimed at their people and the other aimed at the outer world, because they do not have the courage to tell the truth to their people. They cannot stop bickering and fighting for personal positions instead of uniting around a common positive policy that will bring them closer to the realization of their national goals.
Israeli leaders also lack the courage to tell their people the truth; therefore they prefer to hide behind outbursts of emotional response. The best example is the Israeli cabinet decision to work for the expulsion of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon knows that it is not feasible due to international outrage. Moreover he knows that it will not help to ameliorate the situation. But it is very convenient for him to accept such a decision that will satisfy the right-wing elements in his government and some angry elements in the Israeli public, instead of telling the Israeli people the sad truth that his policy has reached a dead end.
The Israeli government and security establishment cannot overcome their urge to react with violence to any violent provocation by the Palestinians, not understanding that the pacification of the Palestinian population is a process that will take time, and that Israel's almost automatic response does not give this process the slimmest chance of succeeding. Nor is the Israeli leadership capable of ceasing to personalize the problem, believing that if it gets rid of this Palestinian person or has another Palestinian figure as its interlocutor this will solve the problem.
Is this a hopeless situation? Can anything be done? Technically speaking, the nomination of Ahmad Qurei (Abu Alaa) as Palestinian prime minister provides an opportunity to resume the hudna (ceasefire) and put the train back on the track of implementation of the roadmap. One could also argue that Abu Alaa has a better chance of success then former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), because he enjoys better support among the Palestinian leadership and has adopted a more intelligent modus operandi of trying to manipulate Arafat to accept his policy instead of entering a direct public confrontation with the Palestinian leader. It is also possible that it will be easier for Sharon and Abu Alaa to reach an understanding regarding phase II of the roadmap, which establishes a Palestinian state with provisional borders, because Abu Alaa already developed the concept of such a state together with Shimon Peres and with the backing of Sharon, when Peres was in Sharon's government, while Abu Mazen basically objected to the concept of additional interim arrangements.
The real problem is that the fundamental mutual distrust and the inability of the two leaderships to get out of their familiar patterns of behavior will mount the same obstacles against any attempt to build something positive with Abu Alaa's government. Assuming this is the case, it is time to return to developing ideas that seek to combine unilateral steps by the two sides with more intensive international involvement, as a way of maintaining a more stable and quiet situation that could later enable the rebuilding of mutual trust and political progress towards reconciliation.
Brigadier General (ret.) Shlomo Brom is a senior research associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University, and a veteran of Israeli-Palestinian track I negotiations and track II discussions.
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